“A Bitter Result”: Purdue Pharma, a Sackler Bankruptcy Filing, and Improving Monetary and Nonmonetary Recoveries in Mass Tort Bankruptcies

By William Organek (Harvard Law School)

William Organek

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 to resolve thousands of opioid-related lawsuits.  Two years after filing, a reorganization plan was confirmed: in exchange for a financial contribution of several billion dollars by the Sackler family and relinquishment of their ownership in Purdue, the family would be released from all civil liability associated with their ownership and control of Purdue.  Individual claimants, state attorneys general, the United States Trustee, the Department of Justice, Congress, academics, and others criticized the settlement as an abuse of the bankruptcy system.  These parties contended that granting this immunity over their objections–known as a third-party release–was an unfair remedy.  They stated that such a plan would reduce creditors’ financial recoveries and make it more difficult to achieve their goals of learning about Purdue’s role in the opioid crisis and preventing future corporate malfeasance.  Instead, if the Sacklers were to receive immunity, critics suggested that the Sacklers should be required to file for bankruptcy.  A Sackler bankruptcy filing, they claimed, would increase creditor recoveries and ensure that creditors’ nonmonetary goals would be met.

This Article argues that these criticisms rely on a deeply problematic assumption: on closer inspection, it is not at all clear that a Sackler bankruptcy filing would result in better monetary or nonmonetary outcomes for creditors, and could actually detract from these goals.

From a monetary perspective, demands for a Sackler bankruptcy filing overlook the factual complexity that this would entail, and the corresponding weaknesses in remedies available to creditors under bankruptcy law.  The Sacklers engaged in sophisticated asset protection strategies that limited creditors’ financial recoveries by spreading ownership and control of Purdue, as well as their other holdings, across dozens of domestic and international spendthrift trusts to benefit scores of family members.  Demands for a Sackler bankruptcy filing ignore collections issues, the illiquidity of their holdings, the discounts that might be applied to recoveries of minority interests, and the limitations on creditors’ fraudulent transfer remedies.  To overcome these problems and maximize financial recoveries, the parties agreed to a “de facto substantive consolidation”: a consensual dissolution of the legal barriers separating the assets of individual members of the Sackler family, their trusts, and Purdue.  This ad hoc solution, while effective, depended on Sackler acquiescence.

Achieving creditors’ nonmonetary goals, such as broader disclosure, restrictions on the opioid businesses of Purdue and the Sacklers, and limitations on Sackler charitable donations, would probably have been made more difficult by a Sackler bankruptcy filing.  A bankruptcy filing likely would have pitted family members against one another, making disclosure or other consensual resolutions more difficult.  Courts also have limited ability to force debtors to divest assets or refrain from participating in business or charitable endeavors.  Instead, the Sacklers agreed to these undertakings because it was clear from the commencement of the case that the availability of a third-party release was contingent upon their cooperation.  Only by being able to offer what the Sacklers wanted–civil immunity–could creditors and the court cajole the Sacklers into agreement.

This Article demonstrates the institutional limits faced by the bankruptcy system in addressing certain kinds of monetary harms and nonmonetary objectives.  It ends by proposing reforms to fraudulent transfer law that would close the international spendthrift trust loophole that was so critical to the strategy pursued by the Sacklers to limit creditors’ monetary recoveries.  It also argues that the price of achieving creditors’ nonmonetary goals can be reduced in future mass tort bankruptcy cases by mandating expanded disclosure by parties seeking third-party releases, more consistent appointment of trustees to manage the debtor in mass tort bankruptcies, and appointment of examiners to uncover information about the causes of a mass tort.

The full article is available here.  Comments to the author are welcomed: worganek [at] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

Reorganization of Corporate Groups in Brazil: Substantive Consolidation and the Limited Liability Tale

By Sheila C. Neder Cerezetti (Professor of Law, University of São Paulo Law School)

Sheila C. Neder Cerezetti

As argued by prominent Brazilian scholars, some of the most relevant attributes of the corporate form – limited liability and asset partitioning – might be considered just a tale in Brazil, as they have been consistently and subsequently weakened by a variety of reasons.

In light of this and of the large number of corporate reorganization cases involving groups of companies, which gave way to a series of unsubstantiated applications of substantive consolidation, the article raises the debate on the correct use of the mechanism in the country.

I question whether the lenient approach to substantive consolidation by Brazilian courts (i) is a natural consequence of the weakening of limited liability and asset partitioning, and (ii) represents a better way to recognize the Brazilian corporate reality, bringing more truth to reorganizations.

