This series is being managed by the Bankruptcy Roundtable and Xiao Ma, SJD at Harvard Law School, xma [at] sjd [dot] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu.
Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable periodically for additional contributing posts by academics and practitioners from institutions across the country.
When a crypto exchange such as FTX files for bankruptcy, crypto assets will often be treated as property of the estate and not as property of the individual or business that deposited coins with the exchange. Scholars have focused on the financial stability and consumer protection issues that arise as a result of this treatment.
In our opinion, there is an additional reason to treat crypto depositors as owners, not as creditors, of crypto assets, and to exempt holders of crypto assets from ordinary bankruptcy procedures such as the automatic stay. With some exceptions such as stablecoins, crypto assets are highly volatile. Claims against a crypto exchange, including claims submitted by customers who traded crypto assets on the exchange, are valued at the filing date. The failure of a crypto exchange is likely to occur when the crypto asset’s value has declined significantly. The fact that claims are valued at the filing date could lead to strategic bankruptcy petitions that redistribute value away from junior claimants. And even if crypto exchanges do not file with this purpose in mind, bankruptcy, by creating an artificial moment of reckoning, is likely to redistribute value from customers of a crypto exchange to the exchange’s other creditors or managers.
This is an extreme version of a familiar problem, which is that bankruptcy, by forcing a moment of reckoning, causes claimants who have invested in volatile assets to lose the option value of those investments. Imagine a company that has an asset that could appreciate significantly in the future but currently holds little value. If the firm files for bankruptcy, creditor claims are based on the value of the asset at the time the firm files for bankruptcy. If there is reason to think that the asset’s value will increase in the future, a bankruptcy filing allows the debtor to pay the relatively little and then benefit when the asset’s value goes up. That, in our opinion, offers another reason to think that customers of crypto exchanges should not be treated as unsecured creditors.
Editor’s Note: On November 1, 2022, the BRT concluded our eight-part series on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies (see below for the full list of posts in the series). On January 30, 2023, the Third Circuit released its opinion dismissing the bankruptcy filing of LTL Management, raising a host of new questions for mass tort bankruptcies. In response, the BRT invited contributors to the prior series, as well as some new voices, to analyze the decision and what it might mean for the future of mass tort bankruptcies.
We will resume our series on crypto bankruptcies next week!
In “The Dismissal of LTL and What Lies Ahead for Mass Tort Bankruptcy,” William Organek (Harvard Law School) summarizes the Third Circuit’s opinion dismissing LTL’s bankruptcy filing. The post then describes key takeaways from the opinion, suggesting how this might impact future mass tort bankruptcy filings, LTL’s tort creditors, and parent company Johnson & Johnson. Finally, it examines questions raised by mass tort bankruptcies that the opinion does not answer, instead leaving them for future cases and debtors.
In “Over-Thinking Ramifications of the Dismissal of LTL Management LLC’s Bankruptcy,” Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (ret.) (University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Tucker Arensberg, P.C.) explains how the Third Circuit’s opinion merely applies existing Third Circuit precedent to a single debtor to reach a fact-specific conclusion about the appropriateness of bankruptcy for LTL Management LLC. In doing so, the post argues against concerns that the opinion will make it more difficult for companies facing imminent financial distress to use bankruptcy to resolve their liabilities, even in the mass tort context.
Note: Judge Fitzgerald is a consultant for counsel for certain parties in the LTL bankruptcy, and the opinions expressed herein are solely her own.
In “The Implications of LTL’s Per-Debtor Analysis,” Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown University Law Center and Gordian Crypto Advisors LLC) describes how the LTL decision interacts with the standard entity separateness explanation for much of corporate law. If courts read the opinion strictly to require a debtor-by-debtor analysis of insolvency, this could have major implications for joint administration, venue, and other issues central to bankruptcy administration that stretch far beyond the mass tort context.
Note: Adam Levitin is a consultant for counsel for certain parties in the LTL bankruptcy, and the opinions expressed herein are solely his own.
In “Waltz Across Texas: The Texas Three-Step,” Edward J. Janger (Brooklyn Law School) and John A. E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School) explore how the seemingly limited decision in the LTL bankruptcy cannot be divorced from wider questions about why bankruptcy is being used to resolve mass tort liability. Focusing on the essential role that third-party releases play in mass tort bankruptcy filings, it suggests that we consider not only whether financial distress is required for good faith, but also what should be required of nondebtors seeking third-party releases and what justifies such extraordinary relief.
