Mandatory Aggregation of Mass Tort Litigation in Bankruptcy

By Ralph Brubaker (James H.M. Sprayregen Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law)

The recent decision in In re Purdue Pharma did not uphold the third-party releases in the bankruptcy court’s approved plan. This post discuss the third-party releases issue.

— Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Editors

Ralph Brubaker

This response to Professor Lindsey Simon’s Bankruptcy Grifters article challenges the controversial practice at the epicenter of the bankruptcy grifter phenomenon that Simon critiques: so-called nonconsensual nondebtor (or third-party) “releases” and “channeling” injunctions that discharge the mass tort obligations of solvent nondebtor entities who have not themselves filed bankruptcy. These nondebtor releases are an illegitimate and unconstitutional exercise of substantive lawmaking powers by the federal courts that contravenes the separation-of-powers limitations embedded in both the Bankruptcy Clause and Erie’s constitutional holding. The federal courts have manufactured out of whole cloth the unique, extraordinary power to impose mandatory non-opt-out settlement of a nondebtor’s mass tort liability on unconsenting tort victims through the bankruptcy proceedings of a codefendant. The bankruptcy “necessity” that supposedly justifies this astounding and unique settlement power—to mandate nonconsensual non-opt-out “settlements” that are otherwise impermissible and unconstitutional—is (at best) naive credulity or (at worst) specious sophistry.

Nonconsensual nondebtor releases are not “necessary” for the bankruptcy process to facilitate efficient aggregate settlements of the mass tort liability of both bankruptcy debtors and nondebtor codefendants. The bankruptcy jurisdiction, removal, and venue provisions of the Judicial Code already contain the essential architecture for mandatory, universal consolidation of tort victims’ claims against both bankruptcy debtors and nondebtor codefendants. Bankruptcy can be an extremely powerful aggregation process that facilitates efficient (and fair) settlements of the mass tort liability of nondebtors, even (and especially) without nonconsensual nondebtor releases, particularly if the Supreme Court elucidates the full expanse of federal bankruptcy jurisdiction. Nondebtor releases are an illicit and unconstitutional means of forcing mandatory settlement of unconsenting tort victims’ claims against solvent nondebtors, and the Supreme Court should finally resolve the longstanding circuit split over the permissibility of nonconsensual nondebtor releases by categorically renouncing them.

The full article is available here and is forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal Forum.

Bankruptcy Grifters

By Lindsey Simon (University of Georgia School of Law)

The recent decision in In re Purdue Pharma did not uphold the third-party releases in the bankruptcy court’s approved plan. This post discuss the third-party releases issue.

— Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Editors

Lindsey Simon

Grifters take advantage of situations, latching on to others for benefits they do not deserve. Bankruptcy has many desirable benefits, especially for mass-tort defendants. Bankruptcy provides a centralized proceeding for resolving claims and a forum of last resort for many companies to aggregate and resolve mass-tort liability. For the debtor-defendant, this makes sense. A bankruptcy court’s tremendous power represents a well-considered balance between debtors who have a limited amount of money and many claimants seeking payment.

But courts have also allowed the Bankruptcy Code’s mechanisms to be used by solvent, nondebtor companies and individuals facing mass-litigation exposure. These “bankruptcy grifters” act as parasites, receiving many of the substantive and procedural benefits of a host bankruptcy, but incurring only a fraction of the associated burdens. In exchange for the protections of bankruptcy, a debtor incurs the reputational cost and substantial scrutiny mandated by the bankruptcy process. Bankruptcy grifters do not. This dynamic has become evident in a number of recent, high-profile bankruptcies filed in the wake of pending mass-tort litigation, such as the Purdue Pharma and USA Gymnastics cases.

This Article is the first to call attention to the growing prevalence of bankruptcy grifters in mass-tort cases. By charting the progression of nondebtor relief from asbestos and product-liability bankruptcies to cases arising out of the opioid epidemic and sex-abuse scandals, this Article explains how courts allowed piecemeal expansion to fundamentally change the scope of bankruptcy protections. This Article proposes specific procedural and substantive safeguards that would deter bankruptcy-grifter opportunism and increase transparency, thereby protecting victims as well as the bankruptcy process.

The full article is available here and is forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal.

