My Creditor’s Keeper: Escalation of Commitment and Custodial Fiduciary Duties in the Vicinity of Insolvency

By Amir Licht (Professor, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel)

Amir Licht

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.

Fiduciary Duties in Bankruptcy and Insolvency

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

Although discussed nowhere in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, fiduciary duties play a central role in guiding the administration of an insolvent debtor’s assets. Regulatory oversight of trustees is only loosely circumscribed by statute, but significant lacunae exist regarding specification of the duties of loyalty.  In assessing what fiduciary obligations are owed to secured creditors, unsecured creditors, and debtors, some courts build upon the general principle that the trustee’s fiduciary duty of loyalty flows to all creditors. Other courts, though, work from the premise that secured creditors are better situated to look after themselves and that a trustee’s primary obligation is to unsecured creditors, perhaps especially non-priority general creditors. The Supreme Court has also weighed in, stating that a DIP’s fiduciary duties run directly (if somewhat delphically) to “the corporation.” How then does a trustee choose between beneficiaries of the estate, and what remedies are there for losing parties disappointed with this allegiance decision?  This book chapter explores the fiduciary obligations of trustees (including DIPs) under both statute and common law. There is a special focus on the intrinsic conflicts that arise within the “menagerie of heterogeneous creditors” that constitute the claimants of a bankruptcy estate.  A single normative theory seems unlikely to explain the results (so much for the “residual fiduciary beneficiary”!).  What does seem clear is that trustees are “more fiduciary” for some constituencies than for others.  Fortunately, U.S. bankruptcy courts are accustomed to shifting allegiances and disalignments of interest. Thus, the bankruptcy system may be well-suited to handle the endemic conflicts of interest between corporate constituencies through various bankruptcy-specific mechanisms, such as the institution of the Creditors Committee and the norm of engaged judicial oversight.

The full article is available here.