By Charles Tabb and Carly Everhardt (Foley & Lardner)
In Ritzen Group Inc. v. Jackson Masonry, LLC,the Supreme Court unanimously held that a bankruptcy court’s order denying relief from the automatic stay constituted a final order, and thus that order may—and must—immediately be appealed if so desired. The holding regarding finality is important, because parties normally only have an absolute right to appeal when an order is final, not when an order is interlocutory. In Ritzen, the Court announced a clear blueprint for gauging the finality of any bankruptcy order.
The opinion comes just a few years after the Supreme Court decided Bullard v. Blue Hills Bank, in which the Court held that an order denying confirmation of a plan was not final, because the plan confirmation process could continue notwithstanding the denial. In Ritzen, the Court distinguished Bullard, explaining that the stay relief proceeding constituted its own complete procedural unit, separate and apart from any claims resolution issues. Ritzen puts to rest the view that Bullard signaled relaxed finality in the context of bankruptcy.
The article analyzes Ritzen and how it will impact strategic decisions by creditors regarding stay relief and other forms of bankruptcy litigation. The article considers open questions left by the Court, including the impact on the finality of an order which states it was entered “without prejudice,” and whether res judicata may apply in cases where creditors make multiple requests for relief.
By Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings College of the Law), George Triantis (Stanford Law School)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has moved quickly to get trillions of dollars of emergency relief to consumers, small businesses, and large firms. These efforts aim to rescue millions of American consumers and businesses from insolvency.
It is troubling, though, that the federal government is ignoring the law that already exists for cushioning the blows associated with financial distress: the bankruptcy system. In its strategy to provide relief and stimulus, the government is in effect offering roadside emergency assistance when the infrastructure and expertise of a hospital is easily accessible.
Because the bankruptcy system entails a detailed restructuring process, it forces companies to think hard about how they’ve been doing things and whether it makes sense to continue doing them that way. Cash infusions from programs like those in the CARES Act, on the other hand, are only designed to keep businesses’ heads above water. That’s all that some companies need, but for others that were already struggling before the crisis hit, such as J.Crew and Neiman Marcus, bankruptcy can encourage them to focus on their long-term health.
Our existing bankruptcy system isn’t only crucial for helping companies move past their immediate crisis of zero revenue and illiquidity, it will also be essential in helping entire industries adapt to a prolonged period of uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic.
By Hon. Paul W. Bonapfel (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge, N.D. Ga.)
A Guide to the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 is a comprehensive explanation of the new subchapter V of chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code that qualifying debtors may elect and other changes to the Bankruptcy Code that the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 (“SBRA”) enacted. The Guide also covers related changes to title 28 of the U.S. Code (Judiciary and Judicial Procedure) and the promulgation of Interim Bankruptcy Rules and revised Official Forms.
Among other things, the Guide discusses the new definition for ”small business debtor;” the role and duties of a subchapter V trustee; changes in procedures; provisions for the content and confirmation of a subchapter V plan (including elimination of the “absolute priority rule”); and new provisions for discharge after confirmation of a “cramdown” plan.
Since the distribution of earlier versions of the Guide prior to SBRA’s effective date (February 19, 2020) and its publication at 93 Amer. Bankr. L. J. 571, the paper has been revised and updated to include discussion of: the increase in the debt limits for eligibility for subchapter V under the CARES Act; how courts are implementing procedures for subchapter V cases; and early case law dealing with retroactive application of subchapter V, its availability in a chapter 11 case filed prior to its enactment, and the exception in new § 1190(3) to the antimodification rule in § 1123(b)(5), which prohibits the modification of a claim secured only by the debtor’s principal residence.
The latest Guide is available here. (Revised July 2020 to include Summary Comparison of U.S. Bankruptcy Code Chapter 11, 12, & 13, Key Events in the Timeline of Subchapter V Cases, and additional sources and discussion; supplemental materials added November 2020 and April 2021 in Chapters XIV and XV.)
Although the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is headquartered in Texas, it filed for chapter 11 in Delaware in February. That was permissible under existing bankruptcy venue rules because the BSA had created an affiliate in Delaware seventh months earlier. Unsettled by this apparent forum shopping, the Attorneys General of 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico sent a letter to Congress expressing their support for H.R. 4421, the Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2019. It would have prevented the BSA’s conduct. Ten state Attorneys General did not sign the letter: New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Montana, Virginia, and Wyoming.
