Congressional Committees Propose Changes to Bankruptcy Code Prohibiting Non-Consensual Releases of Third Parties and Limiting Other Important Bankruptcy Tools

By Michael J. Cohen, Michael A. Rosenthal & Matthew J. Williams (Gibson Dunn)

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

Michael J. Cohen
Michael A. Rosenthal
Matthew J. Williams

On July 28, 2021, certain Democratic members of Congress, primarily in response to the $4.325 billion contribution made by the Sackler family to fund the settlement underpinning Purdue Pharma’s chapter 11 plan, introduced the Nondebtor Release Prohibition Act of 2021 (the “NRPA”), which proposes to amend the Bankruptcy Code to (i) prohibit the use of non-consensual third party releases in chapter 11 plans, (ii) limit so-called “Section 105” injunctions to stay lawsuits against third parties to a period no greater than 90 days after the commencement of a bankruptcy case, and (iii) provide a ground for dismissing a bankruptcy case commenced by a debtor that was formed within 10 years prior to such case via a divisional merger that separated material assets from liabilities.

When viewed against the backdrop of current complex chapter 11 practice, the NRPA is a flawed remedy for issues for which alternative means of redress already exist. First, the proposed elimination of the important bankruptcy tools of non-consensual third party releases and Section 105 injunctions – each of which is extraordinary in nature and only permitted in the rarest of circumstances – is a blunt force measure that threatens to vitiate the longstanding bankruptcy policy of favoring settlements over interminable value-destructive litigation.  Second, the loss of these tools may cause inequitable disruption in currently pending cases and stymie the implementation of critical creditor-supported strategies to resolve the most difficult cases going forward.  Moreover, a per se prohibition against non-debtor releases would contravene core bankruptcy principles by elevating the interests of a minority of creditors who would otherwise be bound to the terms of a chapter 11 plan containing such a release that is supported by the requisite majorities required under the Bankruptcy Code.  Third, while the disincentive against divisional mergers would affect a far more limited set of cases, it appears that the harm raised by some divisional mergers that are followed by bankruptcy may be adequately addressed through clarifying the applicability of fraudulent transfer law to challenge these transactions.

On November 3, 2021, the House Judiciary Committee sent the NRPA to the House floor for further consideration; the Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to act on the bill.  For more detail on the NRPA and our analysis of the bill, please find the full article here.

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.

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.

Viability Assessment in Corporate Debt Restructuring: Optimizing the Filtration Effect of the European Directive on Restructuring and Insolvency

By Lydia Tsioli (King’s College London)

Lydia Tsioli

Despite being pivotal in corporate debt restructuring, viability, an intricate notion with double meaning and double role, has not been systematically examined in Europe. Against this background, and especially given that the new European directive on restructuring and insolvency (the “Directive”) is currently under transposition and restructuring law is making its first steps as a harmonized field across Europe, my recent paper, published in Norton Journal of Bankruptcy Law and Practice, undertakes a doctrinal, comparative [USA, UK] and economic analysis of law examination of viability with the aim of putting forward suggestions that will make viability the linchpin of the Directive, thus optimizing its filtration effect as defined below. 

In doing so, the paper first analyses and distinguishes the two different meanings of viability, namely financial viability and economic viability, and clarifies what the precise role of law is within the viability-related discourse. Such role consists in providing indicators of viability and incorporating appropriate “filtering mechanisms”, a term of art introduced by the paper, which refers to mechanisms filtering non-viable debtors out of the restructuring procedure, hence contributing towards satisfaction of restructuring’s overall goal of saving viable debtors only. 

The way in which such filtering mechanisms are triggered depends on who plays the role of the “ultimate viability assessor” within a restructuring framework, for example an Insolvency Practitioner (“IP”) or a court. Depending on this, the paper distinguishes between IP-centered and Non-IP – centered models of viability assessment and identifies the Directive as standing closer to the Non-IP – centered one. 

What the paper suggests though, is that, what ultimately matters is the appropriateness of filtering mechanisms in any chosen model of viability assessment. Such mechanisms can be most characteristically found under Chapter 11, Title 11 of US Bankruptcy Code and are the conversion/dismissal of a Chapter 11 case and stay relief under section 362. The paper examines them extensively and demonstrates how the existence or inexistence of viability in its double meaning, constitutes the “litmus test” for the triggering of Chapter 11’s filtering mechanisms. 

In light of these comparative findings, the paper finally turns to the European directive and identifies its filtering mechanisms. The paper subsequently, and most importantly, makes suggestions on how the filtration effect of the Directive’s existing mechanisms can be optimized through appropriate interpretation, transposition, judicial practice or future reform. Through these suggestions, it is aspired that first, the Directive will properly reflect the notion of viability and consequently achieve an effective filtering of viable debtors from non-viable ones, and second, viability will ultimately become the primary point of focus and linchpin of European corporate debt restructuring overall.

The paper, entitled “Viability Assessment in Corporate Debt Restructuring: Optimizing the Filtration Effect of the European Directive on Restructuring and Insolvency” is available here.

