By Sergio J. Campos (University of Miami School of Law) and Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)
Mass tort defendants have recently begun exiting multi-district litigation (MDL) by filing for bankruptcy. This new strategy ushers defendants into a far more hospitable forum that offers accelerated resolution of all state and federal claims held by both current and future victims.
Bankruptcy’s resolution promise is alluring, but the process relies on a very large assumption: future claimants can be compelled to relinquish property rights – their cause of action against the corporate defendant – without consent or notice. Bankruptcy builds an entire resolution structure on the premise that the Bankruptcy Code’s untested interest representation scheme satisfies Due Process strictures. This Article questions that assumption, and identifies two compromised pillars. Primarily, the process for selecting the fiduciary that represents future victims’ interests (FCR) is broken. Further, the process by which courts estimate the value of thousands of mass tort claims places too much pressure on a jurist unfamiliar with personal injury claims. These compromised pillars raise the risk that the settlement trust will be underfunded and fail prematurely. In this outcome, future victims would have no recourse but to argue that the process did not satisfy Due Process, and the settlement should be unwound.
This Article proposes that the risk of a prematurely insolvent victims’ trust can be reduced considerably by making two adjustments. Our proposal seeks to (i) rebuild the FCR construct in order to ensure that future victims’ interests are effectively represented, and (ii) recalibrate the claim estimation process by facilitating coordination between the bankruptcy court and nonbankruptcy trial courts.
The full article is forthcoming in the Fordham Law Review and is available here.
By Ronald Silverman, John Beck and Katherine Lynn (Hogan Lovells)
The Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Ultra Resources, Inc., in which it relied on and affirmed its prior 2004 decision — In re Mirant — and held that bankruptcy courts have the authority — at least in many common contexts — to reject filed-rate contracts without the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The court reasoned that rejection of such contracts only has an indirect effect on the filed-rate and is not a collateral attack, and therefore can be done without FERC’s approval.
Further, the Fifth Circuit held that rejection of a filed-rate contract does not violate 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(6) of the Bankruptcy Code because rejection does not change the rate itself, it merely ceases payment of the rate. Thus, the decision further empowers debtors to reject filed-rate contracts in bankruptcy cases, so long as rejection does not amount to a rate change.
However, the court did identify an exception to the general rule. The opinion statesthat if a debtor seeks to reject a filed-rate contract, but still needs the capacity and seeks to secure a lower rate through rejection, such rejection would be impermissible without FERC’s approval, although that was not the situation in Ultra. Left for future cases will be the determination of what particular circumstances will require FERC’s permission to reject a filed-rate contract.
It has been recognized that corporations themselves are designed to promote collective action, and thus “a primary function of corporate law is to coordinate and constrain individual behavior – even profit-motivated behavior.” Given that corporate debt instruments largely serve a governance function amongst creditors, it is not surprising that they, like corporations themselves, tend to quash individual action in favor of the group. But the divergence between individual and group interests comes to the fore in times of stress.
An individual creditor can be either an oppressed minority investor or a holdout. Majority holders can be either the group seeking an efficient and beneficial restructuring, or effectively an insider group that collaborates with more formal insiders to extract value from minority creditors. Which reality is genuine is highly dependent on the particular facts of the case at hand, and may be quite difficult for an outsider to discern.
Restructuring law attempts to balance this uncertainty by providing a series of checks and balances. In general, restructuring law begins with a preference for the collective, but encircles the collective with a series of rules that protect individual creditors from abuse.
Some of the balance comes from the agreements that create the creditor relationship or duties related to those agreements; however, other aspects of balance are external and come from outside structures like the Bankruptcy Code or the Trust Indenture Act. In general, the basic challenge here is to find the point at which the illegitimate power of holdouts is reduced without trampling on the legitimate rights of minority creditors. It is very easy to avoid holdouts if the majority always wins.
My paper explores the ways in which modern restructuring practice has moved toward that “majority always wins” extreme. This change was not part of some grand plan, but rather the result of a series of incremental decisions, each reacting to perceived abuses by holdouts. But in indulging our fears of holdouts, we have lost the essential balance of the system.
Take the example of the RSA – or restructuring support agreement – that, in a variety of ways, can represent a generalized assault on the requirement in section 1123(a)(4) that a chapter 11 plan must “provide the same treatment for each claim or interest of a particular class.” RSAs achieve this end by providing for backstop fees paid to a select group that will never have to backstop anything or DIP loans that the debtor does not really need.
