Aviation Chapter 11 Cases Take Flight

By Kelly DiBlasi and Jason George (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP)

Kelly DiBlasi
Jason George

Increased competition, rising fuel costs, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused financial distress for airlines and other aviation companies and led to an increase in their use of Chapter 11 to address these issues. Chapter 11’s many tools, including the automatic stay, DIP financing, and the ability to reject burdensome contracts or bind dissenting creditors, are available to both domestic and foreign companies. However, one underappreciated aspect of Chapter 11 is its flexibility in different stages of a restructuring with varying levels of stakeholder consent. For example, a company at imminent risk of running out of cash, defaulting on obligations, and/or confronting creditors collecting significant overdue payables can use Chapter 11 to prevent creditors from exercising remedies against the company and its property. Other companies may already have agreement with key stakeholders on the major components of a reorganization plan, only needing an in-court process to implement certain aspects of the plan that cannot be accomplished out of court, such as binding dissenting creditors. Chapter 11 can accommodate all such scenarios. This flexibility, combined with the tools and benefits described above, makes Chapter 11 an attractive option for airlines and other aviation companies in distress. As the aviation industry continues to experience financial distress, it is anticipated that more companies in the industry will look at Chapter 11 as a viable option to pursue a restructuring.

The full article can be found here.

Fifth Circuit Doubles Down on Right to Reject Filed-rate Contracts, but With an Exception

posted in: Bankruptcy, Chapter 11 | 0

By Ronald Silverman, John Beck and Katherine Lynn (Hogan Lovells)

Ronald Silverman
John Beck
Katherine Lynn

The Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Ultra Resources, Inc., in which it relied on and affirmed its prior 2004 decision — In re Mirant — and held that bankruptcy courts have the authority — at least in many common contexts — to reject filed-rate contracts without the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The court reasoned that rejection of such contracts only has an indirect effect on the filed-rate and is not a collateral attack, and therefore can be done without FERC’s approval.

Further, the Fifth Circuit held that rejection of a filed-rate contract does not violate 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(6) of the Bankruptcy Code because rejection does not change the rate itself, it merely ceases payment of the rate.  Thus, the decision further empowers debtors to reject filed-rate contracts in bankruptcy cases, so long as rejection does not amount to a rate change. 

However, the court did identify an exception to the general rule.  The opinion states that if a debtor seeks to reject a filed-rate contract, but still needs the capacity and seeks to secure a lower rate through rejection, such rejection would be impermissible without FERC’s approval, although that was not the situation in Ultra.  Left for future cases will be the determination of what particular circumstances will require FERC’s permission to reject a filed-rate contract.

Read the full article here.

Texas Two-Stepping Out of Bankruptcy

By Michael A. Francus (Harvard Law School)

Michael Francus

Johnson & Johnson’s use of the Texas Two-Step to manage its talc liabilities has put the company, and the Two-Step, front and center in the roiling debates over aggressive uses of the bankruptcy system. Those debates have led to scholarly criticism, congressional hearings, and proposed legislation that would curtail debtors’ ability to so use the bankruptcy courts.

My Essay details the mechanics of the Two-Step. Beginning with the Texas divisive merger, the funding agreement, and forum shopping for the Fourth Circuit, the Essay fleshes out precisely how the Two-Step boxes in tort claimants. Like other scholarship, this Essay identifies the risk that such maneuvering effects a fraudulent transfer. It also goes a step further, arguing that the point of the Two-Step is not to succeed, but to delay. Fraudulent-transfer litigation in a bankruptcy consumes time because it requires an adversary proceeding, and that delay pressures tort claimants to settle. So the Two-Step can succeed as long as claimants cannot wait out the course of the bankruptcy, even if a court never declares the particular Two-Step to be a proper use of divisive merger law rather than an improper fraudulent transfer.

Instead of playing into this delay game, this Essay argues, courts should evaluate the Texas Two-Step for good faith. Tort claimants can raise such challenges as a motion to dismiss (as some have) and thus avoid the need for a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding. And under current doctrine, the Two-Step likely qualifies as a bad-faith filing: In most cases, the Two-Step is a litigation tactic. And the Two-Step, invariably, is filed by an entity created solely to file for bankruptcy. Both of those are doctrinal hallmarks of bad-faith bankruptcies.

