[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] A Qualified Defense of Divisional Mergers

By Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey (University of Chicago Law School)

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies.  Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.

Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), and here (by Jared A. Ellias).

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Anthony Casey
Joshua Macey

One of the most important contexts in which Chapter 11 proceedings can facilitate the preservation of value is the resolution of financial distress related to mass tort claims. Over the last forty years, Chapter 11 has been invoked to facilitate settlement in dozens of large mass tort cases. Without Chapter 11, these value-preserving settlements would have never been possible.

Mass tort cases involve complex claims of multiple—often tens of thousands of—claimants looking to recover value from a business enterprise. The core provisions of Chapter 11, which are designed to coordinate behavior among claimants, address precisely these types of multilateral-claims situations. These provisions allow the quick, efficient, and fair resolution of claims and preserve value for the claimants and the other stakeholders of the business.

Providing a mechanism for the resolution of these mass tort cases is a quintessential function of bankruptcy law. Without bankruptcy resolution, the uncertainty of future liability in mass tort cases can prevent a debtor from productively carrying on its business and undertaking projects or asset sales that could create value and facilitate a cooperative resolution.

How do divisional mergers fit with this purpose? A divisional merger is a state-law transaction where a business entity divides itself into two new entities. It is attractive in some cases because it is simple and requires fewer steps than other methods for creating entity partitions. But the substantive outcome is no different. Any laws penalizing and prohibiting divisional mergers would therefore have little substantive effect. Rather they would simply channel transactions from one form of entity partitioning to another.

The important question, therefore, is whether a divisional merger—or any other form of entity creation—is being used to facilitate a socially valuable outcome consistent with the purpose of Chapter 11. When used appropriately, a divisional merger preceding a bankruptcy filing can facilitate a socially valuable resolution of mass tort claims, isolating (but not limiting) the mass tort liability for resolution independent of the other operations of the business.

To see why this is true, consider a large otherwise solvent business enterprise facing tens of thousands of potential tort lawsuits. One option would be for the entire enterprise to enter bankruptcy. But there are major costs to an enterprise-wide proceeding. The tools of Chapter 11 are blunt. The automatic stay applies across all creditors even those unrelated to the mass torts. Similarly, the filing triggers all sorts of enterprise-wide rules and restrictions. All creditors—including those with no connection to the mass tort litigation—must file their claims and can demand to be involved in the proceedings and in plan confirmation. The enterprise-wide filing brings extra parties and extra claims into the process and creates opportunities for those parties to take strategic litigation positions that can delay or prevent resolution.

The divisional merger structure reduces these enterprise-related complications. In the right situation, this structure can simplify the process and focus the proceedings on the specific mass tort resolution that is necessary for the preservation of value.

The proper way to address divisional mergers, in our view, is not to prohibit them altogether, but rather to make sure that they do not leave tort victims worse off. The transaction should therefore provide a source of adequate funding to resolve the tort liabilities. Consistent with this principle, recent cases that have utilized the divisional merger structure prior to a Chapter 11 petition have provided funding agreements that ensure that claimants have access to the same or more value in pursuing their claims against the business.

The bankruptcy proceedings that follow the merger should also provide meaningful disclosure and discovery about the merger, the funding agreement, and the underlying tort claims to allow a fair valuation of liability and a reasonable estimate of the number of claimants. Fortunately, bankruptcy judges are willing and able to provide these procedural safeguards.

The alternative of prohibiting divisional mergers will likely leave claimants worse off. Drawn out proceedings transfer value from tort claimants to bankruptcy professionals. It might also lead to unfair outcomes where some tort claimants receive large recoveries and others receive nothing at all. In turn, potential claimants will race to the courthouse chasing early judgments that leave the firm without funds to pay later claimants.

The purpose of Chapter 11 is not to reduce liability, but rather to reduce complexity and cost. And a well-designed divisional merger promotes that purpose while providing a fair and efficient system for resolving group claims.

 

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Upending the Traditional Chapter 11 Bargain

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Harvard Law School)

Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies.  Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.

Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts) and here (by Jonathan C. Lipson).

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In October 2021, Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) executed a strategy to use the bankruptcy system to resolve a massive flood of personal injury lawsuits.  In doing so, J&J found a way to obtain the benefits of Chapter 11 without accepting the burden of operating a business under court oversight.  J&J achieved this outcome by executing a corporate law move dubbed the “Texas Two-Step.”  The Two-Step split J&J’s consumer division into two entities: (1) LTL Management LLC, which was allocated all of J&J’s baby powder-related tort liability; and (2) a second entity that contained the assets of its consumer businesses.  LTL Management subsequently filed for bankruptcy without the assets of the consumer business.  In a landmark recent opinion, Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey held that these maneuvers were not a bad faith bankruptcy filing.  As I argue below, Judge Kaplan’s ruling, which attempts to use bankruptcy law to ameliorate weaknesses in tort law, may inspire other wealthy firms to emulate J&J’s tactics.  It may also feed a potential backlash from higher courts and Congress that may make the bankruptcy system less useful to large firms.

In short, J&J’s bankruptcy strategy upends the traditional bargain that Chapter 11 offers to distressed corporations and their creditors.  Congress designed a bankruptcy system that provides companies with powerful protections, such as an automatic stay of non-bankruptcy litigation.  In exchange, companies must submit their assets to court oversight.  To be sure, a bankruptcy filing always undermines some of the bargaining power that mass tort claimants have outside of bankruptcy, such as the ability to bring many individual lawsuits.  However, the burden of court oversight also gives creditors bargaining power, as companies seek to exit bankruptcy quickly to escape the expense and distraction of a bankruptcy proceeding.  J&J argues it has found a better way of using the bankruptcy system: J&J would use a contract to make the assets of the consumer division available to pay any amounts owed to tort victims and its procedural machinations meant that those assets would not be depleted by wasteful court oversight.

As Michael Francus recently argued, J&J’s strategy is best understood as the latest move in the long-standing chess game of hardball bankruptcy tactics between the lawyers who represent tort victims and the lawyers who advise large companies with tort liability.  For example, in 2003, Pfizer resurrected a dead subsidiary and caused it to file for bankruptcy to obtain a judicial order halting all litigation against Pfizer, which potentially had its own liability associated with the subsidiary’s products.  Pfizer’s strategy involved taking a corporation that had been defunct for over a decade, giving it an “independent board of directors,” employees and office space.  By doing so, Pfizer was able to benefit from a bankruptcy court injunction for several years before reaching a settlement after a decade of scorched earth litigation.  Other high-profile companies, most prominently Purdue Pharma, have also tried to stretch bankruptcy law to resolve claims against third parties without those entities filing for bankruptcy themselves.

The “Texas Two-Step” strategy deployed by J&J takes these existing strategies a step further by surgically separating assets from liabilities to create a favorable bargaining environment.  In holding that this maneuver was not a bad faith use of the bankruptcy system, Judge Kaplan opens the door to other wealthy firms to engage in similar maneuvering to resolve mass torts problems. For example, will the next company with headline-grabbing tort liability, such as an unexpected oil spill, respond by “spinning off” its liabilities into a bankruptcy filing?  In the past, this only would have happened if the resulting liability rendered the polluter insolvent, but now even wealthy and solvent firms may decide that their fiduciary duty requires them to use the bankruptcy system to deal with their liability.

In his ruling, Judge Kaplan overruled the arguments of, among others, a group of bankruptcy scholars (including myself) that worry that the complexity of J&J’s maneuvers will undermine public confidence in the integrity of the bankruptcy system. To be sure, Judge Kaplan’s opinion makes persuasive arguments about the limits of the tort system.  The question, though, is whether the ultimate outcome of Judge Kaplan’s attempt to use bankruptcy law to rectify problems in the tort system will be to create new problems for the bankruptcy system as Congress explores new legislation and appellate courts issue rulings that respond to perceived overreach by reducing the power of bankruptcy judges and, as a result, the usefulness of bankruptcy law.

