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.
By Michael Rosella (Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP) and Dan McElhinney (Stretto)
The crypto winter has arrived! Among many other issues of first impression for bankruptcy courts is the question of how the increased due diligence standards for preference actions set forth in the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 (the “SBRA”) will play out in a crypto case. The SBRA raised the bar on the due diligence needed to pursue preference litigation, requiring the debtor or trustee to assess “known or reasonably knowable affirmative defenses” before moving forward.
This article first assesses lingering disagreements related to the “heightened” pleading standard as applied to preference causes of action set forth in In re Valley Media and its progeny. Next, we delve into the cases interpreting the new due diligence standard set forth in the SBRA, as there is already disagreement on how to interpret the SBRA. Certain courts suggest the new due diligence standard constitutes an element of a preference claim that must be specifically pled in a complaint in order to avoid dismissal; others do not. Yet courts in this latter group, while eschewing the idea of a new element, do consider any information regarding pre-complaint due diligence efforts in the complaint, nonetheless. We then consider the issues unique to the opaque world of a cryptocurrency debtor that may impact the debtor or trustee’s ability to satisfy a heightened due diligence standard. Questions relating to the potential differences in assessing cash vs. crypto transfers and whether debtors or trustees will have access to key demographic and transaction data are considered. For example, whereas a debtor dealing in cash transfers would likely have bank statements, canceled checks, and access to accounting systems with basic transferee information, debtors transferring cryptocurrency to the independent digital wallet of a customer or counterparty would be less likely to have access to basic information necessary to satisfy a heightened due diligence standard.
We also provide key takeaways that highlight measures that cryptocurrency debtors should take to comply with the pleading and due diligence requirements. For example, a debtor in a cryptocurrency case should include in the complaint a recitation of its efforts to conduct reasonable due diligence — including efforts to obtain information needed to consider affirmative defenses, as well as reference to demand letters sent inviting the transferee to assert such defenses—to minimize any dismissal risk.
By Christopher D. Hampson (University of Florida Levin College of Law)
Social entrepreneurs and lawyers gave birth to the benefit corporation out of frustration with the Delaware law that governs fiduciary duties during insolvency. The benefit corporation statutes require directors to consider general and specific public benefit alongside the interests of shareholders. While legal scholars have grappled with whether the benefit corporation form works well to preserve social commitments, we have not yet explored fully what would happen when a benefit corporation files for bankruptcy.
I attempt to answer that question in Bankruptcy & the Benefit Corporation. As I see it, during good times, the benefit corporation may not improve on traditional corporate forms. After all, wise leaders can balance short-term and long-term goals and weigh the interests of shareholders against stakeholders, within the space provided by the business judgment rule. Whether those leaders are indeed wise is probably more important than the corporate form itself. But during bad times, the law tightens around directors, and that’s where the benefit corporation form provides extra protection for directors committed to both doing well and doing good.
My analysis of duty-based, utility-based, and character-based approaches indicates that we should want commitments to public benefit to persist into bankruptcy. Drawing from Carl E. Schneider’s “channelling” function of law, I argue that the benefit corporation stands as a meaningful “third way” for entrepreneurs, investors, and employees, a corporate form that attracts those interested in pursuing profit while accomplishing some social goal.
When it comes to bankruptcy, some scholars are quite pessimistic about the benefit corporation’s fate. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court has told us that the trustee in bankruptcy has a duty to maximize the value of the estate, and that duty might replace or wash out the fiduciary duties of the directors of a benefit corporation. I am more optimistic. The duty of the trustee in bankruptcy is famously underdefined (what kind of value? value to whom?). Against the Supreme Court’s vague pronouncements, 28 U.S.C. § 959 and the Butner principle suggest that state law innovations, like the benefit corporation, should control.
The remainder of the article explores the complexity of running that argument through the reticulated, multiplayer world of an insolvency case, because — well, this is bankruptcy. Rules like adequate protection and absolute priority serve as guardrails that state law fiduciary duties cannot override.
I might be wrong, and it could be some time before we know one way or the other. By publication, I had found one filing by a benefit corporation, Medolac Laboratories in the District of Nevada, and it didn’t raise the issues I explore in the article. When more data comes in from benefit corporation filings, we may find out what bankruptcy courts think about the newest corporate entities to face financial distress.
The full article has been published in the American Bankruptcy Law Journal (96 Am. Bankr. L.J. 93 (2022)) and is available here.
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).
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.
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.
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.
