By Melissa B. Jacoby (Graham Kenan Professor of Law – University of North Carolina School of Law)
After a district court halted OxyContin maker and hawker Purdue Pharma’s exit from bankruptcy by finding its restructuring plan unlawful in late 2021, the yellow brick road of this high-profile case forked in two. One path is traditional: more appellate process. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed to review Purdue’s restructuring plan on a fast track and oral argument is expected to be scheduled for late April 2022. The second path reflects a popular development in the federal judiciary: the presiding bankruptcy judge appointed another sitting judge as a mediator to oversee negotiations between representatives of the Sackler family and states whose appeal had prevailed in the district court. According to the judicial mediator’s most recent report, the Sackler family has offered more money to resolve the dispute; many, though not all, of the objecting states are on board to settle. Expectations that a deal can be brokered run high.
Purdue Pharma is not the only big restructuring in which a judicial mediator has been tasked with managing a high-stakes matter. As another recent example, six judges from different federal courts served as mediators in the Puerto Rico bankruptcy for almost five years: from June 23, 2017 through January 22, 2022.
The use of sitting judges for this behind-the-scenes work is the topic of my forthcoming article. Why are judges mediating other judges’ cases, particularly when Congress encouraged use of private neutrals for alternative dispute resolution? Are traditional judicial accountability measures effective when judicial mediators work with parties and lawyers in a process that lacks a citable record? Finding that the standard accountability measures are an awkward fit for judicial mediation, the article calls on the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal judiciary, to take steps to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of these practices. Whatever your own experiences have been with bankruptcy-related mediations, I hope you find this project useful.
By Kenneth Ayotte (University of California – Berkeley School of Law) and Christina Scullly (University of California – Berkeley School of Law)
The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon describes a complex system as one “made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way.” The modern large Chapter 11 fits this definition quite well. Debt contracts with overlapping provisions lie within capital structures with multiple classes of claims, layered across numerous legal entities. Distressed restructuring transactions give rise to complex litigation over entitlements to the firm’s value. Bankruptcy case governance strategies are driven by intercreditor and restructuring support agreements that are constantly evolving.
Traditional law and economics theory of bankruptcy has little to say about this complexity, except to assume that rational, forward-looking “sophisticated parties” have anticipated it and managed it optimally. Taken to its logical conclusions, this perspective leaves no useful role for bankruptcy law. After all, if some feature of the Bankruptcy Code were useful, sophisticated parties would find a way to put it in their contracts. Mandatory features, even bedrock ones like the automatic stay, become no more than harmful interferences with contractual freedom.
Simplified models that assume omnisciently rational actors are useful tools in corporate finance: they isolate the forces that drive capital structure decisions and generate testable empirical predictions. But as normative models of bankruptcy law design, they are fundamentally flawed. We provide two case studies, one involving a complex contract (J. Crew), and another involving a complex capital structure (Nine West). Taken together, they suggest that it is time for law and economics scholars to take the uncomfortable but necessary step to acknowledge bounded rationality. Bankruptcy law must function not just for the optimal contracts a theorist derives, but also for the “good enough” contracts parties actually write, and the unpredictable interactions these imperfect contracts can generate.
Our first case study recounts the narrative behind the J. Crew restructuring, the most well-known of many “liability management transactions” that have become part of the distressed borrower’s playbook. The J. Crew case illustrates how a complex loan agreement with numerous interacting terms gives rise to loopholes that sophisticated parties can exploit. We describe the two-step transaction by which J. Crew combined multiple provisions in a term loan agreement to transfer the lenders’ collateral to an unrestricted subsidiary to refinance other debt. Though one particular “trap door” provision received the most public attention, our study reveals that other contractual weaknesses, such as the administrative agent’s low-powered incentives as a lender representative, also enabled the collateral transfer.