In one recent case, pre-bankruptcy the debtor contracted with a sub-group of its secured noteholders to have those noteholders make an interest payment on the notes. That is, some of the secured noteholders paid the interest payment due to all the secured noteholders.
In exchange, these distinctive noteholders received new “super-priority secured notes” secured by a lien that surpassed the old secured notes’ liens, while also carrying a hefty 10% coupon. When the debtor filed for chapter 11 later that same year, to implement its own RSA-driven plan, the new super-priority notes were paid in full, with interest and “make whole call” fees. In short, the select lenders made a small, six-month loan for a very high return at low risk. This opportunity was not available to everyone in the original class of noteholders.
In short, I conclude that the modern American restructuring system has evolved to favor the interests of the majority to the point where a debtor and a majority of its lenders can inflict serious harm on minority creditors. At some point, this reality is bound to have consequences for both the debt markets and the utility of chapter 11.
Johnson & Johnson’s use of the Texas Two-Step to manage its talc liabilities has put the company, and the Two-Step, front and center in the roiling debates over aggressive uses of the bankruptcy system. Those debates have led to scholarly criticism, congressional hearings, and proposed legislation that would curtail debtors’ ability to so use the bankruptcy courts.
My Essay details the mechanics of the Two-Step. Beginning with the Texas divisive merger, the funding agreement, and forum shopping for the Fourth Circuit, the Essay fleshes out precisely how the Two-Step boxes in tort claimants. Like other scholarship, this Essay identifies the risk that such maneuvering effects a fraudulent transfer. It also goes a step further, arguing that the point of the Two-Step is not to succeed, but to delay. Fraudulent-transfer litigation in a bankruptcy consumes time because it requires an adversary proceeding, and that delay pressures tort claimants to settle. So the Two-Step can succeed as long as claimants cannot wait out the course of the bankruptcy, even if a court never declares the particular Two-Step to be a proper use of divisive merger law rather than an improper fraudulent transfer.
Instead of playing into this delay game, this Essay argues, courts should evaluate the Texas Two-Step for good faith. Tort claimants can raise such challenges as a motion to dismiss (as some have) and thus avoid the need for a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding. And under current doctrine, the Two-Step likely qualifies as a bad-faith filing: In most cases, the Two-Step is a litigation tactic. And the Two-Step, invariably, is filed by an entity created solely to file for bankruptcy. Both of those are doctrinal hallmarks of bad-faith bankruptcies.
More broadly, the Essay explains, the Two-Step and good-faith challenges to it underscore the continuing role of common law in bankruptcy. The Code does not define good-faith filing, so courts have developed the doctrine case by case. They may yet find an acceptable form of Two-Step, one which yields tort claimants the rights they would receive in, say, a Johnson & Johnson bankruptcy, without hurting Johnson & Johnson’s ability to do business by forcing the whole company into bankruptcy. Along the way, though, a vigilant common-law gatekeeping is warranted, and judges should not hesitate to dismiss Two-Steps thinking that a later ruling on a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding can adequately safeguard tort claimants from an improper use of the bankruptcy system.
The full essay will be available at 121 Mich. L. Rev. Online __ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.
By Niklas Hüther (Indiana University) and Kristoph Kleiner (Indiana University)
”The bankruptcy system is supposed to work for everyone, but in many cases it works only for the powerful.” – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, July 28th, 2021
Researchers have long recognized that judicial outcomes are subject to the biases of the ruling judge. To alleviate concerns of fairness, courts in both the U.S. and abroad claim to assign judges to individual court cases randomly. From a policy perspective, randomization promotes public confidence in the judicial process by limiting forum shopping and the individual influence of any individual judge. From an academic perspective, recent empirical research in economics and finance exploits the random assignment of judges to causally identify of a wide range of legal outcomes.
This paper revisits the claim of randomized judicial assignment in the context of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Our research is motivated by legal scholarship arguing that debtors in recent cases are influencing judicial assignments (Levitin, 2021), as well as renewed interest in these issues from policy makers and the public (Merle and Bernstein, 2019; Randles 2020). Despite these arguments, there are reasons to believe assignment is random. For instance, after contacting all U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Iverson et al. (2017) found that only one court (the Eastern District of Wisconsin) reports assigning cases to judges non-randomly. In addition, a range of research including Bernstein et al. (2019)provides convincing evidence that debtor characteristics fail to predict judicial assignments. Missing from this literature is any large-scale empirical evidence of non-random assignment.
