Badges of Opportunism: Principles for Policing Restructuring Support Agreements

By Edward J. Janger (Brooklyn Law School) and Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown University Law Center)

Edward J. Janger
Adam J. Levitin

Business reorganizations are corporate control transactions. When a debtor is insolvent or nearly so, control is in play along two different axes. The first axis allocates control within the existing capital structure. The filing of bankruptcy effectuates a change of control from equity to debt. On the second axis, the company itself is on the auction block, meaning that its assets, or even the entire firm, may be transferred to a new owner. Outside investors may wish to buy the company, and the choice among offers implicates serious governance concerns. This article considers the dynamics of control through the lens of restructuring support agreements (“RSAs”)—contractual agreements among creditors, and sometimes the debtor, to support restructuring plans that have certain agreed-upon characteristics. We conclude that RSAs offer a salutary bridge between the efficiencies of a quick “all asset” sale and the procedural protections of a plan of reorganization. However, they also pose a potential avenue for opportunistic abuse. Specifically, we are concerned with provisions in an RSA that hold value maximization hostage to a reordered priority scheme. Thus, we argue that courts should scrutinize RSAs carefully, and prohibit those that lock in opportunistic value reallocation.

Opportunistic behavior can arise on all sides of restructuring negotiations. Insolvency creates opportunities for creditors (and the debtor) to use transactional leverage to influence the allocation of scarce assets: secured creditors may foreclose; banks may engage in setoff; key suppliers may threaten to stop supplying; landlords can threaten to evict; unsecured creditors may get judgments and start grabbing assets; and purchasers may seek to take advantage of a depressed valuation to purchase the company on the cheap. To the extent that the debtor has value as a going concern, individual creditors may have the power to extort value by threatening to force liquidation. Alternatively, fully secured creditors may prefer a quick realization on their collateral, because they do not benefit from increasing the value of the firm.

The Bankruptcy Code seeks to limit these uses of situational leverage in a number of ways: (1) it stays unilateral creditor action (the automatic stay); (2) it allows for the unwinding of certain prepetition transfers (avoidance); (3) it sets a baseline distribution if the firm liquidates, but promises more if the firm can restructure (best interests/adequate protection); (4) it creates a structured bargaining process that ensures adequate information and reduces the ability of a creditor to holdout in the face of a reorganization plan that is supported by key creditor constituencies (supermajority acceptance); and (5) it sets an entitlement baseline if the firm reorganizes (cramdown). Bargaining in bankruptcy is informed by these procedural requirements and substantive entitlements. If a deal is not reached, liquidation follows.

Recently, in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., the Supreme Court raised concerns about procedural innovations that might be used to create “end-runs” around the plan process and these procedural protections. In this regard, RSAs can be a useful tool for aiding compliance with the plan process. However, they are also sometimes also referred to as “lockup” agreements. Once an RSA is proposed and supported by key constituencies, the costs of opposing the contemplated plan may be prohibitive for most creditors. The proposal may operate as a fait accompli. If the RSA freight train is being used to stop creditors from developing information or identifying bases for objection, the device becomes problematic.

The difficulty is distinguishing beneficial RSAs from harmful ones. In our view, a fundamental norm of chapter 11 should govern RSAs, all-asset sales, and a range of other transactions: the common interest in value maximization may not be held hostage by a creditor seeking to improve its own priority. The essay begins by describing the practice surrounding restructuring support agreements and identifies some of the anecdotal concerns raised. We then catalogue the good and bad in RSAs. Next, we illustrate how to distinguish the good from the bad by focusing on bargaining in the shadow of entitlements. Finally, we flesh out the concept of an end-run around the plan process in the context of an RSA and identify “badges of opportunism” that should raise an inference that the practice is being abused.

The full article can be found here.

Reports of Equity’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

posted in: Cramdown and Priority | 0

By Adam J. Levitin, Georgetown University Law Center

Mark Berman is veryLevitin Headshot kind to take notice of my article in his recent analysis of Law v. Siegel, posted on the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable, here.  We agree on a great deal about the case and scope of equity practice.  A question persists about the scope of Law v. Siegel, though, and what it is proscribing when it reiterates the view that “whatever equitable powers remain in the bankruptcy courts must and can only be exercised within the confines of the Bankruptcy Code.”  The question, then, is which non-Code practices are properly characterized as “equity”.  My own view is that very little of modern bankruptcy practice is in fact “equity.”

Law v. Siegel, for example, should not affect such important non-Code practices as judicial interpretation of Bankruptcy Code statutory terms or judicially-created doctrines like substantial consolidation, which are sometimes mistakenly listed among the bankruptcy court’s “equitable powers”.  As I wrote earlier, though, because such practices are interstitial and formed as broad principles, they are, in my view, better understood as part of a federal common law of bankruptcy, and distinguished from equitable powers, which are based on case-by-case specifics, as in Law v. Siegel.  As interstitial powers, these lie outside any widening or narrowing of bankruptcy court’s equitable powers.

Moreover, the uncertainties about when actual equitable practices contradict statutes will continue.  In cases of clear contradiction, the interpretive result will be easy. But cases where it is unclear whether a conflict truly exists will continue to invite negotiation between and among the parties because of the cost and uncertainty of litigation.  Despite the Supreme Court’s best efforts, consideration of the equities will likely remain a part of our bankruptcy system.

For a fuller treatment of this subject, please continue here.

‘Wither’ the Equity Powers of the Bankruptcy Court

posted in: Cramdown and Priority | 0

Author: Mark N. Berman, Nixon Peabody LLP

The United StaMark Bermantes Supreme Court’s Law v. Siegel decision has been explained away as an understandable limitation of a bankruptcy court’s use of Bankruptcy Code Section 105(a)’s expansive authority based on conventional techniques of statutory construction. Bankruptcy courts will not be able to use Section 105(a) to authorize an order that is otherwise prohibited by another section of the Bankruptcy Code.  However, it is also possible to read the decision as yet another stop on the road to limiting the ability of the bankruptcy courts to ‘do equity.’

Revisiting Professor Levitin’s 2006 law review article entitled Toward a Federal Common Law of Bankruptcy: Judicial Lawmaking in a Statutory Regime, 80 Am. Bankr. L.J. 1-87 (2006), I posit that the equity jurisdiction of the bankruptcy courts has already been statutorily restricted and the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that everyone should be prepared for further limitation of what has historically been its power. The Supreme Court’s warning is repeated in this latest decision.

The full alert is available here.

[Editor: The full text of Professor Adam Levitin’s noted article, Toward a Federal Common Law of Bankruptcy: Judicial Lawmaking in a Statutory Regime, can be found here.]