The Municipal Bond Cases Revisited

By Allison Buccola (Independent) and Vince Buccola (Assistant Professor, The Wharton School)

Allison Buccola
Vince Buccola

Puerto Rico’s Title III proceedings under PROMESA mark the return of debt repudiation as a feature of the government debt restructuring landscape. Backed by an official committee, the Federal Oversight and Management Board has argued that some $6 billion of bonds the Commonwealth issued are void and worthless. According to the Board, the bonds were sold illegally, in contravention of a constitutional debt limit, so that (also according to the Board) they cannot bind the Commonwealth. A similar argument was lodged in Detroit’s bankruptcy. For the better part of a century before that, however, repudiation was mostly unheard of in the United States. 

The invocation of ultra vires to escape bond obligations is nothing new, though. In the second half of the nineteenth century, municipal debtors frequently welched on their debts. In the 1850s and 1860s, cities, towns, and counties across the Midwest and West issued bonds to finance the construction of railroads and other infrastructure. Many ultimately defaulted. Rather than simply announce that they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, however, they often contended that they needn’t pay: for one or another reason, the relevant bonds had been issued ultra vires and so were no obligation of the municipality at all. Litigation in the federal courts was common. Several hundred repudiation disputes made their way to the Supreme Court in the forty years starting 1859.

With an eye to the modern cases, we set out to understand how the Court reckoned with repudiation. We read every one of the 196 cases in which the Justices opined on bond validity (i.e. the enforceability of a bond in the hands of innocent purchasers). In a recently published article, we correct received wisdom about the cases and remark on the logical structure of the Court’s reasoning.

To the extent the municipal bond cases are remembered, modern scholars usually think of them as exemplary instances of a political model of judging. The caricature has the Court siding with bondholders even when the law called on them to rule for the repudiating municipalities. The Justices—or a majority of them—are imagined as staunch political allies of the capitalist class, set against the institutions of state government and their regard for agricultural interests. We find that this picture is inconsistent with reality. In fact, the Court ruled for the repudiating municipality in a third of all the validity cases. As importantly, the Court’s decisions reflected a readily articulable formal logic, a logic the Justices seem, to our eyes, to have applied soundly.

The Court’s analytical approach traded on a distinction between legal and factual bases for repudiation. A municipality might repudiate either on a theory that no legal authority permitted the contested bond to be issued under the circumstances the bondholder alleged or, alternatively, on a theory that the circumstances alleged did not in fact pertain. Where the theory of repudiation turned on a legal predicate, the Court simply proceeded to the merits, comparing the bond to the powers granted to the issuer by state law at the time of issuance. Repudiating municipalities often prevailed.

Where the theory of repudiation turned on a factual predicate, by contrast, bondholders fared much better. The defining theme in such cases was a procedural mechanism that precluded assessment of the merits, namely the adaptation of estoppel doctrine to the municipal context. It was, and still is, customary for bonds to recite circumstances relevant to issuance. Estoppel allowed buyers in the secondary market to credit whatever facts—but only facts—the issuer declared true at the time of issuance. In a number of debt-limit cases reminiscent of Puerto Rico, this logic propelled bondholders to a judgment. Estoppel did not resolve all fact-based repudiation arguments. It did not foreclose a trial if, for example, the contested bond failed to recite a predicate fact. Nevertheless estoppel was an important feature of the bond cases, one which, given the profound asymmetry of information that prevailed with respect to matters of fact, probably helped to sustain the bond market as a source of capital for municipal development.

The article can be found here.

Bankruptcy, Bailout, or Bust: Early Corporate Responses to the Business and Financial Challenges of COVID-19

By Diane Lourdes Dick (Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law)

Diane Lourdes Dick

Over the last year, publicly traded companies have provided thoughtful commentary in their public company disclosures regarding the financial decisions they have made in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, public and private companies have filed for bankruptcy protection, providing detailed narrative accounts of the events leading up to the filing and the various steps they have taken to stem losses and maintain the company as a going concern.

In a recent article, I use public disclosures and declarations of this sort to take a closer look at the firm-level decision-making process in response to the sudden liquidity crisis caused by the pandemic. Specifically, I analyze the recapitalization and restructuring decisions made by twelve large and mid-sized companies in the cruise, airline, health care, and consumer sectors in the spring and summer of 2020. Although the case studies are mere snapshots in time, they help to shed further light on the key factors that have influenced firm-level bankruptcy, bailout, and other recapitalization decisions.

The case studies reveal that, outside of bankruptcy, corporate managers of the profiled companies have followed a remarkably similar decision pathway. First, firms slashed costs and reduced employee headcount. Of course, many of these cuts are the natural consequence of voluntarily or involuntarily scaling back operations; in other cases, firms likely chose to make reductions of this sort because there are typically few if any legal impediments to doing so. But whether voluntary or involuntary, the choice to scale back operations generally means allocating economic burdens to employees, vendors, suppliers, and, in the case of firms that provide an essential service, the broader communities they serve.

