Note: The Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable is pleased to resume regular weekly posts for the academic year.
By Douglas G. Baird (University of Chicago Law School)
Negotiations are the lifeblood of Chapter 11, and a large part of the bankruptcy judge’s job is to police them. Bankruptcy judges are not dispensers of Solomonic wisdom. They are referees who ensure a level playing field. They insist that the parties follow the rules, but they do not enforce rules for their own sake nor do they allow their oversight to interfere with the flow of play. Their job is to give parties a chance to work together on equal terms to find a path forward.
Notwithstanding the centrality of negotiations, little of the written law says much about how bankruptcy judges should oversee them. The few explicit statutory mandates are pitched at a high level of abstraction. They require little more than that judges ensure that bargains be proposed in “good faith” and meet certain substantive conditions to be considered “fair and equitable,” without defining how the bargaining process could meet these standards. Precedent is similarly unhelpful. One can exhaust virtually all the guidance the Supreme Court has offered over the last century and a half in a few sentences: The judge cannot be a “silent registrar of agreements.” Nor can the judge approve deals that “alter the balance” of substantive rights set out in the statute. At the same time, the judge should not come to the aid of a creditor who declines a “fair offer.” Lower courts are similarly silent. Among the many hundreds of volumes of reported opinions, few provide much guidance.
Much less is up in the air than it first seems, however. The judge is bound by a coherent set of unwritten principles that derive from the Statute of 13 Elizabeth and fraudulent conveyance law as it was received in this country in the late eighteenth century. Over the course of the nineteenth century, judges drew on this uncodified power to craft an approach to policing negotiations between creditors and a financially distressed debtor. The legal reforms of the 1930s and the 1970s drew again on these same principles. This unwritten law remains central to modern reorganization practice.
The Unwritten Law of Corporate Reorganizations traces this long arc of reorganization law in the United States. It uncovers a history rich with interesting characters, including Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, corporate law giant Paul Cravath, and SEC chairman and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. Their stories illuminate the way bankruptcy judges have long used a set of unwritten rules, derived from fraudulent conveyance principles, to oversee the reorganization process.
By Matthew A. Bruckner (Howard University School of Law)
The number and importance of fintech companies, such as Venmo, CashApp, SoFi, Square, PayPal, and Plaid, continue to rise. As they’ve expanded, some fintech companies have considered it useful to pursue bank charters. For example, Figure, Varo and SoFi have all received at least preliminary approval for a traditional national bank charter.
However, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (the OCC) has decided to offer a more limited form of bank charter—a special purpose national bank charter. And it’s been offering these so-called fintech charters to entities that are, at best, bank-like.
Other regulators, such as the New York State Department of Financial Services and the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, have been none too happy about this development. Both have repeatedly sued the OCC, claiming that the charter oversteps the OCC’s authority. That litigation has centered on whether these fintech companies are sufficiently bank-like to obtain an OCC charter. So far, the OCC has successfully fended off litigation because of plaintiff’s lack of standing, but further substantive litigation seems exceedingly likely.
In a new article, I explore the question of whether the OCC’s decision to grant bank charters to fintech companies makes them banks for bankruptcy purposes. The question matters because banks are ineligible for bankruptcy relief. This Article considers the legal and policy arguments that are likely to be presented to bankruptcy judges about whether special purpose national banks are banks within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Code. I conclude that bankruptcy judges are likely to disregard the OCC’s interpretation and conclude that special purpose national banks are not banks for bankruptcy purposes.
As non-banks, special purpose national banks are bankruptcy-eligible. This raises a host of issues that I address in this Article. These include that, in some cases, a special purpose national bank will be able to rush to bankruptcy court to take advantage of the automatic stay if the OCC tries to revoke its charter. Also, the bankruptcy process may supersede the OCC’s newly-created (and never yet used) special purpose national bank liquidation proceedings.
These and other issues are explored in more detail in the Article, which can be found here.
Note: This is the Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable’s last scheduled post for the summer of 2022. The BRT intends to resume posting around mid-September. The BRT wishes all its readers an enjoyable remainder of the summer!
