The Judge Behind the Curtain

By Melissa B. Jacoby (Graham Kenan Professor of Law – University of North Carolina School of Law)

Melissa Jacoby

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. 

The full article is available here.

Scarlet-Lettered Bankruptcy: A Public Benefit Proposal for Mass Tort Villains

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Samir D. Parikh

Financially distressed companies often seek refuge in federal bankruptcy court to auction valuable assets and pay creditor claims. Mass tort defendants – including Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Boy Scouts of America, and USA Gymnastics – introduce new complexities to customary chapter 11 dynamics. Many mass tort defendants engage in criminality that inflicts widescale harm. These debtors fuel public scorn and earn a scarlet letter that can ultimately destroy the value of an otherwise profitable business. Scarlet-lettered companies could file for bankruptcy and quickly sell their assets to fund victims’ settlement trusts. This Article argues, however, that this traditional resolution option would eviscerate victim recoveries. Harsh public scrutiny has diminished the value of the resources necessary to satisfy claims, creating a discount that must be borne by victims.

My public benefit proposal charts a new course. Instead of accepting fire sale prices and an underfunded settlement trust, the scarlet-lettered company emerges from bankruptcy as a corporation for the public benefit. This modified reorganization offers victims the greatest recovery. The continued operation preserves value during a transition period, after which the going concern can be sold efficiently. Further, assets that have been tainted by corporate criminality are cleansed behind a philanthropy shield and sold to capture the value rebound. The victims’ collective is the owner of the new company and can participate in a shareholder windfall if the reorganized company experiences strong post-bankruptcy performance.

At the forefront of a new trend in aggregate litigation, this Article proposes a public benefit alternative to traditional resolution mechanisms. This approach delivers utility that will support application in a variety of contexts, assuming certain governance safeguards are maintained. In our new age of greater personal and corporate accountability, more scarlet-lettered companies will emerge and ultimately land in bankruptcy. The need to address the disposition of tainted assets will be paramount in compensating mass tort victims trying to reassemble fractured pieces. This Article explains a new phenomenon and reconceptualizes resolution dynamics in a way that will have policy implications that transcend aggregate litigation.

The full article will be available at 117 Nw. U. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.

Bankruptcy Grifters

By Lindsey Simon (University of Georgia School 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

Lindsey Simon

Grifters take advantage of situations, latching on to others for benefits they do not deserve. Bankruptcy has many desirable benefits, especially for mass-tort defendants. Bankruptcy provides a centralized proceeding for resolving claims and a forum of last resort for many companies to aggregate and resolve mass-tort liability. For the debtor-defendant, this makes sense. A bankruptcy court’s tremendous power represents a well-considered balance between debtors who have a limited amount of money and many claimants seeking payment.

But courts have also allowed the Bankruptcy Code’s mechanisms to be used by solvent, nondebtor companies and individuals facing mass-litigation exposure. These “bankruptcy grifters” act as parasites, receiving many of the substantive and procedural benefits of a host bankruptcy, but incurring only a fraction of the associated burdens. In exchange for the protections of bankruptcy, a debtor incurs the reputational cost and substantial scrutiny mandated by the bankruptcy process. Bankruptcy grifters do not. This dynamic has become evident in a number of recent, high-profile bankruptcies filed in the wake of pending mass-tort litigation, such as the Purdue Pharma and USA Gymnastics cases.

This Article is the first to call attention to the growing prevalence of bankruptcy grifters in mass-tort cases. By charting the progression of nondebtor relief from asbestos and product-liability bankruptcies to cases arising out of the opioid epidemic and sex-abuse scandals, this Article explains how courts allowed piecemeal expansion to fundamentally change the scope of bankruptcy protections. This Article proposes specific procedural and substantive safeguards that would deter bankruptcy-grifter opportunism and increase transparency, thereby protecting victims as well as the bankruptcy process.

The full article is available here and is forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal.

Mass Exploitation

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School; Fulbright Schuman Scholar; Bloomberg Law; Fulbright Commission)

Samir D. Parikh

Modern mass tort defendants – including Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, USA Gymnastics, and Boy Scouts of America – have developed unprecedented techniques for resolving mass tort cases; innovation coupled with exploitation. Three weapons in this new arsenal are particularly noteworthy. Before a filing, divisive mergers allow corporate defendants to access bankruptcy on their terms. Once in bankruptcy, these mass restructuring debtors curate advantageous provisions in the Bankruptcy Code to craft their own ad hoc resolution mechanism implemented through plans of reorganization. This maneuver facilitates various questionable outcomes, including the third-party releases the Sackler family recently secured. Finally, in order to minimize its financial contribution to a victims’ settlement trust, a mass restructuring debtor can agree to convert its tainted business into a public benefit company after bankruptcy and devote future profits – no matter how speculative they may be – to victims.

