[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Upending the Traditional Chapter 11 Bargain

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).

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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.

As Michael Francus recently argued, J&J’s strategy is best understood as the latest move in the long-standing chess game of hardball bankruptcy tactics between the lawyers who represent tort victims and the lawyers who advise large companies with tort liability.  For example, in 2003, Pfizer resurrected a dead subsidiary and caused it to file for bankruptcy to obtain a judicial order halting all litigation against Pfizer, which potentially had its own liability associated with the subsidiary’s products.  Pfizer’s strategy involved taking a corporation that had been defunct for over a decade, giving it an “independent board of directors,” employees and office space.  By doing so, Pfizer was able to benefit from a bankruptcy court injunction for several years before reaching a settlement after a decade of scorched earth litigation.  Other high-profile companies, most prominently Purdue Pharma, have also tried to stretch bankruptcy law to resolve claims against third parties without those entities filing for bankruptcy themselves.

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.

In his ruling, Judge Kaplan overruled the arguments of, among others, a group of bankruptcy scholars (including myself) that worry that the complexity of J&J’s maneuvers will undermine public confidence in the integrity of the bankruptcy system. To be sure, Judge Kaplan’s opinion makes persuasive arguments about the limits of the tort system.  The question, though, is whether the ultimate outcome of Judge Kaplan’s attempt to use bankruptcy law to rectify problems in the tort system will be to create new problems for the bankruptcy system as Congress explores new legislation and appellate courts issue rulings that respond to perceived overreach by reducing the power of bankruptcy judges and, as a result, the usefulness of bankruptcy law.

Due Process Alignment in Mass Restructurings

By Sergio J. Campos (University of Miami School of Law) and Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Sergio J. Campos
Samir D. Parikh

Mass tort defendants have recently begun exiting multi-district litigation (MDL) by filing for bankruptcy. This new strategy ushers defendants into a far more hospitable forum that offers accelerated resolution of all state and federal claims held by both current and future victims.

Bankruptcy’s resolution promise is alluring, but the process relies on a very large assumption: future claimants can be compelled to relinquish property rights – their cause of action against the corporate defendant – without consent or notice. Bankruptcy builds an entire resolution structure on the premise that the Bankruptcy Code’s untested interest representation scheme satisfies Due Process strictures. This Article questions that assumption, and identifies two compromised pillars. Primarily, the process for selecting the fiduciary that represents future victims’ interests (FCR) is broken. Further, the process by which courts estimate the value of thousands of mass tort claims places too much pressure on a jurist unfamiliar with personal injury claims. These compromised pillars raise the risk that the settlement trust will be underfunded and fail prematurely. In this outcome, future victims would have no recourse but to argue that the process did not satisfy Due Process, and the settlement should be unwound.

This Article proposes that the risk of a prematurely insolvent victims’ trust can be reduced considerably by making two adjustments. Our proposal seeks to (i) rebuild the FCR construct in order to ensure that future victims’ interests are effectively represented, and (ii) recalibrate the claim estimation process by facilitating coordination between the bankruptcy court and nonbankruptcy trial courts.

The full article is forthcoming in the Fordham Law Review and is available here.

 

Holdout Panic

By Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall Law School)

Stephen J. Lubben

It has been recognized that corporations themselves are designed to promote collective action, and thus “a primary function of corporate law is to coordinate and constrain individual behavior – even profit-motivated behavior.”  Given that corporate debt instruments largely serve a governance function amongst creditors, it is not surprising that they, like corporations themselves, tend to quash individual action in favor of the group.  But the divergence between individual and group interests comes to the fore in times of stress.

An individual creditor can be either an oppressed minority investor or a holdout.  Majority holders can be either the group seeking an efficient and beneficial restructuring, or effectively an insider group that collaborates with more formal insiders to extract value from minority creditors.  Which reality is genuine is highly dependent on the particular facts of the case at hand, and may be quite difficult for an outsider to discern.