By Adam C. Harris, Douglas S. Mintz, Abbey Walsh, and Kelly (Bucky) Knight (Schulte Roth & Zabel)
Earlier this year, a District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia vacated a Bankruptcy Court order confirming a plan that provided non-consensual third-party releases to certain of the debtor’s prepetition executives. This reversal followed on the heels of the Southern District of New York’s reversal of the Purdue Pharma plan, also on account of the inclusion of non-consensual third-party releases. As discussed in this article, these decisions may presage a growing willingness by Courts to curb the granting of these releases. The authors also provide practical considerations and takeaways from the decision for debtors, creditors and other estate constituents that are noteworthy.
TheU.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia vacated the confirmation order in the Mahwah Bergen Retail Group, Inc. (f/k/a Ascena Retail Group, Inc.) Chapter 11 cases on the grounds that the plan containedimpermissible non-consensual third-party releases.While the Court did not find that non-consensual third-party releases are prohibited per se, it imposed stringent limitations on their availability and on the Bankruptcy Court’s ability to grant such releases if the scope of the release extends to non-bankruptcy claims. The Court attributed its ruling, in part, to the fact that the “ubiquity of third-party releases in theRichmond Division demands even greater scrutiny of the propriety of suchreleases.” The decision holds that third-party releases should be granted only “cautiously and infrequently” and sets up an onerous process for their consideration and approval, which may make many third-party releases practically unavailable, particularly if a plan seeks to release non-core claims.
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.
By Mark Roe and William Organek (Harvard Law School)
Note: This is the seventh in a series of posts on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), here (by Jared A. Ellias), here (by Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey), here (by David Skeel), and here (by Ralph Brubaker).
Considerable attention is now being paid to the Texas Two-Step in bankruptcy. The Two-Step anticipates the movement of assets and liabilities from one corporate entity to another, via a divisive merger that splits the assets and liabilities of the original entity. After the movement of the assets and liabilities, the liabilities sit in one entity (often a subsidiary of a larger enterprise). Meanwhile, the liabilities are separated from many of the assets (in the most controversial form of the Two-Steps), which sit in another entity. The entity with the bulk of the liabilities then files for bankruptcy. The Two-Step is central to the Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) bankruptcy of a subsidiary, aiming to separate the talc liabilities from J&J’s extensive assets.
When assets are transferred from a firm that is thereby rendered insolvent, or when the assets are transferred with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud creditors, the transferred assets can, of course, be recovered by the transferring firm as a fraudulent transfer. Bankr. Code § 548. Similar transactions are regularly accomplished under corporate structures as spinoffs: the firm moves assets into a subsidiary, for example, and then “spins” off the subsidiary’s stock to the firm’s stockholders. After the spinoff the old stockholders own two companies, one with the assets (and possibly some of the liabilities of the just-created subsidiary) and the other with the liabilities (and any remaining assets) of the original company.
The Texas divisive merger statute creates a fraudulent transfer conundrum, because it says movements of assets pursuant to a divisive merger are not transfers. If there’s no transfer, there’s no fraudulent transfer liability, as there must first be a transfer for there to be liability.
If the bankruptcy process were ousted of power to control fraudulent transfers, then the debtor firm would have more freedom to move assets and liabilities in ways that would allow the firm to escape liability. No judge would get to the meaty issues (e.g., was the transferring firm insolvent? were the transfers done with intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors? is the bankrupt firm with the bulk of the liabilities an alter ego or successor of the original firm?) because there’d never have been a triggering transfer.
The Texas statute itself is clear on its face that there’s no transfer under Texas law:
When a merger takes effect . . . all rights, title and interests to all . . . property owned by each . . . party to the merger is allocated . . . as provided in the plan of merger without . . . any transfer or assignment having occurred . . .
Commentatorshavenoted that a Two-Stepping debtor might make such an argument. While it has not yet been explicitly raised in the LTL bankruptcy, the commentators anticipated correctly that such an argument was coming. In another pending Texas Two-Step bankruptcy, In re DBMP, the debtor made this argument at length. In an oral ruling1 delivered a little more than a week ago, on July 7, Judge Craig Whitley agreed with the key plain meaning premises of the Two-Step argument but ultimately rejected it as facilitating “wholesale fraud.”
The court began by accepting the debtor’s interpretation that, under a plain meaning reading of the Texas statute, no transfer occurred; and under a plain meaning reading of section 548 of the Bankruptcy Code, a transfer is a necessary predicate for a fraudulent transfer to have occurred. Hence, a plain meaning construction of section 548 and the Texas statute means no fraudulent transfer exposure.