The net effect of these legal innovations is difficult to assess because the intricacies are not fully understood. Debtors argue that these resolution devices provide accelerated and amplified distributions. And forum shopping has landed cases before accommodating jurists willing to tolerate unorthodoxy. The fear, however, is that mass tort victims are being exploited. The aggregation of these maneuvers may allow culpable parties to sequester funds outside of the bankruptcy court’s purview and then rely on statutory loopholes to suppress victim recoveries.  Mass restructuring debtors are also pursuing victim balkanization – an attempt to pit current victims against future victims in order to facilitate settlements that may actually create disparate treatment across victim classes.

This Essay is the first to identify and assess the new shadowed practices in mass restructuring cases, providing perspective on interdisciplinary dynamics that have eluded academics and policymakers. This is one of the most controversial legal issues in the country today, but there is scant scholarship exploring improvement of the flawed machinery. This Essay seeks to create a dialogue to explore whether a legislative or statutory response is necessary and what shape such a response could take.

The full article will be available at 170 U. Pa. L. Rev. Online ___ (forthcoming 2021) and can be accessed here.

The New Mass Torts Bargain

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Samir D. Parikh

Mass torts create a unique scale of harm and liabilities. Corporate tortfeasors are desperate to settle claims but condition settlement upon resolution of substantially all claims at a known price—commonly referred to as a global settlement. Without this, corporate tortfeasors are willing to continue with protracted and fragmented litigation across jurisdictions. Global settlements can be elusive in these cases. Mass torts are oftentimes characterized by non-homogenous victim groups that include both current victims and unknown, future victims—individuals whose harm has not yet manifested and may not do so for years. Despite this incongruence, the claims of these future victims must be aggregated as part of any global settlement. This is the tragedy of the mass tort anticommons: without unanimity, victim groups are unable to access settlement resources in a timely or meaningful way, but actual coordination across the group can be impossible.

Current resolution structures have proven ill-equipped to efficiently and equitably address the novel challenges posed by mass torts. Many cases cannot satisfy Rule 23’s requirements for class action certification. Multidistrict litigation is the most frequently invoked resolution structure, but the MDL process is distorted. The process was initially designed for one district court to streamline pretrial procedures before remanding cases for adjudication. Instead, MDL courts have turned into captive settlement negotiations. In response, a new strategy for resolving modern mass torts has emerged. Corporate tortfeasors—including Purdue Pharma, Boy Scouts of America, and USA Gymnastics—have started filing for bankruptcy. These mass restructurings automatically halt the affected MDL cases and transfer proceedings to a bankruptcy court—a process I describe as bankruptcy preemption. Unfortunately, bankruptcy preemption replaces one deficient structure with another. Mass restructuring debtors are exploiting statutory gaps in the bankruptcy code in order to bind victims through an unpredictable, ad hoc structure. The new bargain creates myriad risks, including insolvent settlement trusts and disparate treatment across victim classes.

This Article is the first to attempt a reconceptualization of how modern mass torts should be resolved and delivers an unprecedented normative construct focused on addressing anticommons dynamics through statutory amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. These changes, coupled with an evolved perspective on fundamental structural anomalies, are designed to improve predictability, efficiency, and victim recoveries. More broadly, this Article attempts to animate scholarly debate of this new, non-class aggregate litigation strategy that will reshape the field.

The full article is available here.

Purdue Examiner Letter

By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University Beasley School of Law), Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown Law Center), Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall University School of Law)

Jonathan C. Lipson
Jonathan C. Lipson
Adam J. Levitin
Stephen J. Lubben

Recently, we (along with colleagues at other law schools) asked that an examiner be appointed in the Purdue Pharma chapter 11 bankruptcy case, pending in the Southern District of New York. Although the Bankruptcy Court has not yet acted on that request (technically, it was in the form of a letter to the United States Trustee), it has generated controversy and media attention (e.g.WSJWaPoRachel Maddow), which will likely persist until there are credible answers to the questions that motivated our request:

  1. What was the role of the Sackler family (the owners of Purdue) in Purdue’s role in the opioid crisis? and
  2. To what extent did the Sacklers or other insiders strip assets out of Purdue in anticipation of bankruptcy?

Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code governs corporate reorganizations, such as Purdue Pharma’s, and provides that an examiner can be appointed if, among other things, it is in the interests of creditors and the debtor’s bankruptcy estate. Here, we argued that there is an overwhelming public interest which overlaps with the estate’s interest. This makes the need for an independent report on these two questions compelling.

