Mandatory Aggregation of Mass Tort Litigation in Bankruptcy

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

Ralph Brubaker

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.

Non-Article III Adjudication: Bankruptcy and Nonbankruptcy, With and Without Litigant Consent

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law)

This article explores the diverse and intriguing implications of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Wellness International Network, Ltd. v. Sharif, both from an “internal” bankruptcy perspective and as a very important and revealing component of the Court’s still-evolving general jurisprudence of non-Article III adjudications.

In that larger jurisprudence, the contrast between Wellness and the Stern v. Marshall decision prominently highlights a seemingly schizophrenic admixture of formal (Stern) and functional (Wellness) analytical methods. This article maintains, however, that what Stern and Wellness reveal and confirm is a coherent and consistent jurisprudence of non-Article III adjudications with a bifurcated analytical methodology that is a logical corollary of (and that facilitates a complex interaction between) the dual interests protected by Article III, § 1 — both nonwaivable structural separation-of-powers values and the waivable personal right of individual litigants to an Article III adjudication.

In the bankruptcy context, Wellness provides further evidence that the Supreme Court is, over a long run of decisions, simply confirming the constitutional significance of its extensive summary-plenary jurisprudence (taken from established English bankruptcy practice prevailing at the time of the Founding) as the operative constitutional boundary for the adjudicatory powers of non-Article III bankruptcy judges. This article uses the Wellness litigation to demonstrate how that summary-plenary jurisprudence can directly inform the core-noncore distinction drawn by the current jurisdictional statute (which codifies constitutional constraints). The Court’s existing and extensive summary-plenary jurisprudence provides a highly developed analytical framework for resolving even the most nuanced and difficult core-noncore determinations.

The full article is available here.