Judge Whitley saw where such a plain meaning reading led, but refused to go there, rejecting the debtor’s conclusion. Going down the plain meaning route would, he said, lead to absurd results, leaving plaintiffs with “no recourse whatsoever.” And such a reading would contradict another provision of the Texas statute, which states that a divisive merger is not meant to “abridge any . . . rights of any creditor under existing law,” Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 10.901. Finally, Judge Whitley went deep: such a plain language reading of the Texas statute would run contrary to longstanding general principles of Anglo-American fraudulent transfer law.
Judge Whitley’s conclusion was in our view correct. But the conclusion can be reached more directly—by a plain meaning reading of the Bankruptcy Code.
The bankruptcy courts have already been instructed by Congress not to pay attention to the Texas statute, even when the state statute declares that an asset disposition in a divisive merger is not a transfer. True, considerable policy issues (e.g., supremacy of federal law, the extent to which state property and contract law is incorporated into the bankruptcy process) could well be brought to bear if the Bankruptcy Code were unclear here. But the most straightforward way to answer the question raised in DBMP comes from a parsimonious textual analysis of the Code.
Here’s the Bankruptcy Code’s two-step ouster of the Texas Two-Step:
The text of the fraudulent transfer statute, section 548, begins: “The trustee may avoid any transfer . . . of an interest of the debtor in property . . . ” (emphasis added). If we stop there, a basis might be had for examining state law for whether a transfer cognizable under the Bankruptcy Code has taken place. Property is, after all, transferred under state law.
But the Code does not say that state law governs whether a movement of property is a bankruptcy transfer. The Code itself defines the term “transfer” and does so independently of state laws’ appellations, leading to Step 2 of the ouster.
Section 101(54) defines what a “transfer” is for bankruptcy purposes, such as section 548 (governing fraudulent transfers). It states: “The term ‘transfer’ means . . . each mode, direct or indirect, absolute or conditional, voluntary or involuntary, of disposing of or parting with (i) property; or (ii) an interest in property.”
The Code thereby instructs bankruptcy courts to conclude that a transfer has occurred for each “mode . . . of disposing of . . . property . . . .” A divisive merger under Texas law is surely a “mode . . . of disposing of . . . property. . . .” As a result, for bankruptcy purposes a Texas two-step is a transfer, whatever the Texas authorities decide to call it. And, therefore, the Texas Two-Step should have no import in bankruptcy for determining whether there’s been a transfer for bankruptcy purposes. Property has been disposed of. Thus, for Code purposes there is a “transfer.” The first statutory predicate to considering whether there has been a fraudulent transfer has been satisfied and the court could then go on to the other, meaty fraudulent transfer issues. The Texas Two-Step is a transfer because the Bankruptcy Code says it is.
While we reach an identical conclusion to that of Judge Whitley, and we do not fault his reasoning from the bench, our analytic path is better in the long run for bankruptcy decisionmaking. The court’s reliance upon the best way to interpret the potential contradictions of the Texas Business Organizations Code is a precarious foundation for the ruling. One could imagine another bankruptcy court, faced with the Texas statute’s contradictions (“it’s not a transfer” vs. “it’s not in derogation of any other right”), interpreting and concluding differently.2Another judge might not consider such a result as absurd as Judge Whitley and we do. And yet another bankruptcy court could feel compelled to certify questions to the Texas Supreme Court on how to interpret the Texas divisive merger statute and its impact.
The new mass tort bankruptcies present major issues of policy and statutory construction for which answers will not be assured and apparent. But the question of whether there is a transfer for bankruptcy purposes is clear. A divisive merger is a disposition of property and, hence, the Code says it’s a transfer, thereby triggering the opening prerequisite to there being a fraudulent transfer.
The Code says so. Plainly.
1: A recording of the hearing is embedded in the linked PDF, which PDF may need to be downloaded in order to access the recording; the relevant portion of the hearing begins around 20:15 in the recording.
2: See Curtis W. Huff, The New Texas Business Corporation Act Merger Provisions, 21 St. Mary’s L.J. 109, 122-25 (1989).
By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law)
Note: This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), here (by Jared A. Ellias), here (by Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey), and here (by David Skeel).
All of the posts in this series have been incredibly thoughtful and incisive in illuminating what’s at stake with the innovative new Texas Two-Step bankruptcy strategy.