More broadly, the Essay explains, the Two-Step and good-faith challenges to it underscore the continuing role of common law in bankruptcy. The Code does not define good-faith filing, so courts have developed the doctrine case by case. They may yet find an acceptable form of Two-Step, one which yields tort claimants the rights they would receive in, say, a Johnson & Johnson bankruptcy, without hurting Johnson & Johnson’s ability to do business by forcing the whole company into bankruptcy. Along the way, though, a vigilant common-law gatekeeping is warranted, and judges should not hesitate to dismiss Two-Steps thinking that a later ruling on a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding can adequately safeguard tort claimants from an improper use of the bankruptcy system.

The full essay will be available at 121 Mich. L. Rev. Online __ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.

Mitigating Rejection of Midstream Agreements in Bankruptcy

By David H. Sweeney, Jason P. Rubin, and Laura P. Warrick (Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP), with Practical Law Oil & Gas

Producers of hydrocarbons generally require some level of gathering, processing, and other midstream services to monetize hydrocarbons. Midstream services are typically secured through contracts between the producers and the midstream providers. The fixed facilities that are required to perform those midstream services require significant investment by the midstream providers and have capacity constraints. To ensure producers’ performance and protect their investment, midstream providers often include in their contracts a dedication clause styled as a “covenant running with the land”. This clause purports to dedicate the land or reserves to the midstream infrastructure and is intended to bind third parties, including estates in bankruptcy, as an interest in real property. 

Decisions in recent Chapter 11 cases have challenged the notion that midstream services contracts containing purported covenants running with the land are not rejectable under section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code. The result is that a debtor may be able to reject a midstream contract containing a covenant running with the land, repudiate future performance of its duties, and a midstream service provider may find its claims reduced to a pre-petition unsecured claim for monetary damages. 

This article explores some recent case law regarding covenants running with the land in bankruptcy and offers practical suggestions for how producers and midstream providers might navigate the newly developing reality, including: 

  • Conducting diligence on midstream contracts to identify red flags and address potential issues before they become problems.
  • Addressing the shortcomings of covenants running with the land noted by bankruptcy courts.
  • Replacing covenants running with the land with a substitute, such as a presently possessory interest or a lien.

The full article is available here.

Are Judges Randomly Assigned to Chapter 11 Bankruptcies? Not According to Hedge Funds

By Niklas Hüther (Indiana University) and Kristoph Kleiner (Indiana University)

Niklas Hüther
Kristoph Kleiner

”The bankruptcy system is supposed to work for everyone, but in many cases it works only for the powerful.”  – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, July 28th, 2021

Researchers have long recognized that judicial outcomes are subject to the biases of the ruling judge. To alleviate concerns of fairness, courts in both the U.S. and abroad claim to assign judges to individual court cases randomly. From a policy perspective, randomization promotes public confidence in the judicial process by limiting forum shopping and the individual influence of any individual judge. From an academic perspective, recent empirical research in economics and finance exploits the random assignment of judges to causally identify of a wide range of legal outcomes.

This paper revisits the claim of randomized judicial assignment in the context of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Our research is motivated by legal scholarship arguing that debtors in recent cases are influencing judicial assignments (Levitin, 2021), as well as renewed interest in these issues from policy makers and the public (Merle and Bernstein, 2019; Randles 2020). Despite these arguments, there are reasons to believe assignment is random. For instance, after contacting all U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Iverson et al. (2017) found that only one court (the Eastern District of Wisconsin) reports assigning cases to judges non-randomly. In addition, a range of research including Bernstein et al. (2019) provides convincing evidence that debtor characteristics fail to predict judicial assignments. Missing from this literature is any large-scale empirical evidence of non-random assignment.

Analyzing U.S. corporate bankruptcy filings between 2010 and 2020, we provide new evidence that assignment is not random, but predicted by the lending decisions of hedge funds. By focusing on investments made before the assignment of a bankruptcy judge, our technique is not suspect to standard critiques that predictability is merely an outcome of ex-post data mining; instead, in order for investors to systemically invest in firms that are later assigned a preferred judge, it must be possible to infer future judicial assignments. In addition, we focus on hedge funds, as they routinely influence a wide range of bankruptcy outcomes including emergence and debt restructurings.  The prevalence of these investors allows us to explore a new channel of activism in the distress debt market: activist influence in judicial assignment process prior to filing.