Under the Act, a corporation could only establish venue in three places. First, the district where its “principal assets” were located for the 180 days before filing. Second, the district where it maintains its “Principal Place of Business.” Third, and only for controlled subsidiaries, any district where a case concerning an entity controlling 50 percent or more of its voting stock is pending. Changes of control or in the Principal Place of Business in the year before filing or conducted “for the purpose of establishing venue” would be disregarded. Corporations could thus no longer manufacture venue in a preferred jurisdiction by simply creating an affiliate there.
H.R. 4421 would also require the Supreme Court to promulgate rules allowing “any attorney representing a governmental unit” to appear in any chapter 11 proceeding without paying a fee or hiring local counsel. This provision likely factored heavily into the Attorneys General’s support for the Act. Their support letter emphasizes that the resulting rule would help them enforcers consumer protection and environmental laws by reducing the costs of defending their states’ interests in chapter 11 cases filed in distant jurisdictions.
The letter offered two reasons why corporations should not be able to manufacture venue in districts with seemingly favorable judges just by creating an affiliate there. First, it is costly for creditors (particularly small creditors) because they must either travel long distances or forgo face-to-face participation as well as hire local counsel in expensive legal markets. Second, it may cause the public to perceive the bankruptcy system as unfairly advantaging large corporations. H.R. 4421 would solve these problems by “ensur[ing] that bankruptcies are filed in jurisdictions where debtors have the closest connections and filings will have the largest impacts.” The letter notes the Southern District of New York and the District of Delaware as two currently attractive districts. But the Attorneys General argue that other district and bankruptcy judges have similar expertise.
Academics largely agree that 28 U.S.C. § 1408’s permissive venue rules encourage competition among bankruptcy courts to attract high profile cases, but opinion is split on whether this competition improves or degrades bankruptcy law.
Lynn LoPucki and William Whitford argue that venue choice degrades bankruptcy law by pressuring judges to exercise their discretion to favor debtors and their attorneys because these are the actors who usually choose where to file. They suggest, for example, that bankruptcy judges of the Southern District of New York misuse discretion by freely granting extensions of the 120-day exclusivity period during which only the debtor may propose a reorganization plan. Debtors can then agree to move toward confirmation of a plan in exchange for concessions from creditors.
David Skeel, on the other hand, argues that at least one of the venue choices that the proposed Bankruptcy Reform Act would eliminate—the district where the entity is incorporated—improves bankruptcy law by encouraging states to compete for incorporation fees by offering increasingly efficient bankruptcy rules in the multiple areas where federal bankruptcy law defers to state law.
On April 29, 163 current and retired bankruptcy judges sent a letter to members of the House Committee on the Judiciary expressing support for H.R. 4421’s proposed reforms. The letter stresses the preference for eliminating state of incorporation as a basis for venue.
By Andrew N. Goldman, George W. Shuster Jr., Benjamin W. Loveland, Lauren R. Lifland (Wilmerhale LLP)
Valuation is a critical and indispensable element of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process. It drives many aspects of a Chapter 11 case, from petition to plan confirmation, in all circumstances. It may be obvious that the COVID-19 crisis has added a layer of complexity—and volatility—to bankruptcy valuation issues with respect to valuing assets, liabilities, and claims, both in and outside the Chapter 11 context. But the crisis may also change the way that courts look at valuation determinations in Chapter 11—both value itself, and the way that value is measured, may be transformed by the COVID-19 crisis. While the full extent of the pandemic’s effect on valuation issues in bankruptcy has yet to be seen, one certainty is that debtors and creditors with a nuanced and flexible approach to these issues will fare better than those who rigidly hold on to pre-crisis precedent.
The United States’ response to COVID-19 has led to record levels of unemployment and a severe contraction in real GDP. The economic shock has already pushed companies such as J.C. Penney and J.Crew into bankruptcy. And many more, such as AMC and Hertz, may quickly follow. If that happens, the nation’s bankruptcy courts could soon face unprecedented levels of stress. There are at least four ways to address a potential surge.
First, Congress could authorize more permanent bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized the federal courts of appeals to appoint 316 permanent bankruptcy judges throughout the country. But three years ago, when the economy was much stronger, the Judicial Conference argued that more judges were still needed.
Second, Congress could authorize more temporary bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized about three dozen of them. Temporary bankruptcy judgeships expire when the occupant dies, retires, resigns, or is removed from office 5 years after the seat was created or extended. The most recent extension was in 2017, so the current temporary bankruptcy judgeships will remain vacant once occupants begin to depart after 2022 if the seats are not extended.
Third, the judicial council of each federal court of appeals could recall retired bankruptcy judges to serve.
