Supreme Court to Hear Arguments in Jevic on November 28

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The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp. on November 28. In this week’s posts, Bruce Grohsgal argues in favor of structured dismissals in his forthcoming article, and Melissa Jacoby and Jonathan Lipson, in an amicus brief signed by several law professors, argue that the Court should reject the structured dismissal in this case as a violation of absolute priority.

How Absolute is the Absolute Priority Rule in Bankruptcy? The Case for Structured Dismissals

By Bruce Grohsgal (Widener University School of Law)

A structured dismissal in a chapter 11 bankruptcy case is a court-approved settlement of certain claims by or against the debtor followed by the dismissal of the case. Courts have held that a bankruptcy court cannot approve a settlement unless it complies with the absolute priority rule, paying senior claims in full before any distribution to junior stakeholders.

The Supreme Court will consider structured dismissals this fall in In re Jevic Holding Corp. The question before the Court is: “Whether a bankruptcy court may authorize the distribution of settlement proceeds in a manner that violates the statutory priority scheme.”

The argument that a structured dismissal always must follow the absolute priority rule, even when a chapter 11 plan is not confirmable, overstates the current statutory reach of the rule. The rule reached its zenith by judicial launch in 1939 in Case v. Los Angeles Lumber, when the Supreme Court construed the statutory term “fair and equitable” to be synonymous with “absolute priority.” Congress has circumscribed the rule repeatedly since: in 1952 under the Bankruptcy Act, in 1978 with enactment of the Code, and in 1986 and 2005.

As a result of these enactments, the absolute priority rule is a special, limited rule that does not pervade the current Code. Indeed, the very reorganization plan—a consensual chapter 11 plan—that the Supreme Court held was not confirmable in Los Angeles Lumber would be confirmable under the current Code.

My article, forthcoming and available here, concludes that Congress has authorized the bankruptcy court to approve a structured dismissal in chapter 11 when it is in the best interest of creditors—such as when a plan is not confirmable—even if distributions do not follow the absolute priority rule. Accordingly, the Supreme Court should resolve the current circuit split by affirming Jevic.

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.

Supreme Court to Resolve Circuit Split Over Structured Dismissals

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By Douglas Mintz, Robert Loeb and Monica Perrigino of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe

The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp. to decide whether a bankruptcy court may authorize the distribution of settlement proceeds through a “structured dismissal” in a way that violates the statutory priority scheme in the Bankruptcy Code.  Specifically, the Court must decide whether Section 507 of the Bankruptcy Code, which details the order of payment of certain priority claims, must be followed outside of a plan when distributing proceeds pursuant to a structured settlement of a bankruptcy case.

The Supreme Court’s decision should resolve an important circuit split.  There is a strong textual argument to permit such distributions and structured dismissals, given the lack of provisions in the Bankruptcy Code dictating that priorities apply to settlements (as opposed to plans).  A ruling in favor of structured dismissals would serve to channel cases away from chapter 11 plans and toward consensual settlements, thereby reducing administrative costs and facilitating quicker bankruptcy resolutions.  However, this could also lead to settlements that run counter to the expected results under the absolute priority rule.  The Supreme Court’s decision may also indirectly permit “gifting” payments outside the scope of a plan – as courts have generally limited gifts in the plan context.

The full article is available here.

Priority Matters

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By Douglas G. Baird, University of Chicago Law School

Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code is organized around the absolute priority rule. This rule mandates the rank-ordering of claims. If one creditor has priority over another, this creditor must be paid in full before the junior creditor receives anything. Many have suggested various modifications to the absolute priority rule. The reasons vary and range from ensuring proper incentives to protecting nonadjusting creditors. The rule itself, however, remains the common starting place.

This paper uses relative priority, an entirely different priority system that flourished until the late 1930s, to show that using absolute priority even as a point of departure is suspect when firms are being reorganized. The essential difference between absolute and relative priority is the effect of bankruptcy on the exercise date of the call-option component of the junior investment instrument. Under absolute priority, the bankruptcy accelerates the exercise date; a regime of relative priority leaves it untouched.