In our setting, judges can decide whether to convert a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to a Chapter 7 liquidation; while secured creditors may have a preference for liquidation, unsecured creditors recover more under reorganization.  Exploiting this distinction, we confirm unsecured hedge fund creditors (relative to secured hedge funds) are significantly less likely to be assigned a judge with a tendency to convert Chapter 11 cases.  We also extend our analysis to an alternate bankruptcy outcome measure: the unsecured creditor recovery rate according to the confirmed plan. We find unsecured hedge funds are far more likely to be assigned a judge with a high past unsecured recovery rate.

We next test whether these estimates differ across the filings in our sample. First, we find that unsecured hedge fund claimants are assigned a preferable judge more commonly when the hedge fund invested shortly before the bankruptcy filing, suggesting hedge funds choose to invest explicitly to influence the filing. Second, we show the effects are greatest when the hedge fund is on the board of directors of the debtor at the time of filing, providing further support for the role of communication between debtor and creditor.

Finally, we conduct three robustness tests. First, we find no evidence that a judge’s future conversion rate (after controlling for the past conversion rate) is predicted by hedge fund investment, suggesting hedge funds are explicitly influencing judicial assignment based on information regarding past information. Second, focusing on the subset of districts that explicitly state random assignment within their district, we continue to find hedge fund investments predict assignment. Third, we include district-office-year fixed effects in our analysis and continue to find a relationship between hedge fund investments and assignment.

Moving forward, we believe there are two potential policies that can alleviate these issues. The first, and simplest, is for policy makers to develop a truly randomized process. Alternatively, policy makers can instead increase the number of bankruptcy judges, leading to lower predictability even if assignment is not fully randomized. Policy makers intent on a fairer judicial system should consider both proposals.

The full article is available here.

This piece previously appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog.

Recent Delaware Bankruptcy Rulings Address Whether a Plan of Reorganization Can Deny a ‘Make-Whole’ Payment Without Impairing Lenders’ Claims

By Ron E. Meisler, Carl T. Tullson, Jennifer Madden, Justin Larsen (Skadden)

A number of recent bankruptcy court rulings have addressed the enforceability of “make-whole” premiums, payments that may be implicated in some loan agreements when debt is prepaid, or in certain cases, otherwise accelerated prior to its stated maturity. Make-whole litigation may turn on subtle distinctions of contractual language and is a zero-sum game where the outcome can be very costly to the borrower and substantially reduce recoveries to other stakeholders. Consequently, when debtors and creditors disagree on whether a make-whole has been triggered, they frequently assert complex and nuanced legal arguments.

In this article, we examine two recent make-whole cases from the Delaware bankruptcy courts: In re Mallinckrodt and In re Hertz. Mallinckrodt addressed whether a debtor’s plan of reorganization could deny payment of a make-whole, reinstate the underlying debt, and treat those claims as unimpaired. In comparison, Hertz considered whether creditors had claims for make-wholes under the specific language of the governing debt documents in the context of a plan that provided for payment of the principal and accrued interest in full, in cash, and therefore deemed those debt claims as unimpaired.

These cases reinforce the importance of carefully drafting make-whole provisions and the important distinction between chapter 11 plan of reorganization treatment, the effect of which could directly impact whether or not such creditors would be entitled to make-whole payments. Moreover, these cases emphasize that the law regarding make-wholes is not settled, and creditors and debtors alike should continue to monitor the evolving case law.

The full article is available here.

Arbitrate? You Can’t Make Me! Rejection Trumps Arbitration, Says Texas Bankruptcy Court

posted in: Bankruptcy, Chapter 11 | 0

By Ronit J. Berkovich (Weil Gotshal & Manges) and Eric Einhorn (Weil Gotshal & Manges)

Eric Einhorn
Ronit J. Berkovich

In a recent decision, In re Highland Cap. Mgmt., L.P.,1 the Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of Texas held that a debtor’s rejection of an executory contract with an arbitration clause precludes the court from compelling the debtor to arbitrate—notwithstanding the strong federal policy supporting enforcement of arbitration clauses, even in bankruptcy.  Although rejection of a contract constitutes a breach and may give rise to a claim for monetary damages, the Court found that specific performance of an arbitration clause was not an appropriate remedy post-rejection.  Highland provides an example of how bankruptcy courts may disregard contractual provisions—including an agreement to specifically perform—where they may irreconcilably conflict with the policy of the Bankruptcy Code.