Fourth, the judicial councils for the federal courts of appeals could agree to temporarily transfer bankruptcy judges around the country. Although this would do little to alleviate stress from an absolute rise in bankruptcies, it could help manage bottlenecks in places with disproportionate bankruptcy filings—such as Delaware, New York, and Texas. Under 28 U.S.C. § 152(d), “[w]ith the approval of the Judicial Conference and of each of the judicial councils involved, a bankruptcy judge may be designated to serve in any district adjacent to or near the district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed.” And, under 28 U.S.C. § 155(a), “[a] bankruptcy judge may be transferred to serve temporarily as a bankruptcy judge in any judicial district other than the judicial district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed upon the approval of the judicial council of each of the circuits involved.”
An interdisciplinary group of bankruptcy scholars from the “Large Corporations Committee of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group” recently sent an open letter to the United States Senate/House of Representatives on the potential impact of a sharp rise in bankruptcies on the bankruptcy court system. In the letter, the bankruptcy scholars pointed to the deteriorating market for corporate debt and the rising unemployment rate as likely to induce increased bankruptcies in the next months. If the economy does not prepare, the level of demand on the bankruptcy court system could become overwhelming. Accordingly, the scholars urge Congress to start planning and create additional resources to support the existing court system, such as adding temporary bankruptcy judges, recalling of retired judges, and moving judges from less-busy districts to busier districts.
By Ben Iverson (Brigham Young University), Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)
The COVID-19 pandemic looks likely to cause a surge in bankruptcies in the United States—conceivably a surge as rapid and as substantial as the U.S. court system has ever experienced. A significant and rapid increase in judicial capacity to manage the flood of cases is more than appropriate, we argued in a recent op-ed.
Bankruptcy filings in the United States have historically peaked several months after a surge in unemployment. And American unemployment is now rising at an unprecedented rate, with more than 30 million claims filed in the last six weeks. If historical patterns hold, the bankruptcy surge would be on track to be the largest the American bankruptcy system has experienced.
Bankruptcy works well enough and quickly enough in normal times, particularly for restructuring large public firms. But it cannot work as well, and the economy will suffer, if the bankruptcy system is overloaded. Delays in critical vendor orders, DIP loan approvals, pre-packaged bankruptcy confirmations and the like could all slow commerce unnecessarily.
By Franklin H. Top III, Stephen R. Tetro, Richard F. Klein, James M. Heiser (Chapman and Cutler LLP)
Hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in aircraft equipment in the United States. With the airline industry suffering devastating losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Chapman and Cutler LLP recently released its Bankruptcy and Aircraft Finance Handbook. The handbook aims to help aircraft investors navigate the numerous challenges typically faced in airline bankruptcies. The handbook seeks to provide an understanding of the unique aspects of § 1110 of the Bankruptcy Code and other related provisions that govern the treatment of claims in bankruptcy involving aircraft. It also outlines the state law remedies available to aircraft investors outside of bankruptcy.
In addition, the handbook seeks to demystify the complex structures behind these investments, including secured loans, sale/leasebacks, operating leases, pass-through certificates, leveraged leases and public debt, including equipment trust certificates or enhanced equipment trust certificates. Each structure can present its own unique challenges in bankruptcy.
We also provide a checklist of considerations for aircraft investors drawn from over 30 years of experience, and identify some of the common challenges that investors face in airline bankruptcies. We provide investors with an understanding of the legal protections available in the event an aircraft investment heads south, as well as share lessons learned from prior airline bankruptcies from the 1990s to the present
For the last decade, the European Union has been reconceptualizing its corporate restructuring framework with the hope of bolstering capital markets and improving cross-border lending. Unfortunately, the system remains plagued by two intractable problems: divergent substantive law at the Member State level and jurists unaccustomed to guiding reorganization cases. The result is a system beset by uncertainty and disparate treatment. The EU is intent on addressing these problems, but progress has been elusive. The EU must work through recommendations and directives to encourage Member States to align substantive restructuring law with policy design. But Member States have been unresponsive to the EU’s recent efforts. The prospect of addressing these intractable problems in the foreseeable future is grim. Therefore, this Article breaks with current scholarship and urges the EU to adopt a radical alternative. The EU should consider making legal and structural changes that will facilitate bankruptcy tourism. I argue that affording corporations increased discretion as to the location of restructuring cases will aid in creating judicial hubs of optimal law and experienced jurists. The EU has the power to adopt my recommendations by simply modifying its own law and procedure, which should accelerate implementation timelines.
Ultimately, economists foresee an impending financial correction. The EU’s restructuring framework is unprepared to offer predictable and comprehensive reorganization outcomes for the next wave of distressed corporations. This Article proposes a novel vantage point from which to assess policy alignment.