By Samir Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)
Corporate bankruptcy cases have recently undergone a shift. After decades where creditors exercised outsized control, equity sponsors have now ascended the throne. This new group exploits contractual loopholes and employs coercive tactics to initiate creditor-on-creditor violence. The result is the ability to dictate outcomes in distress situations where equity sponsors would normally be idle passengers. The unwritten rules have been rewritten.
This new disequilibrium has the potential to fundamentally harm the financial ecosystem. Scholars have successfully chronicled the new tactics, but formulating the means to mitigate market distortion has been elusive. Most scholars have appealed to the judiciary to intervene. Unfortunately, the judiciary has rejected this call, arguing that sophisticated parties should address coercion through contracts. What if that is not possible? An efficient public debt market relies on some sort of check on outright exploitation. The inability to manage bad actors renders these markets more volatile and amplifies contagion risk for national and global economies. Further, coercive measures allow a company that should have sought bankruptcy protection or some other substantive restructuring to artificially limp along. There is a significant risk that this iniquitousness destroys value and there is little left to salvage by the time the company actually lands in bankruptcy.
This Article argues that a significant movement towards equilibrium is attainable by adjusting two aspects of this ecosystem. Primarily, I advocate for amendment of section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code to exclude leveraged buyouts from the fraudulent transfer safe harbors. My proposal aligns the section with its historical underpinnings and acts as a natural check on debt levels in overly aggressive acquisitions. This proposal reduces the need for coercive restructuring measures when a corporation experiences financial distress. On the backend, Delaware courts have limited creditors to derivative breach-of-fiduciary-duty actions, even when a corporation is insolvent and directors are actively attacking certain stakeholders. Delaware case law protects the mechanism by which equity sponsors implement coercion. I argue that when a corporation is insolvent, directors and officers who undertake hostile actions against specific creditors to whom they owe fiduciary duties should be subject to direct claims by those creditors. Unable to act with impunity, directors would be forced to properly consider all key stakeholders in formulating rehabilitation measures.
The full article is available here.