As Professors Casey and Macey point out, by isolating and separating Defendant’s mass-tort liability (in a new BadCo) from its business operations (in a new GoodCo) and subjecting only the former to the bankruptcy process, the value of Defendant’s business (which must ultimately pay the mass-tort obligations, under a funding agreement between GoodCo and BadCo) is enhanced by avoiding all of the direct and indirect costs that a bankruptcy filing would entail. At the same time, though, Defendant can nonetheless take advantage of bankruptcy’s beneficial claims resolution process, which consolidates all of the mass-tort claims, both present and future claims, in one forum—the Bankruptcy Court.
That mandatory, universal consolidation of all mass-tort claims, which is entirely unique to the bankruptcy process, is tremendously powerful and is a huge boon to facilitating an aggregate settlement of Defendant’s mass-tort exposure. Indeed, bankruptcy can produce aggregate settlement of mass tort obligations much more effectively and efficiently than the only available nonbankruptcy alternative, so-called multi-district litigation (MDL) under the federal MDL statute.
Professors Casey and Macey acknowledge that the Texas Two-Step bankruptcy is an unalloyed good, however, only if it does not leave tort victims worse off. I share the fear of many that it will, though, and my concern derives from one of the most fundamental differences between the bankruptcy and nonbankruptcy systems for aggregate resolution of mass torts, giving rise to the vertical forum shopping that Professor Lipson highlights.
The due process clauses of the Constitution give an individual tort victim a property right in a cause of action against Defendant. Consequently, that individual must consent to a settlement of that tort claim (i.e., a voluntary transfer or sale of the claim to Defendant). The only circumstance in which a mandatory “settlement” of a damages claim can be imposed upon a nonconsenting claimant (i.e., the claimant’s property can be involuntarily expropriated) is when there is sufficient danger of a common-pool problem, or so-called “tragedy of the commons,” of the kind extremely familiar to bankruptcy scholars and professionals.
Outside bankruptcy, that common-pool problem is the impetus for a so-called “limited fund” class action, which takes away claimants’ unfettered control over their individual claims (i.e., their property) by allowing a fiduciary representative to assert and settle in the aggregate all of the common claims against a limited fund, whether or not individual claimants consent to that aggregate settlement. As the Supreme Court made clear in its Ortiz v. Fibreboard decision, though, if a mass-tort defendant’s resources do not constitute a limited fund that is insufficient to fully satisfy its mass-tort obligations, individual claimants retain an absolute constitutional right to opt out of any aggregate resolution process, as part of their due process property rights in their individual claims.
Bankruptcy, of course, is also designed to address such a common-pool problem, and the binding distribution scheme effectuated by a confirmed plan of reorganization is functionally identical to the mandatory non-opt-out settlement at issue in Ortiz. Both systems enable a mass-tort defendant to impose a judicially-approved hard cap on their aggregate mass-tort liability, without any opt-outs by nonconsenting claimants. That mandatory non-opt-out settlement power works a dramatic change in a mass-tort defendant’s ultimate aggregate liability and the complex bargaining dynamics by which that ultimate liability is determined.
I thus share the concern expressed by Professor Ellias about the prospect of solvent mass tort defendants using Texas Two-Step bankruptcies to resolve their mass-tort liability. And Professor Skeel is right to point out that Judge Kaplan’s LTL Management decision gives too much encouragement to that strategy, for example, by opining that “[t]here is nothing to fear in the migration of tort litigation out of the tort system and into the bankruptcy system” and “maybe the gates indeed should be opened.” Bankruptcy poses a substantial risk of systematically undercompensating mass-tort claimants relative to a nonbankruptcy baseline, particularly for future claimants. Perhaps that risk is acceptable when the debt overhang from massive disputed obligations presents a clear and present threat to entity viability and full payment of all claimants, problems that bankruptcy is designed to address. Absent that, however, the bankruptcy gates should not simply be swung open wide in an attempt to “fix” the mass-tort system, however “broken” it may or may not be. The mass-tort bankruptcy system itself could use some fixing.
If you would like to receive a copy of my current work-in-progress exploring these issues, email me at rbrubake [at] illinois [dot] edu.
By David Skeel (University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School)
Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), here (by Jared A. Ellias), and here (by Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey).