A firm’s subsequent choices appear to be constrained by its overall financial condition and its new or existing legal commitments. For instance, companies with substantial open lines of credit were able to draw down available funds to shore up cash. Meanwhile, those with stronger balance sheets were able to obtain new debt and equity financing from the capital markets. Virtually all of the profiled companies that were eligible to receive governmental bailouts accepted the assistance—in both grant and loan form—with little apparent concern for the conditions and restrictions attached to such funds. Participation in bailout programs, in turn, constrained the firm’s choices regarding how to allocate economic burdens. For instance, the restrictions and limitations in the CARES Act were designed to delay or prevent companies from allocating economic burdens to employees and, in the case of airlines and health care facilities providing essential services, their broader communities.

The case studies suggest that to the extent these other liquidity options are available, corporate managers may view bankruptcy primarily as a legal or strategic tool rather than as a true financial restructuring option. Perhaps because of certain underlying assumptions about bankruptcy, no company seems to have weighed participation in a governmental bailout—with or without strings attached—against the option of filing for bankruptcy. Rather, these alternatives—like all of the major decisions firms make in response to a sudden liquidity crisis—appear to have been independently examined at very different points in the lifecycle of the distressed firm.

The full article is available here.

Delaware Corporate Law and the “End of History” in Creditor Protection

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings Law) and Robert J. Stark (Brown Rudnick LLP)

Jared A. Ellias
Robert J. Stark

We briefly survey the common law’s adventures with creditor protection over the course of American history with a special focus on Delaware, the most important jurisdiction for corporate law. We examine the evolution of the equitable doctrines that judges have used to answer a question that arises time and again: What help, if any, should the common law be to creditors that suffer losses due to the purported carelessness or disloyalty of corporate directors and officers? Judges have struggled to answer that question, first deploying Judge Story’s “trust fund doctrine” and then molding fiduciary duty law to fashion a remedy for creditors. In Delaware, the appetite of corporate law judges to protect creditors reached a high point in the early 2000s as judges flirted with recognizing a “deepening insolvency” tort cause of action. Suddenly, though, a new course was set, and Delaware’s judges effectively abandoned this project in a series of important decisions around the time of the financial crisis. In this “third generation” of jurisprudence, Delaware’s corporate law judges told creditors to look to other areas of law to protect themselves from opportunistic misconduct, such as bankruptcy law, fraudulent transfer law, and their loan contracts. However, the same question of whether the common law ought to protect creditors has arisen time and again and today’s “settled” law is unlikely to represent the end of history in creditor protection.

The full chapter is available here.

For related Roundtable posts, see Jared Ellias and Robert Stark, Bankruptcy Hardball.

Towards an Optimal Model of Directors’ Duties in the Zone of Insolvency: An Economic and Comparative Approach

By Aurelio Gurrea-Martínez (Singapore Management University)

Aurelio Gurrea-Martínez

When a company becomes factually insolvent but it is not yet subject to a formal insolvency proceeding, the shareholders—or the directors acting on their behalf—may engage, even in good faith, in various forms of behaviour that can divert or destroy value at the expense of the creditors. For this reason, most jurisdictions around the world provide a variety of legal strategies to respond to this form of shareholder opportunism. One of these strategies is the imposition of special directors’ duties in the zone of insolvency.

In a recent article, I analyse the primary regulatory models of directors’ duties in the zone of insolvency observed internationally. From a sample of more than 20 countries from Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and North America, I distinguish six primary regulatory models: (i) the imposition of a duty to initiate insolvency proceedings, generally found in Europe; (ii) the imposition of a duty to recapitalise or liquidate the company, typically existing in Europe and Latin America; (iii) the imposition of duties towards the company’s creditors, including the duty to minimise losses for the creditors existing in the United Kingdom; (iv) the imposition of a duty to prevent the company from incurring new debts, existing in countries like Australia and South Africa; (v) the imposition of a duty to prevent the company from incurring new debts that cannot be paid in full, existing in Singapore and New Zealand; and (vi) the imposition of a duty to keep maximising the interest of the corporation, as it exists in Canada and the United States.