Absolute priority is naturally suited for regimes in which the financially distressed firm is sold to the highest bidder. It is much less appropriate for a regime that puts a new capital structure in place without a market sale. In the absence of an actual sale, absolute priority requires some nonmarket valuation procedure. Such a valuation is costly and prone to error.

Chapter 11 attempts to minimize these costs by inducing the parties to bargain in the shadow of a judicial valuation, but rules are needed to police the strategic behavior that arises from the ability of parties to exploit information they have, but the judge does not.

Once one decides in favor of a reorganization rather than a market sale, the commitment to absolute priority is suspect. Instead of trying to find a bankruptcy mechanism that best vindicates the absolute priority rule, one is likely better off trying to identify the priority rule that minimizes the costs of bankruptcy itself. Asking which priority rule is most likely to lead to a successful plan at reasonable cost is a better point of departure than a debate over which priority rule provides the best set of ex ante incentives.

Looking at Chapter 11 from this perspective shows that much of the complexity and virtually all of the stress points of modern Chapter 11 arise from the uneasy fit between its priority regime (absolute instead of relative) and its procedure (negotiation in the shadow of a judicial valuation instead of a market sale). These forces are leading to the emergence of a hybrid system of priority that may be more efficient than one centered around absolute priority.

Read the full article here (forthcoming 165 U. Pa. L. Rev.).

Bankruptcy’s Quiet Revolution

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Douglas G. Baird, University of Chicago School of Law

 

Over the last few years, reorganization practice has undergone a massive change. A new device—the restructuring support agreement—has transformed Chapter 11 negotiations. This puts reorganization law at a crossroads. Chapter 11’s commitment to a nonmarket restructuring with a rigid priority system requires bankruptcy judges to police bargaining in bankruptcy, but the Bankruptcy Code gives relatively little explicit guidance about how they should do this policing.

In the past, the debtor initiated multiple rounds of negotiations in which everyone participated. Each party would push back against the claims of the other, and a consensus eventually emerged that left things roughly in equipoise. This has now changed. Instead of bargaining in which everyone participates, there is now a sequence of two-party bargains, beginning with the key players.

Changing the structure of negotiations in this fashion would not matter much if there were not much to bargain over. If bankruptcy’s substantive rules allowed for little variation in what each party received or if the debtor had an incentive to limit what each creditor group received, changing the rules would not change outcomes. But neither is the case, at least not any more.

Priority rights in bankruptcy are sufficiently uncertain that there are a broad range of confirmable plans in any case, each with radically different distributional consequences for the various creditor groups. And modern debtors are interested in a speedy and successful exit from Chapter 11. They are relatively indifferent to how rights in the firm are divided among competing creditors.

These changes have become manifest only in the last few years, and there is little wisdom about how the bankruptcy judge should respond. This essay suggests that long-established principles inform how bankruptcy judges should go about this task. In assessing whether a plan is “fair and equitable” and whether it has been filed in “good faith,” judges should focus not on how the plan apportions rights in the reorganized firm, but whether the process that has led to the plan ensures that everyone’s cards are on the table.

In particular, judges should ensure that restructuring support agreements do not interfere with the flow of information to the judge. Negotiations that lead to a confirmable plan should be problematic to the extent, but only to the extent, that they keep the judge in the dark and limit her ability to ensure that the plan complies with the terms of the Bankruptcy Code.

Click here to view the full article.

Bankruptcy Resolution and the Restoration of Priority of Claims

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Vedran Capkun, Associate Professor, Accounting and Management Control, HEC Paris

Lawrence Weiss, Professor of International Accounting, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

We present new evidence on the violation of priority of claims in bankruptcy and recovery rates for secured creditors, unsecured creditors, equity holders using a sample of firms that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy between 1993 and 2004. Our study reveals a number of new insights: First, we find a significant reduction in the violations of priority of claims compared to research on prior periods, with equity holders appearing to have lost their ability to extract concessions in violation to priority of claims. Second, the results are consistent with the hypothesis that unsecured creditors accept a violation to priority of their claims in order to obtain a faster resolution. Third, the results suggest that secured creditors are less likely, and unsecured creditors are more likely, to experience a violation to priority of their claims when secured creditors exercise increased control over the debtor (as proxied by debtor in possession financing). Finally, violations to secured creditors’ priority of claims are more likely when filings occur in Delaware and the Southern District of New York than elsewhere.