Are Texas Two-Steps ever a proper use of Chapter 11? The argument that they aren’t—a view held by some scholars and reflected in proposed legislation in Washington—isn’t silly. Most current bankruptcy scholars grew up with Thomas Jackson’s creditors’ bargain theory of bankruptcy, which explains bankruptcy as a solution to creditor coordination problems that threaten to jeopardize the going concern value of an otherwise viable firm. The BadCo that files for bankruptcy in a Texas two-step does not have any going concern value. It’s just trying to manage massive liabilities. Why should this be allowed?
In rejecting a challenge to Johnson & Johnson’s recent two-step, the bankruptcy court supplied a forceful rejoinder to the view that preserving going concern value (or otherwise efficiently deploying a distressed company’s assets) is the only proper purpose for Chapter 11. Judge Kaplan points out that bankruptcy is often a superior mechanism for resolving tort liability as compared to the Multidistrict Litigation process or piecemeal litigation outside of bankruptcy. It is more orderly and can give more equitable and consistent treatment to victims. Judge Kaplan’s conclusion that LTL (the BadCo created by the J&J two-step) belongs in bankruptcy, and that a bankruptcy that involves mass tort liabilities but not the ongoing business that caused them is proper, is fully defensible in my view.
Where Judge Kaplan’s opinion goes off the rails is in too cavalierly dismissing the possibility that two-steps will be abused, as when he muses that “open[ing] the floodgates” to two-steps might not be such a bad thing. Those crafting future two-steps will be tempted to leave BadCo with inadequate ability to pay its victims, since nothing in the Texas divisional merger statute prevents this. Bankruptcy supplies two tools for policing these abuses, the good faith requirement [BRT: seethis earlier Roundtable post on good faith and Texas Two-Steps] and fraudulent conveyance law. If courts are vigilant, these tools should be sufficient to discourage abusive two-steps. But if courts are cavalier about the potential abuses, the legislation pending in Washington will begin to seem a lot less ill-advised.
Perhaps the best thing that could happen for Texas two-steps would be for courts to bar the use of non-debtor releases outside of the asbestos context, where they are explicitly authorized by section 524(g) of the Bankruptcy Code. The Second Circuit may be poised to take this step in the Purdue Pharma opioid case, if it upholds the District Court’s conclusion that the releases of nondebtors in that case—most notably, the Sackler family—are not authorized by the Bankruptcy Code. If non-debtor releases were disallowed except where explicitly authorized, Texas two-steps would remain viable in asbestos cases such as J&J, but the floodgates would not open in other contexts, since the maneuver only works if the eventual reorganization includes a non-debtor release for GoodCo.
By Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey (University of Chicago Law School)
Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), and here (by Jared A. Ellias).
One of the most important contexts in which Chapter 11 proceedings can facilitate the preservation of value is the resolution of financial distress related to mass tort claims. Over the last forty years, Chapter 11 has been invoked to facilitate settlement in dozens of large mass tort cases. Without Chapter 11, these value-preserving settlements would have never been possible.
Mass tort cases involve complex claims of multiple—often tens of thousands of—claimants looking to recover value from a business enterprise. The core provisions of Chapter 11, which are designed to coordinate behavior among claimants, address precisely these types of multilateral-claims situations. These provisions allow the quick, efficient, and fair resolution of claims and preserve value for the claimants and the other stakeholders of the business.
Providing a mechanism for the resolution of these mass tort cases is a quintessential function of bankruptcy law. Without bankruptcy resolution, the uncertainty of future liability in mass tort cases can prevent a debtor from productively carrying on its business and undertaking projects or asset sales that could create value and facilitate a cooperative resolution.
How do divisional mergers fit with this purpose? A divisional merger is a state-law transaction where a business entity divides itself into two new entities. It is attractive in some cases because it is simple and requires fewer steps than other methods for creating entity partitions. But the substantive outcome is no different. Any laws penalizing and prohibiting divisional mergers would therefore have little substantive effect. Rather they would simply channel transactions from one form of entity partitioning to another.
The important question, therefore, is whether a divisional merger—or any other form of entity creation—is being used to facilitate a socially valuable outcome consistent with the purpose of Chapter 11. When used appropriately, a divisional merger preceding a bankruptcy filing can facilitate a socially valuable resolution of mass tort claims, isolating (but not limiting) the mass tort liability for resolution independent of the other operations of the business.