Restructuring law attempts to balance this uncertainty by providing a series of checks and balances.  In general, restructuring law begins with a preference for the collective, but encircles the collective with a series of rules that protect individual creditors from abuse.  

Some of the balance comes from the agreements that create the creditor relationship or duties related to those agreements; however, other aspects of balance are external and come from outside structures like the Bankruptcy Code or the Trust Indenture Act.  In general, the basic challenge here is to find the point at which the illegitimate power of holdouts is reduced without trampling on the legitimate rights of minority creditors.  It is very easy to avoid holdouts if the majority always wins.

My paper explores the ways in which modern restructuring practice has moved toward that “majority always wins” extreme.  This change was not part of some grand plan, but rather the result of a series of incremental decisions, each reacting to perceived abuses by holdouts.  But in indulging our fears of holdouts, we have lost the essential balance of the system.

Take the example of the RSA – or restructuring support agreement – that, in a variety of ways, can represent a generalized assault on the requirement in section 1123(a)(4) that a chapter 11 plan must “provide the same treatment for each claim or interest of a particular class.”  RSAs achieve this end by providing for backstop fees paid to a select group that will never have to backstop anything or DIP loans that the debtor does not really need.

In one recent case, pre-bankruptcy the debtor contracted with a sub-group of its secured noteholders to have those noteholders make an interest payment on the notes.   That is, some of the secured noteholders paid the interest payment due to all the secured noteholders.

In exchange, these distinctive noteholders received new “super-priority secured notes” secured by a lien that surpassed the old secured notes’ liens, while also carrying a hefty 10% coupon.  When the debtor filed for chapter 11 later that same year, to implement its own RSA-driven plan, the new super-priority notes were paid in full, with interest and “make whole call” fees.  In short, the select lenders made a small, six-month loan for a very high return at low risk.  This opportunity was not available to everyone in the original class of noteholders.

In short, I conclude that the modern American restructuring system has evolved to favor the interests of the majority to the point where a debtor and a majority of its lenders can inflict serious harm on minority creditors.  At some point, this reality is bound to have consequences for both the debt markets and the utility of chapter 11.

The full article is available here.

Texas Two-Stepping Out of Bankruptcy

By Michael A. Francus (Harvard Law School)

Michael Francus

Johnson & Johnson’s use of the Texas Two-Step to manage its talc liabilities has put the company, and the Two-Step, front and center in the roiling debates over aggressive uses of the bankruptcy system. Those debates have led to scholarly criticism, congressional hearings, and proposed legislation that would curtail debtors’ ability to so use the bankruptcy courts.

My Essay details the mechanics of the Two-Step. Beginning with the Texas divisive merger, the funding agreement, and forum shopping for the Fourth Circuit, the Essay fleshes out precisely how the Two-Step boxes in tort claimants. Like other scholarship, this Essay identifies the risk that such maneuvering effects a fraudulent transfer. It also goes a step further, arguing that the point of the Two-Step is not to succeed, but to delay. Fraudulent-transfer litigation in a bankruptcy consumes time because it requires an adversary proceeding, and that delay pressures tort claimants to settle. So the Two-Step can succeed as long as claimants cannot wait out the course of the bankruptcy, even if a court never declares the particular Two-Step to be a proper use of divisive merger law rather than an improper fraudulent transfer.

Instead of playing into this delay game, this Essay argues, courts should evaluate the Texas Two-Step for good faith. Tort claimants can raise such challenges as a motion to dismiss (as some have) and thus avoid the need for a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding. And under current doctrine, the Two-Step likely qualifies as a bad-faith filing: In most cases, the Two-Step is a litigation tactic. And the Two-Step, invariably, is filed by an entity created solely to file for bankruptcy. Both of those are doctrinal hallmarks of bad-faith bankruptcies.