After analysing the features, advantages, and weaknesses of these models, my paper argues that the desirability of each regulatory model of directors’ duties in the zone of insolvency depends on a variety of country-specific factors including divergences in corporate ownership structures, debt structures, level of financial development, efficiency of the insolvency framework, and sophistication of the judiciary. For instance, in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as large controlled firms, there is a greater alignment of incentives between directors and shareholders. Therefore, in the event of insolvency, the directors will have more incentives to engage in a series of opportunistic behaviour that will advance the shareholders’ interests even if it is at the expense of the creditors. As a result, a more interventionist approach to protect the creditors, such as the duty to initiate insolvency proceedings, may make more sense in countries with a significant presence of SMEs and large controlled firms, as it happens in most jurisdictions around the world. By contrast, in countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, where large companies usually have dispersed ownership structures and therefore the directors are less influenced by the shareholders, a more flexible approach for the regulation of directors’ duties in the zone of insolvency may be more justified. Therefore, a duty to keep maximising the interest of the company or a duty to take steps to minimise potential losses for the creditors may make sense.

Nonetheless, country-specific factors other than corporate ownership structures can also affect the desirability of each regulatory model of directors’ duties in the zone of insolvency. For example, in countries without sophisticated courts, the discretion of courts should be reduced. Therefore, the imposition of clear rules (e.g., duty to initiate insolvency proceedings) may be more desirable than the use of standards (e.g., duty to minimise losses for the creditors or duty to keep maximising the interest of the corporation). Similarly, in countries with inefficient insolvency frameworks, initiating an insolvency proceeding can do more harm than good for both debtors and creditors. Therefore, these countries should not impose a duty to initiate insolvency proceedings even if, as it happens in many jurisdictions with inefficient frameworks (e.g., emerging economies), this solution makes more sense from the perspective of the corporate ownership structure prevailing in the country.

Based on a comparative, interdisciplinary, and country-specific analysis, my articles provides various policy recommendations to enhance the regulatory framework of directors’ duties in the zone of insolvency across jurisdictions taking into account international divergences in corporate ownership structures, debt structures, level of financial development, efficiency of the insolvency framework, and sophistication of the judiciary.

The full article is available here.

A modified version of this post was published on the Singapore Global Restructuring Initiative Blog.

When Arbitration Meets Bankruptcy: Considering Arbitration Options in the Wake of a Growing Rise in Corporate Insolvencies

By Shana A. Elberg, Christine A. Okike, & Jennifer Permesly (Skadden)

Shana A. Elberg
Christine A. Okike
Jennifer Permesly

The economic hardships brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted companies globally, leading many to consider both in-court and out-of-court restructurings. This trend will likely continue as the long-term effects of COVID-19 play out, and companies with arbitration clauses in their commercial agreements may wish to consider the impact of insolvency on their options for pursuing pending or future arbitrations. Under bankruptcy law, the initiation of insolvency proceedings results in an automatic stay of all civil proceedings brought against the debtor, including claims brought in arbitration. An arbitration counterparty may ask a bankruptcy court to lift the stay, which the court is permitted to do under the Bankruptcy Code “for cause.” The decision to lift the stay is ultimately a matter of the bankruptcy court’s discretion, though federal circuit courts have held that a stay of an arbitration involving a noncore matter generally must be lifted. The balance is particularly weighted in favor of arbitration in the international context.   Although the stay of arbitration is intended to apply extraterritorially, it is not always clear that arbitration tribunals seated outside the US, or counterparties located outside the US and not subject to the bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction, will consider themselves bound by the stay.  Companies considering their options for pursuing cross-border arbitrations against an insolvent debtor must therefore consider the relevant laws in at least three regimes: the seat of the arbitration, the place in which the debtor has declared insolvency and any countries in which enforcement of the award may ultimately be sought.

The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy Claim Dischargeability and Public Externalities: Evidence from a Natural Experiment

By Michael Ohlrogge (New York University School of Law)

Michael Ohlrogge

In 2009, the Seventh Circuit ruled in U.S. v. Apex Oil that certain types of injunctions requiring firms to clean up previously released toxic chemicals were not dischargeable in bankruptcy.  The result of this was to expose lenders, even those with security interests, to larger losses in the event a firm they extended credit to entered bankruptcy with significant outstanding environmental cleanup obligations. I document that lenders tightened the covenants on loans they extended to firms impacted the decision. In particular, lenders added new requirements that borrowers’ facilities and operations be inspected by outside environmental engineering firms in order to assess the safety with which they handle toxic chemicals.