To see why this is true, consider a large otherwise solvent business enterprise facing tens of thousands of potential tort lawsuits. One option would be for the entire enterprise to enter bankruptcy. But there are major costs to an enterprise-wide proceeding. The tools of Chapter 11 are blunt. The automatic stay applies across all creditors even those unrelated to the mass torts. Similarly, the filing triggers all sorts of enterprise-wide rules and restrictions. All creditors—including those with no connection to the mass tort litigation—must file their claims and can demand to be involved in the proceedings and in plan confirmation. The enterprise-wide filing brings extra parties and extra claims into the process and creates opportunities for those parties to take strategic litigation positions that can delay or prevent resolution.
The divisional merger structure reduces these enterprise-related complications. In the right situation, this structure can simplify the process and focus the proceedings on the specific mass tort resolution that is necessary for the preservation of value.
The proper way to address divisional mergers, in our view, is not to prohibit them altogether, but rather to make sure that they do not leave tort victims worse off. The transaction should therefore provide a source of adequate funding to resolve the tort liabilities. Consistent with this principle, recent cases that have utilized the divisional merger structure prior to a Chapter 11 petition have provided funding agreements that ensure that claimants have access to the same or more value in pursuing their claims against the business.
The bankruptcy proceedings that follow the merger should also provide meaningful disclosure and discovery about the merger, the funding agreement, and the underlying tort claims to allow a fair valuation of liability and a reasonable estimate of the number of claimants. Fortunately, bankruptcy judges are willing and able to provide these procedural safeguards.
The alternative of prohibiting divisional mergers will likely leave claimants worse off. Drawn out proceedings transfer value from tort claimants to bankruptcy professionals. It might also lead to unfair outcomes where some tort claimants receive large recoveries and others receive nothing at all. In turn, potential claimants will race to the courthouse chasing early judgments that leave the firm without funds to pay later claimants.
The purpose of Chapter 11 is not to reduce liability, but rather to reduce complexity and cost. And a well-designed divisional merger promotes that purpose while providing a fair and efficient system for resolving group claims.
By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Harvard Law School)
Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts) and here (by Jonathan C. Lipson).
In October 2021, Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) executed a strategy to use the bankruptcy system to resolve a massive flood of personal injury lawsuits. In doing so, J&J found a way to obtain the benefits of Chapter 11 without accepting the burden of operating a business under court oversight. J&J achieved this outcome by executing a corporate law move dubbed the “Texas Two-Step.” The Two-Step split J&J’s consumer division into two entities: (1) LTL Management LLC, which was allocated all of J&J’s baby powder-related tort liability; and (2) a second entity that contained the assets of its consumer businesses. LTL Management subsequently filed for bankruptcy without the assets of the consumer business. In a landmark recent opinion, Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey held that these maneuvers were not a bad faith bankruptcy filing. As I argue below, Judge Kaplan’s ruling, which attempts to use bankruptcy law to ameliorate weaknesses in tort law, may inspire other wealthy firms to emulate J&J’s tactics. It may also feed a potential backlash from higher courts and Congress that may make the bankruptcy system less useful to large firms.
In short, J&J’s bankruptcy strategy upends the traditional bargain that Chapter 11 offers to distressed corporations and their creditors. Congress designed a bankruptcy system that provides companies with powerful protections, such as an automatic stay of non-bankruptcy litigation. In exchange, companies must submit their assets to court oversight. To be sure, a bankruptcy filing always undermines some of the bargaining power that mass tort claimants have outside of bankruptcy, such as the ability to bring many individual lawsuits. However, the burden of court oversight also gives creditors bargaining power, as companies seek to exit bankruptcy quickly to escape the expense and distraction of a bankruptcy proceeding. J&J argues it has found a better way of using the bankruptcy system: J&J would use a contract to make the assets of the consumer division available to pay any amounts owed to tort victims and its procedural machinations meant that those assets would not be depleted by wasteful court oversight.
The “Texas Two-Step” strategy deployed by J&J takes these existing strategies a step further by surgically separating assets from liabilities to create a favorable bargaining environment. In holding that this maneuver was not a bad faith use of the bankruptcy system, Judge Kaplan opens the door to other wealthy firms to engage in similar maneuvering to resolve mass torts problems. For example, will the next company with headline-grabbing tort liability, such as an unexpected oil spill, respond by “spinning off” its liabilities into a bankruptcy filing? In the past, this only would have happened if the resulting liability rendered the polluter insolvent, but now even wealthy and solvent firms may decide that their fiduciary duty requires them to use the bankruptcy system to deal with their liability.