By Amir Licht (Professor, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel)
In several common law jurisdictions, creditors of corporate debtors enjoy legal protections through vicinity-of-insolvency fiduciary duties, beyond what their contracts with those companies afford them. These duties form a notoriously murky area, where legal space warps. The contours of this area are fuzzy. Courts openly acknowledge that it is difficult to identify clear guideposts for its threshold—as to when exactly these duties are enlivened. In a forthcoming article, I purport to make two main contributions. First, the article expands the theoretical basis for a special legal regime in virtually insolvent firms by pointing out escalation of commitment as a potent and relevant factor that has been largely overlooked by insolvency scholars. Second, this article addresses the substantive content of the duty to protect creditors where such duties are recognized.
The standard account that is usually invoked to explain and justify special fiduciary duties to consider creditors’ interest points to the danger of opportunistic high-risk behavior by managers on behalf of shareholders. I argue that this account may be sound but is nonetheless lacking. In addition to such risk-shifting opportunism, lawmakers should also be mindful of managers’ tendency to unjustifiably continue failing projects, known as escalation of commitment. Escalation of commitment refers to a phenomenon, in which people tend to remain married to their original choices and to commit resources to them even when it is no longer rational to do so. Escalation of commitment is ubiquitous. It has been observed in organizations large and small, in business corporations and in the public sector. Escalation of commitment is not only an irrational and emotional personal behavior. More often than not, it takes place in a broader social context of one’s ingroup—in particular, the board of directors, the organization, and one’s community and culture.
Escalation of commitment poses an equal, if not greater, challenge than risk shifting does to optimal regulation of companies in looming or virtual insolvency. Being largely detached from rational calculations, escalation of commitment presents a more compelling justification for legal regulation, and a more interventionist one at that. In this view, managers—especially owner-managers—of virtually insolvent firms may not enjoy the usual level of deference that the law affords to their business judgment in regular times, as their discretion at that point is prone to be clouded by a misplaced motivation to stay the course, weather the storm, and similarly-spirited no-quitting notions.
Factors that could facilitate de-escalation include better information on costs and benefits of the project, regular evaluation and monitoring of projects, clear criteria for success and minimum target performance levels, and clear feedback about underperforming projects. Such measures will have limited efficacy, however, if the information they generate is interpreted and acted on by decision-makers who have initiated the failing project and even by different persons who are nonetheless related to those decision-makers. Change in management is thus essential.
While Delaware law rejects the idea of a pre-insolvency creditor-focused fiduciary duty, several jurisdictions do recognize duties to protect creditors, either as a duty to consider creditors’ interests or as the rule against wrongful (or insolvent, or reckless) trading. I argue that these duties should be enlivened at the very edge of the zone of insolvency, close to the latter. At that point, the mission of directors should transform from entrepreneurial to custodial. That is, they should implement strategies that aim to preserve the firm—in working condition, to the extent possible, with a view to resuming regular business—but avoid seeking new projects with a view to maximizing profits. This could mean that the shield of the business judgment rule may not be available to the same extent as in regular circumstances. The Covid-19 pandemic that swept the globe in 2020 provides a fresh context for this approach and underscores the need to implement such a regime sensibly, with high deference to business decisions even if outside the scope of the business judgment rule. The article concludes with a comparative analysis of creditor-oriented duties in several common law jurisdictions and examines how they could implement a custodial approach.
By Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)
Large financial institutions, such as U.S. Bank or Bank of NY Mellon, typically administer the governance of bond indentures—the contract under which bonds are issued—on behalf of the investors; in that role, they are called indenture trustees or, more colloquially, bond trustees. In Bond Trustees, and the Rising Challenge of Activist Investors, the 2020 TePoel Lecture at Creighton University School of Law, I examine how bond trustees should respond to this challenge.
Bondholders are the primary beneficiaries of indenture governance, just as shareholders are the primary beneficiaries of corporate governance. As beneficiaries, bondholders and shareholders have much different expectations. Indenture governance and corporate governance have evolved differently to meet those different expectations.
For example, because bondholders are only entitled to receive principal and accrued interest on their bonds, indenture governance has evolved to protect that recovery. In contrast, because shareholders, as residual claimants of the firm, are entitled to (and thus expect to receive) the firm’s surplus value, corporate governance has evolved to increase that value.
Most people would consider corporate governance as more important than indenture governance. In part, that’s because corporations and stock markets are highly visible to the average person. Also, a corporate manager’s job—to try to increase shareholder value—involves more judgment and discretion, and thus can be more interesting (and more desirable of scholarly study), than an indenture trustee’s job of merely protecting bondholder recovery.