In the attempt to answer these questions, the article introduces the basic aspects of corporate reorganization in Brazil, offering a comprehensive overview of the Brazilian Bankruptcy Act (Law No. 11,101/2005). The description addresses the broad use of procedural and substantive consolidation even if, at the time, the Brazilian Bankruptcy Act lacked provisions for proceedings with multiple debtors. It shows that the permissive approach first directed to procedural consolidation slowly unraveled into a silent acceptance of substantive consolidation.

Next, the article explores some of the uses of substantive consolidation in the USA (where the mechanism started and gained traction) and in the UNCITRAL Legislative Guide on Insolvency Law (an important indicator of what might be adopted in other jurisdiction in the future), with a brief reference to the status of the matter in the European Union. In these cases, a set of prerequisites have been established to determine when the exceptional measure of the mechanism is appropriate.

In contrast, I call a misuse the often-unsubstantiated acceptance of substantive consolidation in Brazil, that fails to note its exceptionally. In the vast majority of cases, substantive consolidation actually happened in proceedings where none of the parties and not even the court expressly addressed the issue and implicitly just treated a single plan as something normal, although it mixed assets and liabilities of different debtors. And in those cases where the matter has been expressly addressed, the criteria for ordering the consolidation (i) varied greatly, to the point that it could not be rationalized in the form of a test, and (ii) failed to treat the remedy as an exceptional tool.

In light of the mentioned “tale of limited liability in Brazil”, one could wonder if such a misuse of substantive consolidation is in fact inappropriate. However, I argue that this tale is not so severe as to justify the lenient approach described, in view of the rules on corporate groups as well as of the fact that strictly commercial and civil relationships are, for the most part, protected from the exceptions to limited liability.

The article contends that there still is a compelling case for a stricter use of substantive consolidation, considering, among other reasons, that accepting the lenient criteria for ordering substantive consolidation would mean further weakening the attributes of the corporate form. It concludes by pointing to other tools in bankruptcy law that can better deal with the exceptions to the limitation of liability, and argues that substantive consolidation should remain a remedy for abuses of the corporate form that turn it dysfunctional.

Finally, it should be noted that a recently approved bill included provisions on procedural and substantive consolidation in the Brazilian Bankruptcy Law, ratifying the lenient approach described in the article. The article also serves as an explanatory description of the pathways that led the Brazilian legal system to such a discipline and as a warning about the perils of following this route.

The full article is available here.

Non-Debtor Substantive Consolidation: Do Recent Cases Signal a Judicial Preference for State Law Claims?

By Charles W. Azano (Mintz Levin).

Jurisprudence varies on whether bankruptcy courts have the power to consolidate a bankruptcy debtor with a non-debtor. Even those courts that have permitted consolidation have done so with trepidation, calling the remedy “extreme” or “extraordinary,” and that the power is to be used “cautiously” or “sparingly.”

Two courts recently addressed whether it is possible for a non-debtor to be consolidated into the bankruptcy of an affiliated debtor, or whether such attempts are dead-on-arrival. First, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors v. Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis (In re Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis), held that because Section 303(a) of the Bankruptcy Code protected non-profit entities from involuntary bankruptcy filings, non-profit non-debtors could not be substantively consolidated into a debtor’s bankruptcy. Second, the United States Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of Illinois, in Audette v. Jasemir (In re Concepts Am., Inc.), went even further and held that substantive consolidation of a non-debtor was barred under all circumstances in the Seventh Circuit. While both cases determined that the remedy of substantive consolidation was not available, they also each suggested that state law alter ego or piercing claims may provide the creditor an alternative remedy. This may just be a coincidence, or it may be a trend. In either event, it is fair to ask if there is a growing judicial preference for state law claims when a non-debtor is involved.

The full article is available here.

Inequality and Equity in Bankruptcy Reorganization

Richard M. Hynes and Steven D. Walt (University of Virginia School of Law).

Courts have developed a series of controversial doctrines that allow a debtor to depart from bankruptcy’s standard priority rules.  In a recent decision, the Supreme Court signaled tolerance of one type of departure, the critical vendor payment, as long as it occurs early in the case and is what an economist would call a strict Pareto improvement: a payment that makes all creditors better off.  This essay demonstrates that Pareto improvements appear in the stated tests governing other departures, including roll-ups and substantive consolidations.  Some scholars, and a few courts, would apply much more permissive tests similar to economists’ Kaldor-Hicks standard and allow deviations as long as the winners gain more than the losers lose.  Still other courts would do away with these doctrines entirely and allow departures only with the consent of the disfavored.  Defending the judicial use of the Pareto standard in reorganizations, the essay further discusses some of the normative considerations in the choice between a Pareto standard, a Kaldor-Hicks standard, and an absolute prohibition.

The full article can be found here.