Using an array of statistical tests and data from federal environmental agencies, I show that firms impacted by the decision responded to these new pressures from lenders by taking meaningful steps to reduce their risks of causing catastrophic pollution spills. In particular, firms reduced volume of toxic chemicals they release on-site by approximately 15%. In place of these releases, firms substituted off-site treatment by specialized facilities generally considered to be safer for the environment.  These results point to important ways in which bankruptcy law and other legal rules that impact recovery for firms’ creditors can work to shape the positive or negative externalities those firms generate.

The full article is available here.

This DIP Loan Brought to You by Someone Who CARES!

By Thomas J. Salerno, Gerald Weidner, Christopher Simpson, and Susan Ebner, (Stinson LLP)

Tom Salerno
Gerald Weidner
Chris Simpson
Susan Warshaw Ebner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was enacted into law. The CARES Act is reported to be “twice as large as any relief ever signed,” and will provide $2.2 trillion in relief to US businesses (with another $1 trillion being promised in the near future). While bankruptcy lawyers are aware that CARES expanded the debt limitations for eligibility for the Small Business Bankruptcy Reorganization Act, there could (and should) be another substantial implication for the brave new bankruptcy world—a new potential source of DIP financing. It is in this context that the CARES financing provisions become particularly interesting.

The authors recognize that there are established underwriting guidelines for SBA loans. Moreover, the existing regulations (and revisions in process) will come into play as to availability of these loans. Accordingly, while there is no express prohibition for some of the loans referenced herein from being accessed in a Chapter 11 proceeding, a de facto prohibition likely comes from existing underwriting guidelines. If the overarching purpose of the CARES Act is to assist businesses in weathering the economic storm while the COVID 19 virus ravages the economy, the authors argue that such underwriting guidelines can, and must, be loosened in order to allow application of some of these programs in Chapter 11 proceedings so that they can be most effectively implemented to stabilize businesses, preserve jobs, continue to keep employees and businesses on the tax rolls, etc.

In this way the stimulus funds will be used where they can be most effectively deployed. If not, those funds will be the equivalent of the federal government sending rubber rafts to a drought stricken area—a sign that the government cares, perhaps, but of certainly no real use to address the problem at hand. The full article is available here.

Teams and Bankruptcy

Ramin Baghai (Stockholm School of Economics), Rui Silva (London Business School), Luofu Ye (London Business School)

Corporate bankruptcies constitute an important mechanism through which the economy rids itself of obsolete firms and allocates their constituent parts to alternative and potentially more productive uses. This process of reallocation of human and physical capital is an “essential fact about capitalism” (Schumpeter 1942).

While resources may on average be used more productively following a bankruptcy, this process is not deterministic and likely involves various imperfections. In addition to the potential loss in value to the firm’s redeployable physical capital stock (e.g., due to asset fire sales), bankruptcy may involve some deterioration of organizational and human capital. Moreover, frictions in the post-bankruptcy re-allocation of resources across firms may lead capital and labor to be idle for some time or even result in protracted sub-optimal uses. In the case of workers, unemployment spells could also accelerate the depreciation of skills. While prior studies have focused primarily on the reallocation of physical capital and individual workers, we are the first to systematically study how the human capital embedded in teams is affected by corporate bankruptcies.

Teamwork has become a prevalent way of organizing production in science, in patenting, and, more broadly, in the corporate sector. It has been documented, in a variety of settings, that teamwork has substantial benefits compared to work in hierarchical environments, in particular when complex tasks are involved. Despite the importance of teamwork, there is little systematic evidence on the economic drivers affecting the creation, stability, and dissolution of productive team configurations. Understanding these forces is crucial for the design of corporate and public policies that maximize productivity.

In our working paper, we use employer-employee matched data on U.S. inventors to study how the human capital embedded in teams is reallocated in corporate bankruptcies; our data span the period 1980 to 2010. Our results paint a nuanced picture of the reallocation of human capital through bankruptcy. Team dissolution increases around bankruptcy and team inventors subsequently become less productive than their less team-dependent colleagues. However, the labor market and the market for corporate control promote the preservation of team-specific human capital. Therefore, on balance, the productivity losses associated with bankruptcy are modest for team-dependent inventors. In addition, inventors who do not work in teams may even experience an increase in their post-bankruptcy productivity (although these effects have limited statistical significance). This suggests that bankruptcies have the capacity to release resources to more productive uses. Overall, we conclude that frictions that limit the efficiency of asset reallocation through bankruptcy may be limited in the case of highly skilled labor.

The full article is available here.

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