The full article is available here.

Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee Hearing on the “Texas Two-Step”: A Recap

By Amelia S. Ricketts (Harvard Law School) and Jin Lee (Harvard Law School)

Amelia Ricketts
Jin Lee

On February 8, 2022, the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights held a hearing on the process through which corporations allegedly side-step accountability through divisive mergers undertaken immediately prior to bankruptcy, commonly known as the “Texas Two-Step.”

Companies have used the Two-Step when they have incurred significant liabilities in mass tort cases. The company first changes its state of incorporation to Texas or Delaware. It then carries out a divisive merger, splitting into GoodCo and BadCo. GoodCo retains all of the company assets and the non-tort liabilities, while BadCo retains the mass tort liabilities. BadCo then files for bankruptcy, while GoodCo continues business in the ordinary course. BadCo requests that the automatic stay be extended to GoodCo, preventing tort victims from seeking relief from GoodCo.

Typically, as part of the divisive merger, GoodCo and BadCo execute a funding agreement whereby GoodCo agrees to fund any victims’ trust established in bankruptcy, but usually specifying an amount far below the potential liability. One witness argued that these agreements should assuage concerns about divisive merger bankruptcies, while others argued that they did not offer tort victims real recourse.

Certain witnesses objected to using the Texas Two-Step to obtain the benefits of bankruptcy without the burdens and urged legislative reform to prevent divisive merger bankruptcies. Others argued that the current bankruptcy protections, such as bad faith dismissal and fraudulent transfer law, were sufficient to guard against abuse. However, courts are generally reluctant to dismiss a case for bad faith. Moreover, fraudulent transfer law’s usefulness is also uncertain, because the Texas state law treats the divisive merger transaction as though no transfer has occurred. The witnesses also discussed Johnson & Johnson’s use of the Two-Step as an example and test case for existing protections against abuse.

The full post is available here.

For previous Roundtable posts on the Texas Two-Step, see Samir D. Parikh, Mass Exploitation.

S.D.N.Y. Judge Holds Bankruptcy Code Prohibits Board-Appointed Officers from Receiving Payments Under a KERP

By Sarah M. Bartlett (Harvard Law School)

Sarah M. Bartlett

On July 9, 2021, Southern District of New York Judge J. Paul Oetken held that §503(c) of the Bankruptcy Code prohibits board-appointed officers from receiving payments under a key employee retention plan (KERP) “absent a particularly strong showing that they do not perform a significant role in management,” as such officers are “insiders” within the definition of §101(31)(B)(ii). In re LSC Communications, Inc., 631 B.R. 818 (S.D.N.Y. 2021). This was the case even though the Bankruptcy Court found that the employees in question were officers “in title only.” Id. at 820. Judge Oetken’s ruling affects six employees who received KERP payments under the reorganization plan of LSC Communications, Inc. (“LSC”), which filed for Chapter 11 relief in April 2020.

In its initial order, the Bankruptcy Court approved payments under the KERP for all 190 covered employees. U.S. Trustee William K. Harrington appealed the decision to the District Court, claiming that, as LSC was incorporated in Delaware, the court should apply Delaware state law, which provides that any person appointed by a corporation’s board of directors is an officer. In response, LSC countered that the employees could not be considered insiders because they lacked any significant decision-making authority.