Analyzing U.S. corporate bankruptcy filings between 2010 and 2020, we provide new evidence that assignment is not random, but predicted by the lending decisions of hedge funds. By focusing on investments made before the assignment of a bankruptcy judge, our technique is not suspect to standard critiques that predictability is merely an outcome of ex-post data mining; instead, in order for investors to systemically invest in firms that are later assigned a preferred judge, it must be possible to infer future judicial assignments. In addition, we focus on hedge funds, as they routinely influence a wide range of bankruptcy outcomes including emergence and debt restructurings. The prevalence of these investors allows us to explore a new channel of activism in the distress debt market: activist influence in judicial assignment process prior to filing.
In our setting, judges can decide whether to convert a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to a Chapter 7 liquidation; while secured creditors may have a preference for liquidation, unsecured creditors recover more under reorganization. Exploiting this distinction, we confirm unsecured hedge fund creditors (relative to secured hedge funds) are significantly less likely to be assigned a judge with a tendency to convert Chapter 11 cases. We also extend our analysis to an alternate bankruptcy outcome measure: the unsecured creditor recovery rate according to the confirmed plan. We find unsecured hedge funds are far more likely to be assigned a judge with a high past unsecured recovery rate.
We next test whether these estimates differ across the filings in our sample. First, we find that unsecured hedge fund claimants are assigned a preferable judge more commonly when the hedge fund invested shortly before the bankruptcy filing, suggesting hedge funds choose to invest explicitly to influence the filing. Second, we show the effects are greatest when the hedge fund is on the board of directors of the debtor at the time of filing, providing further support for the role of communication between debtor and creditor.
Finally, we conduct three robustness tests. First, we find no evidence that a judge’s future conversion rate (after controlling for the past conversion rate) is predicted by hedge fund investment, suggesting hedge funds are explicitly influencing judicial assignment based on information regarding past information. Second, focusing on the subset of districts that explicitly state random assignment within their district, we continue to find hedge fund investments predict assignment. Third, we include district-office-year fixed effects in our analysis and continue to find a relationship between hedge fund investments and assignment.
Moving forward, we believe there are two potential policies that can alleviate these issues. The first, and simplest, is for policy makers to develop a truly randomized process. Alternatively, policy makers can instead increase the number of bankruptcy judges, leading to lower predictability even if assignment is not fully randomized. Policy makers intent on a fairer judicial system should consider both proposals.
By Ron E. Meisler, Carl T. Tullson, Jennifer Madden, Justin Larsen (Skadden)
A number of recent bankruptcy court rulings have addressed the enforceability of “make-whole” premiums, payments that may be implicated in some loan agreements when debt is prepaid, or in certain cases, otherwise accelerated prior to its stated maturity. Make-whole litigation may turn on subtle distinctions of contractual language and is a zero-sum game where the outcome can be very costly to the borrower and substantially reduce recoveries to other stakeholders. Consequently, when debtors and creditors disagree on whether a make-whole has been triggered, they frequently assert complex and nuanced legal arguments.
In this article, we examine two recent make-whole cases from the Delaware bankruptcy courts: In re Mallinckrodt and In re Hertz. Mallinckrodt addressed whether a debtor’s plan of reorganization could deny payment of a make-whole, reinstate the underlying debt, and treat those claims as unimpaired. In comparison, Hertz considered whether creditors had claims for make-wholes under the specific language of the governing debt documents in the context of a plan that provided for payment of the principal and accrued interest in full, in cash, and therefore deemed those debt claims as unimpaired.
These cases reinforce the importance of carefully drafting make-whole provisions and the important distinction between chapter 11 plan of reorganization treatment, the effect of which could directly impact whether or not such creditors would be entitled to make-whole payments. Moreover, these cases emphasize that the law regarding make-wholes is not settled, and creditors and debtors alike should continue to monitor the evolving case law.
By Ronit J. Berkovich (Weil Gotshal & Manges) and Eric Einhorn (Weil Gotshal & Manges)
In a recent decision, In re Highland Cap. Mgmt., L.P.,1 the Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of Texas held that a debtor’s rejection of an executory contract with an arbitration clause precludes the court from compelling the debtor to arbitrate—notwithstanding the strong federal policy supporting enforcement of arbitration clauses, even in bankruptcy. Although rejection of a contract constitutes a breach and may give rise to a claim for monetary damages, the Court found that specific performance of an arbitration clause was not an appropriate remedy post-rejection. Highland provides an example of how bankruptcy courts may disregard contractual provisions—including an agreement to specifically perform—where they may irreconcilably conflict with the policy of the Bankruptcy Code.