More broadly, the Essay explains, the Two-Step and good-faith challenges to it underscore the continuing role of common law in bankruptcy. The Code does not define good-faith filing, so courts have developed the doctrine case by case. They may yet find an acceptable form of Two-Step, one which yields tort claimants the rights they would receive in, say, a Johnson & Johnson bankruptcy, without hurting Johnson & Johnson’s ability to do business by forcing the whole company into bankruptcy. Along the way, though, a vigilant common-law gatekeeping is warranted, and judges should not hesitate to dismiss Two-Steps thinking that a later ruling on a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding can adequately safeguard tort claimants from an improper use of the bankruptcy system.

The full essay will be available at 121 Mich. L. Rev. Online __ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.

Are Judges Randomly Assigned to Chapter 11 Bankruptcies? Not According to Hedge Funds

By Niklas Hüther (Indiana University) and Kristoph Kleiner (Indiana University)

Niklas Hüther
Kristoph Kleiner

”The bankruptcy system is supposed to work for everyone, but in many cases it works only for the powerful.”  – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, July 28th, 2021

Researchers have long recognized that judicial outcomes are subject to the biases of the ruling judge. To alleviate concerns of fairness, courts in both the U.S. and abroad claim to assign judges to individual court cases randomly. From a policy perspective, randomization promotes public confidence in the judicial process by limiting forum shopping and the individual influence of any individual judge. From an academic perspective, recent empirical research in economics and finance exploits the random assignment of judges to causally identify of a wide range of legal outcomes.

This paper revisits the claim of randomized judicial assignment in the context of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Our research is motivated by legal scholarship arguing that debtors in recent cases are influencing judicial assignments (Levitin, 2021), as well as renewed interest in these issues from policy makers and the public (Merle and Bernstein, 2019; Randles 2020). Despite these arguments, there are reasons to believe assignment is random. For instance, after contacting all U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Iverson et al. (2017) found that only one court (the Eastern District of Wisconsin) reports assigning cases to judges non-randomly. In addition, a range of research including Bernstein et al. (2019) provides convincing evidence that debtor characteristics fail to predict judicial assignments. Missing from this literature is any large-scale empirical evidence of non-random assignment.

Analyzing U.S. corporate bankruptcy filings between 2010 and 2020, we provide new evidence that assignment is not random, but predicted by the lending decisions of hedge funds. By focusing on investments made before the assignment of a bankruptcy judge, our technique is not suspect to standard critiques that predictability is merely an outcome of ex-post data mining; instead, in order for investors to systemically invest in firms that are later assigned a preferred judge, it must be possible to infer future judicial assignments. In addition, we focus on hedge funds, as they routinely influence a wide range of bankruptcy outcomes including emergence and debt restructurings.  The prevalence of these investors allows us to explore a new channel of activism in the distress debt market: activist influence in judicial assignment process prior to filing.

In our setting, judges can decide whether to convert a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to a Chapter 7 liquidation; while secured creditors may have a preference for liquidation, unsecured creditors recover more under reorganization.  Exploiting this distinction, we confirm unsecured hedge fund creditors (relative to secured hedge funds) are significantly less likely to be assigned a judge with a tendency to convert Chapter 11 cases.  We also extend our analysis to an alternate bankruptcy outcome measure: the unsecured creditor recovery rate according to the confirmed plan. We find unsecured hedge funds are far more likely to be assigned a judge with a high past unsecured recovery rate.

We next test whether these estimates differ across the filings in our sample. First, we find that unsecured hedge fund claimants are assigned a preferable judge more commonly when the hedge fund invested shortly before the bankruptcy filing, suggesting hedge funds choose to invest explicitly to influence the filing. Second, we show the effects are greatest when the hedge fund is on the board of directors of the debtor at the time of filing, providing further support for the role of communication between debtor and creditor.