Judge Oetken wrote that case law regarding who constitutes an “officer” is “less than clear,” noting that the Bankruptcy Code does not define the term or provide any insight regarding its meaning. Id. at 824. Although Judge Oetken rejected the Trustee’s argument that state law exclusively applies when determining whether an employee is an officer under the Bankruptcy Code, he concluded that the Bankruptcy Court erred by looking beyond the fact that the six employees were appointed by LSC’s board.  Even if a court chooses to undertake a more expansive analysis, he wrote, the fact that the six employees were appointed by the board and would be deemed officers under Delaware corporate law should “weigh heavily in concluding that the employees are officers for Bankruptcy Code purposes.” Id. at 826. In supporting his position, Judge Oetken claimed that giving more weight to objective criterion like appointment by the board provides greater clarity to the parties than the kind of “functional, non-exhaustive test” used by the Bankruptcy Court, although he noted that this kind of test may still be appropriate in some cases. Id. at 825.

This case, and its somewhat unusual holding, seems to present a scenario that has become exceedingly rare. In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report finding that debtors regularly avoid restrictions in the Bankruptcy Code by paying bonuses before or after filing for bankruptcy or by designating bonuses during bankruptcy as “incentive” payments. The report stated that fewer than 1% of debtors requested court approval to pay employee bonuses during 2020 and, when debtors did seek court approval, the courts approved “nearly all” of those requests. Maria Chutchian wrote in a recent Reuters article that creditors rarely challenge such bonus payments in court, noting debtors will often arrange private deals with creditors before filing for bankruptcy. In the same article, she discusses the Mallinckrodt restructuring, in which the pharmaceutical company’s creditors chose to challenge bonus payments to executives facing accusations of misconduct related to the opioid epidemic. The judge allowed the payments, stating that “mere allegations” of misconduct did not suffice to render them inappropriate.

Finally, Jared Elias concluded in an article published in 2019 that, although fewer companies have used court-approved bonus plans in the years since the Bankruptcy Code’s bonus provisions were reformed in 2005, the overall level of executive compensation has remained the same. This lends support to the GAO’s analysis and the anecdotes collected by Reuters that KERPs are rarely used because parties have ample opportunity to achieve the same end while avoiding the scrutiny of §503(c). He argues that bankruptcy and district court judges are poorly equipped to police payments made before or after a debtor files for bankruptcy, and that the U.S. Trustee’s office and creditors struggle to do so due to information asymmetries and limited resources.

Given the above, it appears that Judge Oetken’s decision this past summer may ultimately prove to be an anomaly. In most cases, these bonus payments simply will not become a part of the bankruptcy plan. Debtors can avoid scrutiny by making payments before or after filing for bankruptcy. If they decide they must make the payments during bankruptcy, they can reduce the scrutiny they will incur by recharacterizing them as  incentive payments, thereby avoiding the heightened restrictions that apply to KERPs. And, even if they decide to include the payments in their restructuring plan, it seems unlikely that creditors will challenge the payments—particularly if counsel has chosen to arrange a deal behind the scenes to avoid a dispute in court.

Loan Forgiveness as Basis for Fraudulent Transfer Claims

posted in: Chapter 11, fraudulent transfer | 0

By Jeffrey Cohen, Michael A. Kaplan, and Colleen M. Maker (Lowenstein Sandler)

Jeffrey Cohen
Michael A. Kaplan
Colleen M. Maker

In Loan Forgiveness as Basis for Fraudulent Transfer Claims, authors Jeffrey CohenMichael A. Kaplan, and Colleen M. Maker address fraudulent transfer litigation as a valuable weapon in the bankruptcy code arsenal, to target assets transferred or disposed of prior to bankruptcy with the potential to provide at least some recovery to creditors of the debtor’s estate. The article examines debt cancellation as an overlooked, but still potentially viable and valuable, basis for a fraudulent transfer cause of action.

Avoidance actions may include not only transfers with fraudulent intent, but also constructive fraud through loan forgiveness or debt cancellation. For example, if a company makes loans to subsidiaries and then formally or informally either writes off, forgives and cancels the loan prior to bankruptcy, that action has the same impact as a fraudulent transfer: creditors are left holding the bag while the beneficiary is unaffected and may even receive a windfall at the expense of the creditors.

Intercompany transfers are often considered within the ordinary course of business in a complex corporate structure, and loans to directors and officers are not rare. However, avoidance actions regarding forgiveness of debt are seldom brought due of issues of standing, resources, discovery, and cost weighed against the viability of the claim. Parties must assess whether the possibility of recovery outweighs the risks or if limited resources are better used elsewhere, perhaps through direct distribution to creditors. 

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