On July 9, 2021, Southern District of New York Judge J. Paul Oetken held that §503(c) of the Bankruptcy Code prohibits board-appointed officers from receiving payments under a key employee retention plan (KERP) “absent a particularly strong showing that they do not perform a significant role in management,” as such officers are “insiders” within the definition of §101(31)(B)(ii). In re LSC Communications, Inc., 631 B.R. 818 (S.D.N.Y. 2021). This was the case even though the Bankruptcy Court found that the employees in question were officers “in title only.” Id. at 820. Judge Oetken’s ruling affects six employees who received KERP payments under the reorganization plan of LSC Communications, Inc. (“LSC”), which filed for Chapter 11 relief in April 2020.
In its initial order, the Bankruptcy Court approved payments under the KERP for all 190 covered employees. U.S. Trustee William K. Harrington appealed the decision to the District Court, claiming that, as LSC was incorporated in Delaware, the court should apply Delaware state law, which provides that any person appointed by a corporation’s board of directors is an officer. In response, LSC countered that the employees could not be considered insiders because they lacked any significant decision-making authority.
Judge Oetken wrote that case law regarding who constitutes an “officer” is “less than clear,” noting that the Bankruptcy Code does not define the term or provide any insight regarding its meaning. Id. at 824. Although Judge Oetken rejected the Trustee’s argument that state law exclusively applies when determining whether an employee is an officer under the Bankruptcy Code, he concluded that the Bankruptcy Court erred by looking beyond the fact that the six employees were appointed by LSC’s board. Even if a court chooses to undertake a more expansive analysis, he wrote, the fact that the six employees were appointed by the board and would be deemed officers under Delaware corporate law should “weigh heavily in concluding that the employees are officers for Bankruptcy Code purposes.” Id. at 826. In supporting his position, Judge Oetken claimed that giving more weight to objective criterion like appointment by the board provides greater clarity to the parties than the kind of “functional, non-exhaustive test” used by the Bankruptcy Court, although he noted that this kind of test may still be appropriate in some cases. Id. at 825.
This case, and its somewhat unusual holding, seems to present a scenario that has become exceedingly rare. In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report finding that debtors regularly avoid restrictions in the Bankruptcy Code by paying bonuses before or after filing for bankruptcy or by designating bonuses during bankruptcy as “incentive” payments. The report stated that fewer than 1% of debtors requested court approval to pay employee bonuses during 2020 and, when debtors did seek court approval, the courts approved “nearly all” of those requests. Maria Chutchian wrote in a recent Reuters article that creditors rarely challenge such bonus payments in court, noting debtors will often arrange private deals with creditors before filing for bankruptcy. In the same article, she discusses the Mallinckrodt restructuring, in which the pharmaceutical company’s creditors chose to challenge bonus payments to executives facing accusations of misconduct related to the opioid epidemic. The judge allowed the payments, stating that “mere allegations” of misconduct did not suffice to render them inappropriate.
Finally, Jared Elias concluded in an article published in 2019 that, although fewer companies have used court-approved bonus plans in the years since the Bankruptcy Code’s bonus provisions were reformed in 2005, the overall level of executive compensation has remained the same. This lends support to the GAO’s analysis and the anecdotes collected by Reuters that KERPs are rarely used because parties have ample opportunity to achieve the same end while avoiding the scrutiny of §503(c). He argues that bankruptcy and district court judges are poorly equipped to police payments made before or after a debtor files for bankruptcy, and that the U.S. Trustee’s office and creditors struggle to do so due to information asymmetries and limited resources.
Given the above, it appears that Judge Oetken’s decision this past summer may ultimately prove to be an anomaly. In most cases, these bonus payments simply will not become a part of the bankruptcy plan. Debtors can avoid scrutiny by making payments before or after filing for bankruptcy. If they decide they must make the payments during bankruptcy, they can reduce the scrutiny they will incur by recharacterizing them as incentive payments, thereby avoiding the heightened restrictions that apply to KERPs. And, even if they decide to include the payments in their restructuring plan, it seems unlikely that creditors will challenge the payments—particularly if counsel has chosen to arrange a deal behind the scenes to avoid a dispute in court.