In “The Third Circuit’s New One-Step: Good Faith as Purpose in LTL,” Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University–Beasley School of Law) analyzes the LTL decision by examining how the court understands the concept of good faith. Earlier decisions in the Third Circuit relied on a primarily contractualist, or rules-based approach to good faith–does a debtor face financial trouble or does it have a substantial number of creditors? The LTL decision, however, endorses a more policy-oriented, or standards-based approach to good faith, asking whether the contemplated use of bankruptcy appropriately furthers the policy goals of chapter 11. This could lead to a re-evaluation of whether bankruptcy should be used for resolving mass torts, and some of the tools used by bankruptcy courts to facilitate a deal among the debtor and its creditors. This could have particular ramifications for other mass tort bankruptcies such as that of Purdue Pharma.
A Different Look at Sec. 548 and Concluding Thoughts, by Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Tucker Arensberg, P.C.) and Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown University Law Center and Gordian Crypto Advisors LLC); and John A.E. Pottow (University of Michigan School of Law)
By Marshall S. Huebner and Marc J. Tobak (Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP)
[Editor’s Note: The authors, along with other attorneys at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, represent Purdue Pharma L.P. and various affiliated debtors in connection with their ongoing bankruptcy proceedings.]
For decades, third party releases have been the cornerstone of mass tort bankruptcies that have resolved previously intractable litigation and provided meaningful compensation to victims who might well have otherwise recovered nothing. In cases such as Johns-Manville (asbestos), A.H. Robins (Dalkon Shield), Dow Corning (silicone breast implants), Mallinckrodt (opioids), and Boy Scouts of America, courts concluded, on a developed factual record informed by pre-bankruptcy litigation history, that value-maximizing settlements and plans of reorganization were viable only by providing settling parties paying into the estate third party releases of appropriate scope. The alternative to these broadly and deeply supported settlements, many in the billions of dollars, was years of costly and uncoordinated litigation in scores of fora and resulting in greatly diminished victim recoveries.
Critiques of third party releases often argue that these releases are in some way unfair to the parties subject to the release, or that third party release cases privilege monetary recoveries over nonmonetary goals. This article aims to address these issues and refocus the debate on the importance of third party releases in achieving and maximizing monetary and nonmonetary goals of victims in mass tort bankruptcies.
First, we canvass the overwhelming judicial consensus that the Bankruptcy Code (including sections 105 and 1123) authorizes third-party releases and channeling injunctions where important or essential to a value-maximizing reorganization, meet additional limiting tests, and are within the court’s jurisdiction. We highlight that a thorough examination of United States v. Energy Resources Co., 495 U.S. 545 (1990), demonstrates that the Supreme Court specifically affirmed the power of bankruptcy courts to confirm plans of reorganization that nonconsensually adjust rights and liabilities among third parties when such adjustments enable a successful reorganization.
Second, we examine how existing law—properly applied—appropriately limits third party releases to circumstances in which they maximize value for, and are broadly supported by, victims and other creditors. Proponents of a third party release plan must not only convince the court that it is objectively superior to the alternatives; in addition, the parties directly affected by the release must vote in favor of the plan by an “overwhelming” margin. Unsurprisingly, such plans are often crafted by creditors and debtors together, ensuring that they reflect victims’ monetary and nonmonetary goals.
Finally, we consider how mass tort resolutions would necessarily change if third party releases were to become unavailable. We note that recent legislative initiatives to categorically ban third party releases outside the asbestos context would make mass tort victims far worse off without achieving countervailing benefits. We recommend that legislative efforts directed at third party releases instead subject them to uniform procedures and standards. Such legislation would address valid critiques of overused third party releases while ensuring that they remain available, under uniform standards, in cases in which they are indispensable.
Note: This is the Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable’s last scheduled post for the fall of 2022. The BRT intends to resume posting around mid-January, 2023. The BRT wishes all its readers an enjoyable holiday season!
Reorganization proceedings, in contrast to liquidation sales, constitute a rather recent development in insolvency law. Embodied by Chapter 11 in the US, this trend has been further brought to light by the European Directive 2019/1023 of 20 June, 2019 on restructuring and insolvency, that requires EU Member States to set up a preventive reorganization framework. Reorganization plans typically involve complex interplays between competing stakeholders’ interests, and the classification of claims for the purpose of voting on the reorganization plan is both an illustration of these tensions and a mechanism designed to address them. Choices of European policymakers, especially in France where the classification of claims represents a major change, can offer new perspectives on best practices for modern reorganization plans. The classification of claims is an important feature of reorganization proceedings. First, it appears as a countermeasure to the debtor-in-possession and other debtor-friendly rules. Second, it promotes the adoption of a plan against hold-out problems from hostile minority or out-of-the-money creditors. Third, it provides guarantees of fairness and viability of the plan, through the consent of a representative majority of creditors.