The growing importance of liability management strategies suggests that the true effect of greater sophistication is not optimal debt contracts, but instead, a magnification of their inevitable flaws. To understand these trends, we first need a model of contracting where such weaknesses can exist. Acknowledging bounded rationality in contracting is a necessary first step toward an agenda that understands the imperfect ways complex contracts evolve. This agenda can help scholars gain an understanding what drives contractual change, why loopholes form and close, and the costs and benefits of contractual complexity.
A second case study, Nine West, illustrates a “butterfly effect” of complex capital structures: small changes can have large and unanticipated effects when a bankruptcy occurs. Sycamore Capital Partners acquired Nine West and related fashion brands in a leveraged buyout in 2014. It reorganized its corporate structure in the process, leaving most of the debt with Nine West and spinning out other brands to itself, free of debt. An eleventh-hour decision to add more debt to the deal, and to make this debt senior through subsidiary guarantees, gave rise to a dizzyingly complex array of entitlement disputes between parent and subsidiary creditors about the uncertain ownership of assets and responsibility for debts across the entities in the Nine West corporate group. These disputes contributed to the exorbitant professional fees incurred in the bankruptcy case that consumed over 20% of the company’s enterprise value.
Insights from the study of complex systems can more realistically inform our models of bankruptcy law design. For example, an important feature of complex systems design is robustness: the system must be able to function effectively under suboptimal conditions. Features like the automatic stay and judicial oversight play a valuable role in preventing imperfections and gaps from propagating. Because interactions across contracts are most likely to lead to unanticipated effects, a perspective based in bounded rationality is also consistent with bankruptcy’s special role as a tool for addressing multiple creditor problems. Overall, we believe there is significant insight to be gained from the recognition that even sophisticated parties are imperfect.
By Lynn M. LoPucki (Security Pacific Bank Distinguished Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law)
The bankruptcy courts that compete for big cases frequently ignore the Bankruptcy Code and Rules. This Article documents that lawlessness through a detailed examination of the court file in Belk, Inc.—a one-day Chapter 11—and a series of empirical studies.
Chapter 11’s lawlessness reached a new extreme in Belk. Belk filed in Houston on the evening of February 23, 2021. The court confirmed the plan at ten o’clock the next morning, and the parties consummated the plan that same afternoon. Almost none of Chapter 11’s procedural requirements were met. The court did not give creditors notice of the disclosure statement or plan confirmation hearings until after those hearings were held. Belk filed no list of creditors’ names and addresses, no schedules, no statement of financial affairs, and no monthly operating reports. No creditors’ committee was appointed, no meeting of creditors was held, and none of the professionals filed fee applications. The ad hoc groups that negotiated the plan failed to file Rule 2019 disclosures. Because no schedules were filed, no proofs of claim were deemed filed. Only eighteen of Belk’s ninety-thousand creditors filed proofs of claim, and Belk apparently just made distributions to whomever Belk considered worthy.
The procedural failures in Belk are just the tip of the iceberg. The competing courts are ignoring impermissible retention bonuses, refusing to appoint mandatory examiners, failing to monitor venue or transfer cases, granting every request to reject collective bargaining agreements, and providing debtors with critical-vendor slush funds. The article is available here.
By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings)
Over the past twenty years, a robust secondary market has emerged in the debt of Chapter 11 firms. Critics worry that the trading associated with this market has undermined bankruptcy governance, by forcing managers to negotiate with shifting groups of activist investors in the Chapter 11 bargaining process. In my new Article, “Bankruptcy Claims Trading” I perform the first empirical study of trading in the financial claims of Chapter 11 debtors to learn more about how claims trading impacts the average Chapter 11 case. Using the entire record of trading in bond debt for all Chapter 11 debtors that filed for bankruptcy between 2002 and 2012, I find that nearly all Chapter 11 bonds trade very heavily throughout the bankruptcy process. However, I find that claims trading appears to be less important for bankruptcy governance than many critics fear. The activist groups that tend to participate in negotiations usually enter cases early and rarely change significantly. This suggests that bankruptcy claims trading is, on average, much more about passive investment and much less about activist entrance and exit.