 

The full article is available here.

Breaking Bankruptcy Priority: How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain

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Editor’s Note:  Breaking Bankruptcy Priority: How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain, by Mark Roe and Fred Tung, was selected as one of the ten Best Corporate and Securities Articles of 2014. This “10-best” list reflects the choices of academic teachers in this area from more than 560 articles published last year. The article was the subject of a Bankruptcy Roundtable post on April 8, 2014 at its time of publication. It was the only bankruptcy-based article on the “10-best” list. That list can be found here.

By Mark Roe, Harvard Law School, and Frederick Tung, Boston University School of Law

Roe 124tungprofileIn “Breaking Bankruptcy Priority:  How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain,” recently published in the Virginia Law Review, we question the stability of bankruptcy’s priority structure. Bankruptcy scholarship has long conceptualized bankruptcy’s reallocation of value as a hypothetical bargain among creditors: creditors agree in advance that if the firm falters, value will be reallocated according to a fixed set of statutory and agreed-to contractual priorities.

In “Breaking Priority,” we propose an alternative view. No hypothetical bargain among creditors is ever fully fixed because creditors continually seek to alter the priority rules, pursuing categorical rule changes to jump ahead of competing creditors. These moves are often successful, so creditors must continually adjust to other creditors’ successful jumps. Because priority is always up for grabs, bankruptcy should be reconceptualized as an ongoing rent-seeking contest, fought in a three-ring arena of transactional innovation, doctrinal change, and legislative trumps.

We highlight a number of recent and historical priority jumps. We explain how priority jumping interacts with finance theory and how it should lead us to view bankruptcy as a dynamic process. Breaking priority, reestablishing it, and adapting to new priorities is part of the normal science of Chapter 11 reorganization, where bankruptcy lawyers and judges expend a large part of their time and energy. While a given jump’s end-state (when a new priority is firmly established) may sometimes be efficient, bankruptcy rent-seeking overall has significant pathologies and inefficiencies.

The paper is available here.

Breaking Bankruptcy Priority: How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain

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Post by Frederick Tung, Professor at Boston University School of Law

In “Breaking Bankruptcy Priority:  How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain,” recently published in the Virginia Law Review, Mark Roe and I question the stability of bankruptcy’s priority structure and suggest a new conceptualization of bankruptcy reorganization that challenges the long-standing creditors’ bargain view. Bankruptcy scholarship has long conceptualized bankruptcy’s reallocation of value as a hypothetical bargain among creditors: creditors agree in advance that if the firm falters, value will be reallocated according to a fixed set of statutory and agreed-to contractual priorities.

In “Breaking Priority,” we propose an alternative view. No hypothetical bargain is ever fully fixed because creditors continually attempt to alter the priority rules, pursuing categorical rule changes to jump ahead of competing creditors. These moves are often successful, so creditors must continually adjust to other creditors’ successful jumps. Because priority is always up for grabs, bankruptcy should be reconceptualized as an ongoing rent-seeking contest, fought in a three-ring arena of transactional innovation, doctrinal change, and legislative trumps.

We highlight a number of recent and historical priority jumps. We explain how priority jumping interacts with finance theory and how it should lead us to view bankruptcy as a dynamic process. Breaking priority, reestablishing it, and adapting to new priorities is part of the normal science of Chapter 11 reorganization, where bankruptcy lawyers and judges expend a large part of their time and energy. While a given jump’s end-state (when a new priority is firmly established) may sometimes be efficient, bankruptcy rent-seeking overall has significant pathologies and inefficiencies.

The paper is available here.

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