By Michael J. Cohen, Michael A. Rosenthal & Matthew J. Williams (Gibson Dunn)
The recent decision in In re Purdue Pharma did not uphold the third-party releases in the bankruptcy court’s approved plan. This post discuss the third-party releases issue.
— Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Editors
On July 28, 2021, certain Democratic members of Congress, primarily in response to the $4.325 billion contribution made by the Sackler family to fund the settlement underpinning Purdue Pharma’s chapter 11 plan, introduced the Nondebtor Release Prohibition Act of 2021 (the “NRPA”), which proposes to amend the Bankruptcy Code to (i) prohibit the use of non-consensual third party releases in chapter 11 plans, (ii) limit so-called “Section 105” injunctions to stay lawsuits against third parties to a period no greater than 90 days after the commencement of a bankruptcy case, and (iii) provide a ground for dismissing a bankruptcy case commenced by a debtor that was formed within 10 years prior to such case via a divisional merger that separated material assets from liabilities.
When viewed against the backdrop of current complex chapter 11 practice, the NRPA is a flawed remedy for issues for which alternative means of redress already exist. First, the proposed elimination of the important bankruptcy tools of non-consensual third party releases and Section 105 injunctions – each of which is extraordinary in nature and only permitted in the rarest of circumstances – is a blunt force measure that threatens to vitiate the longstanding bankruptcy policy of favoring settlements over interminable value-destructive litigation. Second, the loss of these tools may cause inequitable disruption in currently pending cases and stymie the implementation of critical creditor-supported strategies to resolve the most difficult cases going forward. Moreover, a per se prohibition against non-debtor releases would contravene core bankruptcy principles by elevating the interests of a minority of creditors who would otherwise be bound to the terms of a chapter 11 plan containing such a release that is supported by the requisite majorities required under the Bankruptcy Code. Third, while the disincentive against divisional mergers would affect a far more limited set of cases, it appears that the harm raised by some divisional mergers that are followed by bankruptcy may be adequately addressed through clarifying the applicability of fraudulent transfer law to challenge these transactions.
On November 3, 2021, the House Judiciary Committee sent the NRPA to the House floor for further consideration; the Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to act on the bill. For more detail on the NRPA and our analysis of the bill, please find the full article here.
By Ralph Brubaker (James H.M. Sprayregen Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law)
The recent decision in In re Purdue Pharma did not uphold the third-party releases in the bankruptcy court’s approved plan. This post discuss the third-party releases issue.
— Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Editors
This response to Professor Lindsey Simon’s Bankruptcy Grifters article challenges the controversial practice at the epicenter of the bankruptcy grifter phenomenon that Simon critiques: so-called nonconsensual nondebtor (or third-party) “releases” and “channeling” injunctions that discharge the mass tort obligations of solvent nondebtor entities who have not themselves filed bankruptcy. These nondebtor releases are an illegitimate and unconstitutional exercise of substantive lawmaking powers by the federal courts that contravenes the separation-of-powers limitations embedded in both the Bankruptcy Clause and Erie’s constitutional holding. The federal courts have manufactured out of whole cloth the unique, extraordinary power to impose mandatory non-opt-out settlement of a nondebtor’s mass tort liability on unconsenting tort victims through the bankruptcy proceedings of a codefendant. The bankruptcy “necessity” that supposedly justifies this astounding and unique settlement power—to mandate nonconsensual non-opt-out “settlements” that are otherwise impermissible and unconstitutional—is (at best) naive credulity or (at worst) specious sophistry.
Nonconsensual nondebtor releases are not “necessary” for the bankruptcy process to facilitate efficient aggregate settlements of the mass tort liability of both bankruptcy debtors and nondebtor codefendants. The bankruptcy jurisdiction, removal, and venue provisions of the Judicial Code already contain the essential architecture for mandatory, universal consolidation of tort victims’ claims against both bankruptcy debtors and nondebtor codefendants. Bankruptcy can be an extremely powerful aggregation process that facilitates efficient (and fair) settlements of the mass tort liability of nondebtors, even (and especially) without nonconsensual nondebtor releases, particularly if the Supreme Court elucidates the full expanse of federal bankruptcy jurisdiction. Nondebtor releases are an illicit and unconstitutional means of forcing mandatory settlement of unconsenting tort victims’ claims against solvent nondebtors, and the Supreme Court should finally resolve the longstanding circuit split over the permissibility of nonconsensual nondebtor releases by categorically renouncing them.
The full article is available here and is forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal Forum.