Still, indenture governance is critically important. Domestically and worldwide, the amounts invested in bonds dwarfs the amounts invested in stock. Recent data show, for example, that global bond issuance is almost 30 times greater than global equity issuance.
An indenture trustee’s governance duties turn on whether the trustee is acting pre-default, or post-default. Once an indenture defaults, the law requires the indenture trustee to act on behalf of the bondholders as would a prudent person in similar circumstances regarding its own affairs. Many post-default decisions—such as whether to accelerate the maturity of the bonds or to liquidate collateral—involve difficult judgment calls. These decisions are made more difficult by what I have called a “protection gap”: when things go wrong, investors often blame parties with deep pockets, especially indenture trustees, for failing to protect them. Post-default indenture governance becomes even more complicated when the bondholders themselves have conflicting interests, caused, for example, by conflicting payment priorities or conflicting sources of payment.
Notwithstanding its complexities, post-default indenture governance is informed by case law. And perhaps because of its complexities, post-default indenture governance is also informed by legal scholarship. In contrast, pre-default indenture governance is not yet well informed by either case law or legal scholarship. The rising challenge of activist investors is now making it critical to also understand what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be.
Historically, an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have been seen as ministerial and limited to the specific terms of the indenture, such as selecting bonds for redemption and preparing and delivering certificates. Since the financial crisis, some investors argue that indenture trustees of securitized bond issues, in which investors are paid from collections on underlying financial assets such as mortgage loans, should have pre-default fiduciary duties. Indeed, complaints in recent lawsuits allege that those indenture trustees should “police the deal” for the investors.
These allegations are not compelling. Indenture trustees receive relatively tiny fees and don’t even negotiate the terms of the indentures. In contrast, the institutional investors in securitized bond issues, including activist investors, are highly sophisticated. Indenture trustees could not understand complex securitized bond issues better than those investors.
Furthermore, parties other than indenture trustees are assigned monitoring duties to protect the investors. Notably, securitized bond issues require a party, usually called a servicer, to service and collect payment on the underlying financial assets. In litigation following the financial crisis, which caused widespread defaults on residential mortgage loans, some investors argued that indenture trustees in mortgage securitization transactions should have monitored or supervised the performance of the mortgage-loan servicer.
Imposing such duties on the indenture trustee would be duplicative and expensive. Rather, an indenture trustee that actually becomes aware of servicing problems should act in a common sense and practical manner. For example, it might enter into conversations with the servicer about its performance and communicate the results of those conversations to the investors. It also might seek, or request the investors to provide, formal investor directions.
Typically, indentures allow investors with at least 25-50 percent of voting rights to direct the indenture trustee to act.
A buyer negotiating acquisition of commercial real estate from a Chapter 7 trustee or a Chapter 11 debtor-in-possession will almost always hear the mantra: “I have a fiduciary duty to maximize value for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate” – which the seller insists means the property must be sold through a public auction. The potential buyer may be designated as the stalking horse (e.g. its offer will be treated as an opening bid), and it may have input on the bidding procedures (bidder qualifications, minimum overbid, purchase price payment terms, etc.). But at the end of the day it runs a risk that after investing time and money in pursuing the acquisition someone else may be selected as having made a “higher and better” offer.
However, that is not always the case. In re 160 Royal Palm, LLC, 600 B.R. 119 (S.D. Fla. 2019) presents an interesting case study. As discussed in Bankruptcy Sales: Highest Is Not Always Best, the bankruptcy court allowed a debtor to withdraw property from a previously authorized public auction and to proceed with a private sale to a designated buyer, subject only to an overbid by the stalking horse from the public auction. The court approved the private sale over the objection of a third party that claimed that in a public auction it would bid at least $1 million more than the private sale purchase price.
By Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)
Indenture trustees act for the benefit of the investors in a company’s bonds. They perform this role for virtually all companies that issue bonds, whether in the United States or abroad. The existing scholarship on their duties focuses on the post-default scenario. In many countries, including the United States, the law then imposes a ‘prudent person’ standard. This Article, in contrast, examines an indenture trustee’s “pre-default” duties.
It is critical to try to define those duties because activist investors, including hedge funds and so-called “vulture fund” investors that purchase defaulted bonds at deep discounts, increasingly are making pre-default demands on indenture trustees, who must know how to respond. Also, the manner in which they respond can have widespread economic consequences because the bond market is huge—in 2018, approximately $43 trillion in the United States and $103 trillion worldwide.