By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University-Beasley School of Law)
Note: This is the second in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.
Forum shopping has long been an issue in chapter 11 reorganization, chiefly because liberal venue rules permit gamesmanship. Section 1408 of the Judicial Code allows a corporate debtor to “bootstrap” into the bankruptcy court of any district where at least one entity in the group was formed. If a forum is chosen “strategically,” Professors Lynn LoPucki and Bill Whitford first warned (in 1991), “the choice can have an important effect on the distribution of the losses emanating from a bankruptcy reorganization.”
They were describing what may be called “horizontal” forum shopping: picking among the nation’s roughly 200 bankruptcy panels to find the one the debtor considers best for its situation. Cases such as LTL Management and Purdue Pharma suggest there is another kind to think about, a variation on what proceduralists call “vertical” forum shopping.
Vertical forum shopping typically concerns competition between state and federal courts, and the rule of decision they apply (i.e., Erie v. Tompkins). Bankruptcy has a similar state-federal dynamic, but also presents the potential for broader, and more problematic, competitions.
LTL involves the chapter 11 reorganization of Johnson & Johnson’s tort-feasing talc subsidiary. The debtor had been formed shortly before bankruptcy in a controversial “divisive merger,” which many viewed as little more than a fancied-up fraudulent transfer. Talc plaintiffs moved to dismiss the case on grounds that it was not commenced in good faith.
In a thorough and thoughtful opinion, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan denied the motion because he believed the economic benefits of reorganization appeared to outweigh alternatives. But, the motion to dismiss also raised “a far more significant issue: which judicial system—the state/federal court trial system,” or chapter 11 “serves best the interests of th[e] bankruptcy estate, comprised primarily of present and future tort claimants with serious financial and physical injuries.”
This question—which system?—is bankruptcy’s version of vertical forum shopping.
On one hand, Judge Kaplan is probably right about the economics: chapter 11 is likely to pay more to more talc claimants than litigation in other courts. Nonbankruptcy litigation might produce a few outsize winners—billion-dollar verdicts or multi-million-dollar settlements—but there may be little left for most judgment creditors to collect.
On the other hand, chapter 11’s distributive benefits can trade off against what we might call “dignitary” interests, including individual rights to a “day in court” and a jury trial. Congress intended to preserve some dignitary protections in chapter 11 cases, including the right to a jury trial of contingent and unliquidated personal injury and wrongful death claims. But the rise of channeling injunctions and nondebtor releases has undermined those protections.
In Purdue Pharma, for example, the debtor’s controversial plan would give personal injury creditors a bare right to a jury trial against the company, and cap recoveries at about $48,000—surely not enough to cover the cost of the trial. Worse, it would eliminate the right entirely as to the Sackler family, which owned and controlled the company when it committed two sets of confessed drug crimes. The viability of those releases is pending before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Vertical forum shopping in chapter 11 can threaten not only the role of other courts, but also other branches of government. Again, while LTL spotted the issue, Purdue crystallized it.
A supplemental injunction at the beginning of Purdue halted administrative and regulatory actions against Purdue and the Sacklers. While this left the possibility of criminal prosecution, the U.S. Department of Justice negotiated deals with the Sacklers and Purdue that made it practically impossible for states to prosecute (and, of course, many preferred to settle with the Sacklers rather than fight, anyway).
Purdue Pharma and LTL are likely to be very different cases. The bankruptcy judge and the debtors in Purdue resisted important efforts to vindicate dignitary concerns, such as a bellwether trial of allegations against the Sacklers or a fulsome examination of them. Tragically, the lack of those efforts may have undercut the Sacklers’ proposed payout, leading the judge to declare himself “bitter.”
In LTL, by contrast, Judge Kaplan and the debtors have signaled a willingness to deploy these types of mechanisms, should the case remain in bankruptcy.
At this point, it is too early to know. Angered by the brazen nature of the divisive merger, the talc plaintiffs have appealed to the Third Circuit.
I discuss dignitary issues implicated by vertical forum shopping in chapter 11 in a draft paper, The Problem of Social Debt, which I can share if you email me (jlipson [at] temple [dot] edu).