Reprinted from Norton Journal of Bankruptcy Law and Practice, Vol. 30 No. 5 (October 2021), with permission of Thomson Reuters. Copyright © 2021. Further use without the permission of Thomson Reuters is prohibited. For further information about this publication, please visit https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/products/law-books or call 800.328.9352.

The paper has been awarded the 2021 Silver Medal in the International Insolvency Institute’s “Prize in International Insolvency Studies”.

The Case for Bankruptcy Court Discretion to Shift Attorney’s Fees

By Daniel J. Bussel (Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law)

Daniel J. Bussel

Neither the “American Rule” (each party pays its own attorney) nor the “English Rule” (loser pays both parties’ attorneys) is the baseline principle in insolvency cases.  Most major parties do not bear their own attorney’s fees, win or lose.  Fee-shifting is pervasive; the bankruptcy court is directly involved in reviewing the fees; sometimes it’s almost impossible to figure who actually foots the bills.  This is true in US courts, which still generally purport to follow the “American Rule,” and courts in the UK, which generally purport to follow the “English Rule.”  In both countries, theory notwithstanding, equitable principles, born in England’s ancient chancery courts, permit discretionary fee-shifting in light of the collective nature of insolvency proceedings.

Unfortunately, some US courts, including the Supreme Court, disregarding this history and practice, anomalously cling to the American Rule, creating perverse incentives that disrupt the efficient functioning of the reorganization process.  Two leading examples are the Supreme Court’s decisions in Baker & Botts and Midland Funding, both critiqued in my paper, Fee-Shifting in Bankruptcy.  In Baker & Botts, the American Rule denies full compensation to the prevailing debtor’s attorney from any source, disincentivizing the pursuit of meritorious estate claims.  In Midland Funding, the American Rule rewards strategic manipulation by the holder of meritless claims, disincentivizing clearly valid objections.         

Abandoning the American Rule and authorizing a discretionary version of the English Rule as the default rule in bankruptcy for recovery of attorney’s fees is no radical step.  Empirical work is limited, but supports the conclusion that shifting from the American Rule to a discretionary version of the English Rule will have only a modest impact. In bankruptcy cases, an enormous amount of explicit and implicit fee shifting already occurs.  The bankruptcy courts have a well-developed set of procedures for regulating and allowing reasonable attorney’s fees.  They are well-positioned to exercise discretion in awarding attorney’s fees to control bullying and holdout tactics calculated to confer leverage by pressing weak claims and imposing costs on others.  

Several factors can appropriately guide court discretion to award fees in insolvency cases, including: 

  1. Whether the prevailing party or its adversary has a right to recover fees in nonbankruptcy litigation over the same issues. 
  2. Whether the bankruptcy code expressly contemplates recovery of fees as a component of damages. 
  3. The amount of fees and whether the stakes justify them. 
  4. The strength of the prevailing party’s merits case.
  5. Whether the nonprevailing party played the part of bully, holdout, or squeaky wheel. 
  6. Whether a systemic asymmetry exists between the parties allowing one party to implicitly shift fees whether it prevails or not and regardless of the court’s fee award. 
  7. Whether the prevailing party’s success in litigation will economically benefit others similarly situated or creditors generally. 
  8. Whether a fee award will advance the public interest in equitable administration of bankruptcy cases. 
  9. The extent to which a given fee award may be so onerous to the non-prevailing party that it would unreasonably deter access to the courts.
  10. Vexatious and unreasonable conduct by either (or both) of the litigants. 
  11. The extent to which the prevailing party incurred fees for considerations apart from the case at bar because of its status as a repeat player. 
  12. The extent to which the party seeking recovery of fees practically prevailed in the litigation.
  13. Whether the prevailing party is a natural person, a minor private party, a major party, the bankruptcy estate, or a governmental entity.
  14. Whether the non-prevailing party is a natural person, a minor private party, a major party, the bankruptcy estate, or a governmental entity.
  15. Assessing the practical economic incidence of fees initially borne by the estate.

The UK, starting from the English Rule, has created a discretionary fee-shifting regime in insolvency cases resembling the discretionary approach advocated here.  The English cases exhibit a continuing push-pull among (i) the desire to socialize costs of reorganizations that benefit third parties; (ii) concern about unduly discouraging participation by all affected constituents; and (iii) the problems posed by hold-outs, bullies and excessive litigiousness. See Matter of Virgin Active Holdings Ltd (Snowden, J.).  The realities of insolvency practice are impelling both the English and American systems towards court-supervised discretionary fee-shifting.

The damage done by the American Rule is limited by how pervasive fee-shifting already is in bankruptcy.  Fully embracing discretionary fee-shifting in favor of prevailing parties, however, is low-hanging fruit we can promptly gather in to facilitate sound administration of insolvent estates.

The full paper is available here.

COVID-19 Debt and Bankruptcy Infrastructure

By Robert K. Rasmussen (USC Gould School of Law)

Robert Rasmussen

The COVID pandemic put unprecedented pressure on all economies around the world. Many predicted that this economic dislocation would lead to an unprecedented number of corporate bankruptcies. This did not happen. The American government and other governments responded with extraordinary measures. While these measures allowed companies to ride out the worst of the pandemic, they did have consequences. Many large companies were left with unprecedentedly large amounts of debt on their balance sheets.