Bankruptcy Court Ruling Imposes Lender Liability

By Daniel S. Shamah, Jeff Norton, Jennifer Taylor, Sung Pak, and Joshua Chow (O’Melveny & Myers LLP)

“Lender liability” is an umbrella term often used to describe claims against lenders who overstep their boundaries when seeking to enforce a loan.  It embraces both contractual and tort-based theories of liability, including claims for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fiduciary duty claims, as well as bankruptcy-based theories like equitable subordination.  While courts have historically held that lender liability claims are difficult to sustain, there are cases that give guidance on how lenders cross the line and the consequences of doing so.  In this recent article, the authors highlight one recent Texas bankruptcy court decision in which a court determined that a lender engaged in the kind of egregious conduct that could lead to disallowance of a loan and an award of damages and interest.  Lenders in particular should study this case closely for tips on how to avoid these landmines.

The full article is available here.

 

Corporate Bankruptcy Has Lasting Effects on CEO Careers through Frictions in Executive Labor Market

By Andreas Kostøl (Arizona State University – W.P. Carey School of Business; Norges Bank), Morten Grindaker (Norwegian Business School; Norges Bank), and Kasper Roszbach (Norges Bank; University of Groningen)

Andreas Kostøl
Morten Grindaker
Kasper Roszbach

Policymakers have long been concerned about the potential negative effects of bankruptcy for CEOs and business dynamics. Fear of reputational scarring caused by bankruptcy could lead managers to take less risk than desired by owners, which could manifest in lower performance and lower rates of entrepreneurship and job growth.

 

CEOs influence a wide range of decisions, such as organizational practices, debt financing and whether to file for corporate bankruptcy or not. Empirical studies of Chapter 11 bankruptcy show that CEOs of large bankrupt firms suffer significant financial losses. The prospect of individually-borne income loss due to a corporate bankruptcy carries in it a risk that CEOs take decisions that are not aligned with the interest of the owners.

It remains an open empirical question, however, whether the observed personal costs should be attributed to the selection of CEOs with lower managerial skills, firm-specific human capital, or stigma in the executive labor market.

Our analysis attempts to answer this question by disentangling the stigma and skill effects by examining the causal effects of corporate bankruptcy on the personal income and career of CEOs in small and medium-sized companies in Norway. To this end, we exploit that bankruptcy petitions in Norway are randomly assigned to judges who have different degrees of strictness in their approval of bankruptcy filings. This institutional feature generates variation in firms’ likelihood of being declared bankrupt that is unrelated to firm or CEO characteristics. We use administrative panel data that identifies CEO’s sources of wealth and income and corporate positions to examine the effects of bankruptcy on their careers.

Two broad conclusions emerge from our empirical analysis.

First, we find that corporate bankruptcy has a long-lasting impact on CEOs’ careers. CEOs whose firms are declared bankrupt are 25 percentage points more likely to exit the executive workforce. Displaced CEOs find new employment quickly but do so by moving to lower-ranked positions in new firms. Bankruptcy also has an economically significant impact on CEO remuneration; we document an annual fall in capital income equal to about five percent of annual gross income. While the net present value of the average decline in capital income over the remainder of a CEO’s working-age career is equal to 60 percent of pre-bankruptcy annual income, we find no enduring effect on CEOs’ labor income after five years.

Second, our analysis shows that the displacement effects are much larger when default rates in the firms’ industry are low. For example, a CEOs is five times less likely to remain in the executive workforce if her/his firm experiences a bankruptcy while the bankruptcy frequency in the same industry is low. By contrast, variation in CEO wages is not driven by industry conditions. Post-bankruptcy, we find a greater mobility of CEOs between industries and an increased tendency to move to more productive firms with a higher-paid workforce, suggesting that managerial skills are portable.

Taken together, our findings suggest that negative career effects of bankruptcy can be attributed to stigma. When we eliminate the risk of low-skilled CEOs sorting into bankrupt firms, we find that the executive labor market interprets bankruptcy as a signal of lower managerial talent. This stigma effect is greater during better economic times. More details can be found in the full paper that is available here.