As is well known, Purdue Pharma is at the center of the opioid crisis in America, having developed and marketed Oxycontin (among other drugs). This crisis has generated more than 2600 lawsuits against Purdue and the Sacklers, many brought by state and local governments that have had to bear the costs of drug addiction. The debtors and the Sacklers have proposed a settlement under which the Sacklers would cede the company to a “public trust” and make additional contributions, in exchange for releases. The settlement is alleged to be between $10 and $12 billion, with $3 billion of that coming from the Sacklers directly.  While some plaintiffs have agreed to the settlement, others have not, and are fighting the bankruptcy process.

Like many mass tort debtors—from Johns-Manville to PG&E—Purdue seeks to channel and control its liability through bankruptcy reorganization. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, of the Southern District of New York, has stayed the lawsuits, not just against Purdue, but also against the  Sacklers, even though they are not debtors in bankruptcy—in order to permit the debtors to negotiate a plan of reorganization that would embody the proposed settlement.

We argued that an independent examination would answer the two key questions more credibly and efficiently than other mechanisms in bankruptcy for three reasons.

First, unlike many mass-tort bankruptcies, these cases appear to shield non-debtors (the Sacklers) from discovery and potential liability, even though there are credible allegations that they may have actively contributed to the opioid crisis and/or stripped assets from the debtors. The important question is not whether the Sacklers are making a contribution to a bankruptcy plan in exchange for a release from future liability, but whether their contribution is appropriate in light of the answers to our two questions. It will be very difficult to assess that without an independent examiner’s report.

Second, because Purdue Pharma is privately held, it is hard to know what happened at the company before bankruptcy. The debtors have appointed a special committee of the board to look into the pre-bankruptcy transfers, but because the Sacklers apparently still control the debtors, it is hard to know how independent this committee was, or can be.  The committee is, for example, represented by the same counsel as Purdue Pharma, which may hamper the committee’s independence.  In any case, even where other high profile debtors, such as Enron, have used independent committees to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, courts have nevertheless appointed bankruptcy examiners to assess, verify, and supplement the work of those committees. It is hard to see why Purdue should be different.

Third, and perhaps most important, the opioid crisis is not like other mass torts because it has generated extraordinary public interest. Victims of the opioid crisis understandably want their day in court—which is something that bankruptcy tends to eliminate. While thousands of lawsuits would be wasteful, failing to take seriously the dignitary interests of victims of the opioid crisis could threaten the legitimacy and integrity of the bankruptcy system.  At the same time, if an independent examiner exonerates the Sacklers, this may help provide the redemption that they presumably want.

Although the United States Trustee has not yet sought an examiner, there have been three interesting developments since we sent the letter:

  1. On November 6, 2019 Marshall Huebner, counsel to the debtor in possession, emailed us to say that “the Debtors (likely along with other core stakeholders) intend to strongly oppose the request, which, with apologies to its authors, contains many misstatements of fact.”  However, Huebner identified no “misstatements of fact” (much less “many”).
  2. On November 15, 2019, ten days after we sent the letter, the debtors filed a stipulation with counsel to the creditors committee and certain members of the Sackler family. The debtors and the Sacklers agreed to produce certain information to the committee (on a “professional eyes’ only basis”) that may respond to certain of the questions we asked, but in exchange the committee relinquished its right to seek an examiner until mid-April 2020.  It is not clear how estate fiduciaries can properly cede such rights.
  3. On December 16, 2019, the debtors filed a redacted version of the “independent” report noted above.  It indicates that the Sacklers took about $10 billion in cash out of the debtors since 2008.  This is not surprising, since the total value of the proposed settlement would have a face amount of about $10 billion (but a substantially lower present value given its payment schedule, and would not cover interest on the $10 billion).

The takeaway seems to be that, even though no examiner has been appointed, the Sacklers and the debtors in possession have begun to produce some information that may help to answer the questions we believe are central to this case.  In this regard, the mere threat of an examiner might be having an effect.  However, the ability to assess and verify this information is limited, at least for the time being.

That no one has actually requested an examiner is, at one level, not surprising.  It is easy to imagine that managing this case is exceedingly difficult.  The insiders in the case—especially counsel to the debtors and the official committee, and Judge Drain—may view an examiner as a wrench in the delicate machinery of the proposed settlement.  Parties might therefore prefer to maintain the threat of an examiner, even as they are reluctant to pull the trigger on a motion.

The Purdue bankruptcy is, however, bigger than the financial claims of any of Purdue’s creditors.  Purdue is a not a case that can be run like a standard chapter 11 because there is a strong public interest in establishing a clear and independent record of what Purdue and the Sacklers knew and did about the dangers of opioids, and the extent of the Sacklers’ transactions with Purdue. Establishing these facts credibly is important not just for the dignitary interests of opioid victims and their families, but also so that creditors can properly evaluate any settlement that emerges as part of the reorganization process.

Without credible answers to the questions we asked, there will be a shadow over these cases, one that may ultimately threaten the integrity of the reorganization process.

The full letter is available here.