Activist investors are also suing indenture trustees for losses on their bonds, alleging they should have taken pre-default actions to protect the bonds. To avoid the risk of liability, indenture trustees should know how they should discharge their pre-default duties.
The indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have not been seriously re-examined since enactment of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, although the bond market has changed dramatically since then. Institutional investors now dominate; there are few individual retail investors. By virtue of their sophistication and the size of their bondholding, institutional investors face less of a collective action problem than retail investors had faced. Also, as mentioned, certain activist investors increasingly are engaging in high-risk strategic investing.
Whether or not due to these market changes, there are at least two views today of the indenture trustee’s pre-default role. By far the dominant view—and the view that comports with existing law and the plain language of indentures—is that indenture trustees have no pre-default fiduciary duties to investors. Rather, their duties are ministerial and limited to the usually administrative functions specified in the indenture. Since the 2007-08 financial crisis, however, some investors argue that indenture trustees—especially those of securitized bond issues, who act for the benefit of investors whose right to payment is limited to collections on specified financial assets (such as mortgage loans)—should have some pre-default fiduciary duties.
My Article analyzes what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be, starting by considering the possible normative frameworks for legally imposing duties in a business context. I consider two potentially overlapping frameworks: to correct market failures, and to maximize efficiency. I also consider a formalistic rationale for legally imposing duties—because securitized bond issues involve purchased financial assets, they more closely resemble a traditional trust; and trustees of a traditional trust have fiduciary duties.
Based on its analysis, the Article concludes (among other things) that, pre-default, the indenture trustee’s duties should only be those specified in the indenture. The Article also applies that standard to the types of issues that may arise in lawsuits against indenture trustees.
For example, even prior to a formal default, one or more investors may demand that the indenture trustee take some enforcement or other remedial action to try to correct a problem. Compliance with that demand could be expensive, reducing the value of the estate for investors generally. Taking remedial action could therefore create a conflict if it would disproportionately benefit only certain investors. Absent instructions from the requisite investor threshold contractually required to direct the indenture trustee, the trustee should have the right to refuse to take a demanded action. In case of doubt, an indenture trustee could itself seek instructions. The Article also examines practical issues—and practical ways to resolve those issues—that might sometimes impair formation of the requisite investor threshold to direct the indenture trustee.
Out of court restructuring is a popular and, according to many, optimal way of resolving the circumstances of insolvent companies in the UK, and probably more so since the advent in the UK of the Enterprises Act 2002. One concern that some commentators have raised is the fact that the opportunities to engage in such restructuring are likely to be reduced given the way that the courts have approached claims that directors who have initiated restructuring strategies are liable for breach of duty in failing to take into account the interests of company creditors when their company is insolvent or near to it (as applied by section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 in the UK). Allied to this is the concern that if directors are not granted freedom to use their discretion in entering into a restructuring process companies might be placed into administration or liquidation when they have some prospect of continuing to trade and to do so profitably, because directors may choose to be risk averse in placing a company into administration or liquidation rather than take the risk of being held liable for breach of the duty if they attempt restructuring. This paper examines whether the aforementioned concerns are realistic, given the law, and, if they are, what directors should be doing to ensure that they do not breach the obligation in relation to creditors. These are important issues as little consideration has been given in the UK to the issue of liability of directors for breach of duty in the wake of a restructuring. The issues are considered in light of section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 which makes the director’s duty to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the shareholders (as under section 172(1) and providing for what is known as ‘enlightened shareholder value’) subject to any rule of law that requires directors to consider the interests of creditors. It is a rule of law in the UK (and in many Commonwealth countries and Ireland) that when their company is insolvent or in dire financial distress directors must take into account the interests of creditors.
The paper finds that while directors might be subject to liability in entering into restructuring attempts, this is only going to occur in limited cases and so there should not be particular concern over liability. This is because first of all courts will not hold directors liable if they acted in good faith and took into account the interests of creditors, and regarded these interests as paramount in their considerations. Even if the directors failed to take into account the interests of creditors or failed to make them paramount, they will not be liable where the court finds that the honest and intelligent director, taking into account creditors’ interests, would have entered into the restructuring in any event on the basis that it would benefit creditors. Obviously if directors restructure in such a way as to benefit themselves or specific creditors, or they have improper motives, then liability is more likely to ensue. But, where the directors have acted reasonably then they should be safe from challenge.