Jevic: SCOTUS Holds That Priority Rules Apply in Structured Dismissals

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By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University-Beasley School of Law) and Melissa B. Jacoby (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill School of Law)

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., in which we coauthored a brief for amici curiae law professors in support of Petitioners, truck drivers whom Jevic terminated shortly before it filed for bankruptcy. Holding about $8.3 million in priority wage claims, these workers objected to a settlement that Jevic’s shareholders and senior lenders reached with the creditors’ committee. The settlement denied the workers their priority payment, dismissed the bankruptcy, and foreclosed the workers’ rights to challenge under state law the leveraged buyout that led to the bankruptcy. The Third Circuit concluded that such a settlement was permissible in “rare” circumstances. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that structured dismissals must comply with priority rules absent consent of the affected parties.

Justice Breyer’s majority opinion is notable for at least two reasons. First, it recognizes what was ultimately at stake: the integrity and efficiency of the chapter 11 process. The consequences of failing to reverse, the Court explains, “are potentially serious,” and include “risks of collusion,” “making settlement more difficult to achieve,” and eroding procedural protections that “Congress granted particular classes of creditors,” such as unpaid workers. The Court found no basis in bankruptcy law to allow for exceptions to priority rules in “rare” cases, and seemed to doubt that Jevic was such a case in any event.

Second, consider what Justice Breyer’s decision does not do. It does not, contrary to some reports, prohibit all structured dismissals: “We express no view about the legality of structured dismissals in general,” Justice Breyer noted. The decision also distinguishes the impermissible final distribution in Jevic from interim distributions, such as critical vendor orders, which might deviate from bankruptcy’s priority rules temporarily, but serve other fundamental objectives. By contrast, the Court in Jevic could not find “any significant offsetting bankruptcy-related justification.” The opinion also avoided related issues, such as the propriety of “gift plans” or third-party releases. It shows, however, that Justice Breyer may be the best Justice for the job, if or when the Court chooses to tackle those questions.

The Court’s opinion is available here, and our brief is available here.


The Roundtable posted opposing views on Jevic leading up to oral argument in the case see. See Melissa Jacoby & Jonathan Lipson on their amicus brief and Bruce Grohsgal making the case for structured dismissals. For other Roundtable posts related to priority, see Casey & Morrison, “Beyond Options”; Baird, “Priority Matters”; and Roe & Tung, “Breaking Bankruptcy Priority,” an article that was referenced in the Jevic opinion.

Brief for Amici Curiae Law Professors in Support of Petitioners, In re Jevic

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By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University Beasley School of Law) and Melissa B. Jacoby (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill School of Law)

Fair treatment of creditors is one of the first lessons of a law school bankruptcy course. Congress created detailed and deliberate rules governing the payment of creditors to resolve a bankruptcy case. When a creditor has a priority claim under the Bankruptcy Code, it must be paid in full before any more junior creditors receive anything at all. This principle is one of the elements of bankruptcy that also fosters predictability.

On the facts of Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., to be heard this term by the United States Supreme Court, the Bankruptcy Code’s priority structure entitled workers, whose jobs had been abruptly terminated, to an estimated $8.3 million. Instead, they received nothing. An agreement and dismissal order (known collectively as a “structured dismissal”) resolving litigation over a leveraged buyout that contributed to the company’s demise skipped the workers and provided payment to junior creditors because the LBO defendants so insisted. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit approved this arrangement.

Our amicus brief illustrates that nothing in the Bankruptcy Code permits this kind of priority-skipping settlement in the absence of creditor consent. By blessing this arrangement, the Third Circuit majority opinion undercut the Bankruptcy Code’s priority rules and longstanding norms. Although the majority suggested it was limiting this result to rare cases, that majority decision contained neither a workable standard for determining what makes Jevic itself rare, nor guidance on what should trigger deviations in future cases—or how far such deviations may go. Left standing, the holding erodes the predictability and fairness of bankruptcy law and produces perverse incentives: powerful parties regularly will seek to write their own distribution rules through structured dismissal orders or other means.

The full amicus brief may be found here.

Bankruptcy Sales

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By Melissa B. Jacoby (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill) and Edward J. Janger (Brooklyn Law School)

Bankruptcy courts have become fora for the sale of entire firms as going concerns, as well as for the liquidation of assets piecemeal. This book chapter teases out the advantages and disadvantages of conducting such sales under federal bankruptcy law as compared to state law. We first describe the forms that bankruptcy sales can take, and the contexts in which they occur. Next, we explore the concept of “bankruptcy created value,” identifying the ways in which the federal bankruptcy process can create value over and above what can be realized through compulsory state processes. We then identify several procedural and governance-based concerns about all-asset sales. We suggest that our recent proposal, the Ice Cube Bond, might address concerns about sales of substantially all assets by withholding a portion of the sale proceeds. To recover the withheld funds, claimants would have to establish that the sale did not harm the bankruptcy estate and that they would be legally entitled to the funds under the normal bankruptcy priority rules or pursuant to an agreement reached after the sale. To conclude, we explore the related issues of credit bidding and the permissible scope of sale orders that declare assets to be “free and clear” of various kinds of claims and property interests.

The full chapter may be found here.

This draft chapter has been accepted for publication by Edward Elgar Publishing in the forthcoming Corporate Bankruptcy Handbook, edited by Barry Adler, due to be published in 2017.