A New Approach to Executory Contracts

By John A. E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School)

Few bankruptcy topics have bedeviled courts—and busied commentators—as much as executory contracts. Perhaps the most nettlesome challenge is the problem of defining “executoriness,” which serves as the statutory gatekeeper to Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code and its extraordinary powers. Elite lawyers, who are the closest approximation to chapter 11 repeat players, have no ex ante incentive to fix a definition; in part succumbing to a vividness bias, they want to exploit executoriness’s inherent ambiguity to select the definition perceived to be most advantageous in any given case ad hoc. From Westbrook to Countryman before, authors have struggled to find a coherent and normatively defensible definition of executoriness (including Westbrook’s call for its abolition) that would stop this gamesmanship, and even the American Bankruptcy Institute’s Review Commission has now entered the debate.

This article takes a new approach. It suggests abandoning the bootless task of finding the right test and concedes that executoriness is here to stay. This new approach focuses on the residuum of the “non-executory contract.” Using the policies, structure, and text of the Code, it argues that many of Section 365’s provisions can be synthetically replicated elsewhere. Doing so will blunt the strategic incentive to invest resources fighting the absence or presence of executoriness ab initio by scuttling the payoff. Concomitant gains will accrue to all.

The full article is available here.

Applying Jevic: How Courts Are Interpreting and Applying the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Structured Dismissals and Priority Skipping

By Shane G. Ramsey and John T. Baxter (Nelson Mullins).

The U.S. Supreme Court in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., 137 S.Ct. 973 (2017), addressed the issue of chapter 11 debtors using structured dismissals to end-run the statutory priority rules. The Court’s ruling preserved the priority system, holding that the bankruptcy court could not approve a structured dismissal of a chapter 11 case that provided for distributions that failed to follow the standard priority rules unless the affected creditors consented to such treatment. Although the Bankruptcy Code does not expressly apply its priority distribution scheme to a structured dismissal, the Court clarified that courts should do so.

As a way to track how bankruptcy courts across the country are applying the ruling in Jevic, the Nelson Mullins Bankruptcy Protector has introduced a new periodic series: the Jevic Files. As of February 19, 2018, the Jevic Files has collected and summarized thirteen cases across twelve jurisdictions. While the majority of the cases involved structured dismissals in the context of a chapter 11 case, courts have also applied the ruling in Jevic to the dismissal of chapter 13 plans; the priority of trustee payments in a chapter 7 case; and even a state court foreclosure hearing that came on the heels of a dismissed chapter 11 case. As Jevic continues to be interpreted and applied in bankruptcy (and other) courts throughout the country, we will continue to keep an updated summary of cases through the Jevic Files.

The article is available here.

The Roundtable has posted on Jevic before, including a report of the case by Melissa Jacoby & Jonathan Lipson and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Court’s decision and an initial scholarly take on the opinion from Nicholas L. Georgakopoulos. For other Roundtable posts related to priority, see Casey & Morrison, “Beyond Options”; Baird, “Priority Matters”; and Roe & Tung, “Breaking Bankruptcy Priority,” an article that the Jevic opinion referred to.

Justice Scalia’s Bankruptcy Jurisprudence: The Right Judicial Philosophy for the Modern Bankruptcy Code?

By Megan McDermott (Lecturer, University of Wisconsin School of Law).

The late Justice Scalia is best known among mainstream audiences for his originalist approach to the Constitution, as well as his polarizing views on various civil rights issues. But anyone who has cracked open a bankruptcy casebook also knows Justice Scalia for his many contributions to the bankruptcy field — both through sturdy majority opinions in interpretive cases like Timbers, Nextwave, and Radlax, and through his biting dissents and concurrences in watershed decisions like Dewsnup and Stern.

My recent article, Justice Scalia’s Bankruptcy Jurisprudence: The Right Judicial Philosophy for the Modern Bankruptcy Code?, seeks to both quantify and qualify Justice Scalia’s contributions to bankruptcy law. I show that during his three decades on the Court, Justice Scalia wrote in more bankruptcy cases than any other justice (followed closely by Justices Stevens and Thomas).

I also identify four predominant themes that emerge from Justice Scalia’s bankruptcy oeuvre: (1) a holistic approach to the Bankruptcy Code; (2) a commitment to textualism, regardless of outcome; (3) disdain for legislative history; and (4) a desire for clear boundaries regarding the scope and authority of bankruptcy courts.

Finally, the article explores the impact of his jurisprudential legacy on the bankruptcy field. Of particular note are the ways in which Justice Scalia’s approach often favored ordinary consumers over creditor interests. I conclude that while Justice Scalia did not always live up to the ideals that he advocated, he nonetheless offered a unifying vision that fits well with both the purpose and the design of the Bankruptcy Code.

The full article is available here.

Merit Management v. FTI: Law Firm Perspectives

On February 27, the Supreme Court decided Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., holding unanimously that the § 546(e) safe harbor does not protect allegedly fraudulent transfers “in which financial institutions served as mere conduits.” The Court’s decision resolves a circuit split on the reach of § 546(e). In reaching its conclusion, the Court focused on the “end-to-end transfer” that the trustee seeks to avoid, rather than any “component parts of the overarching transfer.” In FTI, because the overarching transfer was made between two parties not otherwise shielded by the safe harbor, the transfer will now fall outside the safe harbor.

As many law firms recognize, this decision will have wide-ranging implications on the finality of securities transactions effected through financial institutions, especially leveraged buyouts. Mayer Brown notes that as the decision enhances a trustee’s ability to recover fraudulent transfers, it also increases the bankruptcy estate’s leverage against recipients of pre-petition transfers. Cleary observes that “debtors or trustees may strategically frame avoidance actions in order to limit the scope of the safe harbor.” Mayer Brown concludes that the decision may also expose investors, investment funds and similar entities to fraudulent transfer litigation risks.

The bottom line, as Davis Polk notes, is that the § 546(e) safe harbor is no longer a blanket safe harbor for the recipients of transactions that pass through financial institutions. But the safe harbor will still shield financial institutions operating as escrow agents or clearinghouses, as the Court expressly stated that a financial institution under § 546(e) is protected whether the institution acts as a principal or as an intermediary.

Firms have noted that the decision also left open some ambiguities. First, Schulte Roth & Zabel writes that the Court leaves open possible arguments that any “customer” of a “financial institution” is also itself a “financial institution” under § 546(e). Second, Mayer Brown points out that the Court did not address whether the transaction at issue actually qualified as a transfer that is a “settlement payment” or made in connection with a “securities contract” under § 546(e). These ambiguities will draw the attention of defendants in future fraudulent transfer litigation.

Finally, Weil notes that the decision raises the question of how the preemption of state-law creditor remedies under § 546(e) will be applied in light of the Supreme Court’s now-narrow construction of the safe harbor.

By Jianjian Ye, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2018.

The roundtable has posted on FTI before. Some of those posts are: an analysis of the FTI oral argument, the Amici Curiae Brief of Bankruptcy Law Professors, an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e), and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016).