 Perhaps a robust economy will allow companies to grow their way out from under their debt burden. But perhaps not. To prepare for the possible future increase in large companies filing for bankruptcy, Congress should act now to build up a bankruptcy infrastructure sufficient to handle an influx in cases. Specifically, Congress should require that every circuit create a “business bankruptcy panel” designed to administer the Chapter 11 filing of large companies. As is well-known, three bankruptcy districts currently serve as dominant venues for large cases – the District of Delaware, the Southern District of New York and the Southern District of Texas. It is by no means clear that these three courts could handle a significant increase in caseloads. Creating expertise across the country would help prepare the system for any future rise in cases. A secondary benefit of this reform is that it may also ameliorate some of the concerns that have been raised over the years by the dominance of a small number of venues for large corporate cases.

The full article is available here.

“Confessions” of a Forum Shopper, Part II – Debtors Without Borders

By Andrew Dietderich (Sullivan & Cromwell LLP)

Andrew Dietderich

Part II of Andrew Dietderich’s treatment of the practical side of forum shopping addresses the use of Chapter 11 by non-U.S. corporations with only limited U.S. contacts.  The logic of international bankruptcy law – as reflected in Chapter 15 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and the UNCITRAL Model Law – suggests that these types of Chapter 11 filings should not happen.  Instead of filing for Chapter 11, non-U.S. companies should file for plenary proceedings only in their home country, i.e., where they are headquartered or otherwise have their “center of main interest.”  The role of U.S. courts should be limited to recognition and assistance of the home country proceeding under Chapter 15.

The article explains why these Chapter 11 cases happen and why “forum shopping” against the grain of international insolvency conventions is necessary for certain types of cross-border cases.  Chapter 11 is sometimes the best (or the only) way to reorganize companies headquartered outside of the U.S., and U.S. courts have been uniquely effective at supervising these reorganizations in a manner fair to all stakeholders. 

The article also suggests that the U.S. has a national interest in making its bankruptcy courts available for these types of cases, that principles of international comity are as active in Chapter 11 as they are in Chapter 15, and that non-U.S. stakeholders have nothing to fear from this application of Chapter 11 in the coming years. Part II appears in the October issue of the ABI Journal, available here.

Chapter 11’s Descent into Lawlessness

By Lynn M. LoPucki (Security Pacific Bank Distinguished Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law)

Lynn M. LoPucki

The bankruptcy courts that compete for big cases frequently ignore the Bankruptcy Code and Rules. This Article documents that lawlessness through a detailed examination of the court file in Belk, Inc.—a one-day Chapter 11—and a series of empirical studies.

Chapter 11’s lawlessness reached a new extreme in Belk. Belk filed in Houston on the evening of February 23, 2021. The court confirmed the plan at ten o’clock the next morning, and the parties consummated the plan that same afternoon. Almost none of Chapter 11’s procedural requirements were met. The court did not give creditors notice of the disclosure statement or plan confirmation hearings until after those hearings were held. Belk filed no list of creditors’ names and addresses, no schedules, no statement of financial affairs, and no monthly operating reports.  No creditors’ committee was appointed, no meeting of creditors was held, and none of the professionals filed fee applications. The ad hoc groups that negotiated the plan failed to file Rule 2019 disclosures. Because no schedules were filed, no proofs of claim were deemed filed. Only eighteen of Belk’s ninety-thousand creditors filed proofs of claim, and Belk apparently just made distributions to whomever Belk considered worthy. 

The procedural failures in Belk are just the tip of the iceberg.  The competing courts are ignoring impermissible retention bonuses, refusing to appoint mandatory examiners, failing to monitor venue or transfer cases, granting every request to reject collective bargaining agreements, and providing debtors with critical-vendor slush funds. The article is available here

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 Time Has Come for Disaggregated Sovereign Bankruptcy

By Odette Lienau (Professor, Cornell Law School)

Odette Lienau

The ongoing economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has generated important proposals for addressing countries’ financial distress in the short to medium term. However, it has also made even more apparent the existing gaps in the global financial architecture writ large and highlighted the extent to which key actors pay closest attention to this infrastructure in situations of crisis. By then, of course, it is already too late.

This essay argues that the international community should use the energy generated in the current context to move toward ‘disaggregated sovereign bankruptcy’—which can be understood as a framework by which multiple processes at varying levels simultaneously support or instantiate a shared set of sovereign debt resolution principles and commitments. Such an approach moves beyond overly simplistic and binary framings of market-based versus statutory options, and instead conceives of improvements in the contractual realm, in the multilateral arena, and at the level of domestic legislation as complementary rather than competitive. The essay also clarifies that the explicit embrace of a more disaggregated framework for implementing debt resolution principles need not be disorganized. It argues in favor of establishing an international body purpose-built to recommend, coordinate, and facilitate steady, incremental progress in the architecture for dealing with sovereign debt across multiple vectors. Advocates of more rational debt restructuring should take steps now to adopt an infrastructure that would make future debt crises less severe and perhaps less likely—even when the spotlights are directed elsewhere.

The full article can be found here.

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