Finally, we conduct three robustness tests. First, we find no evidence that a judge’s future conversion rate (after controlling for the past conversion rate) is predicted by hedge fund investment, suggesting hedge funds are explicitly influencing judicial assignment based on information regarding past information. Second, focusing on the subset of districts that explicitly state random assignment within their district, we continue to find hedge fund investments predict assignment. Third, we include district-office-year fixed effects in our analysis and continue to find a relationship between hedge fund investments and assignment.

Moving forward, we believe there are two potential policies that can alleviate these issues. The first, and simplest, is for policy makers to develop a truly randomized process. Alternatively, policy makers can instead increase the number of bankruptcy judges, leading to lower predictability even if assignment is not fully randomized. Policy makers intent on a fairer judicial system should consider both proposals.

The full article is available here.

This piece previously appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog.

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.

Corporate Bankruptcy Has Lasting Effects on CEO Careers through Frictions in Executive Labor Market

By Andreas Kostøl (Arizona State University – W.P. Carey School of Business; Norges Bank), Morten Grindaker (Norwegian Business School; Norges Bank), and Kasper Roszbach (Norges Bank; University of Groningen)

Andreas Kostøl
Morten Grindaker
Kasper Roszbach

Policymakers have long been concerned about the potential negative effects of bankruptcy for CEOs and business dynamics. Fear of reputational scarring caused by bankruptcy could lead managers to take less risk than desired by owners, which could manifest in lower performance and lower rates of entrepreneurship and job growth.

 

CEOs influence a wide range of decisions, such as organizational practices, debt financing and whether to file for corporate bankruptcy or not. Empirical studies of Chapter 11 bankruptcy show that CEOs of large bankrupt firms suffer significant financial losses. The prospect of individually-borne income loss due to a corporate bankruptcy carries in it a risk that CEOs take decisions that are not aligned with the interest of the owners.

It remains an open empirical question, however, whether the observed personal costs should be attributed to the selection of CEOs with lower managerial skills, firm-specific human capital, or stigma in the executive labor market.

Our analysis attempts to answer this question by disentangling the stigma and skill effects by examining the causal effects of corporate bankruptcy on the personal income and career of CEOs in small and medium-sized companies in Norway. To this end, we exploit that bankruptcy petitions in Norway are randomly assigned to judges who have different degrees of strictness in their approval of bankruptcy filings. This institutional feature generates variation in firms’ likelihood of being declared bankrupt that is unrelated to firm or CEO characteristics. We use administrative panel data that identifies CEO’s sources of wealth and income and corporate positions to examine the effects of bankruptcy on their careers.

Two broad conclusions emerge from our empirical analysis.

First, we find that corporate bankruptcy has a long-lasting impact on CEOs’ careers. CEOs whose firms are declared bankrupt are 25 percentage points more likely to exit the executive workforce. Displaced CEOs find new employment quickly but do so by moving to lower-ranked positions in new firms. Bankruptcy also has an economically significant impact on CEO remuneration; we document an annual fall in capital income equal to about five percent of annual gross income. While the net present value of the average decline in capital income over the remainder of a CEO’s working-age career is equal to 60 percent of pre-bankruptcy annual income, we find no enduring effect on CEOs’ labor income after five years.

Second, our analysis shows that the displacement effects are much larger when default rates in the firms’ industry are low. For example, a CEOs is five times less likely to remain in the executive workforce if her/his firm experiences a bankruptcy while the bankruptcy frequency in the same industry is low. By contrast, variation in CEO wages is not driven by industry conditions. Post-bankruptcy, we find a greater mobility of CEOs between industries and an increased tendency to move to more productive firms with a higher-paid workforce, suggesting that managerial skills are portable.

Taken together, our findings suggest that negative career effects of bankruptcy can be attributed to stigma. When we eliminate the risk of low-skilled CEOs sorting into bankrupt firms, we find that the executive labor market interprets bankruptcy as a signal of lower managerial talent. This stigma effect is greater during better economic times. More details can be found in the full paper that is available here.