Given the importance of claims’ classification, the design of classes has drawn a lot of attention during the implementation of the EU Directive in France. Debtor-in-possession proceedings leave the debtor with significant power over classification, with the potential for abuse through “gerrymandering”, i.e., the strategic classification of claims to create an artificially accepting impaired class, ensuring the adoption of a potentially unfair plan. Bankruptcy statutes fail to provide clear and binding criteria to restrict such strategies. Similarly, Chapter 11 case law – although precedents, notably Matter of Greystone III Joint Venture out of the 5th Circuit, have suggested a ban on gerrymandering – has been reluctant to challenge debtors’ classifications. Instead, policymakers have set protective rules for creditors, mainly the best-interest-of-creditors test and the absolute priority rule. However, these protections may be circumvented and difficult to enforce.
In this context, procedural design is suggested as a means of reconciling debtor-friendly rules with effective protections for creditors, thus ensuring a balance of interests in reorganization proceedings. First, effective judicial review over the classification of claims appears desirable and is addressed under French law with (i) the appointment of a trustee, with limited powers, assisting the debtor in possession, and (ii) an early, dedicated and fast-tracked appeal against the classification of claims, allowing the judicial resolution of disputes over classification before the adoption of the plan. A similar result may be achieved through a reinforcement of classification hearings. Second, hostile classification strategies could be avoided through prepackaged plans, in which the debtor negotiates with its creditors prior to filing for Chapter 11. French law provides for a dedicated two-stage framework through conciliation proceedings – confidential negotiations under the supervision of a court-appointed professional – followed by fast-tracked reorganization proceedings, where the plan can be adopted through a vote in classes that have been designed within the conciliation negotiations. Such proceedings are consistent with the modern negotiated, deal-approach to reorganizations while making use of insolvency mechanisms against hold-out problems, thus favoring a preventive and pragmatic solution to distressed situations.
Note: This is the eighth in a series of posts on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Styled as a coda of sorts, this double-post includes a new view on section 548 by Judge Judith Fitzgerald (ret.) and Adam Levitin, and some commentary on the other posts in the series by John Pottow.
Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable periodically for additional contributing posts by academics and others 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), here (by Ralph Brubaker), and here (by Mark Roe and William Organek).
Post One: The Texas Two-Step: A Different Look at Bankruptcy Code Section 548
By Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (ret.) (Professor in the Practice of Law, University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Shareholder, Tucker Arensberg, P.C.) and Adam J. Levitin (Anne Fleming Research Professor & Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center; Principal, Gordian Crypto Advisors LLC)[^]
Is the divisive merger in a Texas Two-Step bankruptcy a fraudulent transfer? To date, much of the analysis has focused on the question of the “transfer” of assets. From this perspective, the application of fraudulent transfer law is an uncomfortable fit. In a divisive merger, OldCo disposes of assets and liabilities by assigning the valuable assets to GoodCo and dumping the disfavored liabilities on BadCo. Yet the Texas divisive merger statute provides that “all rights, title and interest” in property are allocated in a divisive merger without “any transfer or assignment having occurred.” If state law deems the divisive merger not to constitute any form of transfer, how can a fraudulent transfer have occurred?
As Roe and Organek rightly contend, the Supremacy Clause mandates use of the Bankruptcy Code (“Code”) definition of “transfer” to the exclusion of contrary state law. Likewise, the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act has its own definition of transfer and indicates that the definitions are “[a]s used in this [Act],” such that even under state law the divisive merger statute’s definition of transfer would not control in a fraudulent transfer, voidable transactions, or § 544(b) action.
The key problem with viewing a divisive merger through the “transfer” lens is that Code § 548 requires the transfer to be one made by the debtor—BadCo—of its property or an interest it held in property. BadCo, however, did not exist at the time of the transfer and had no property at all. The transfer of the assets to GoodCo was not from BadCo, but from OldCo, which no longer exists. These seem to create impediments to attacking a divisive merger as a fraudulent transfer.
In order to bring the divisive merger within the ambit of § 548, a complainant might have to take an additional step, such as establishing that BadCo was the alter ego of the entity that transferred the property (as Roe and Organek note), or substantively consolidating BadCo and GoodCo. Without consolidation of BadCo and GoodCo, or an unwinding of the divisive merger altogether, a court could conclude that BadCo did not transfer property or an interest in property.
There is another part of § 548, however, that is a better fit for attacking a divisive merger. Section 548 also permits the avoidance of an obligation incurred by the debtor, for which the debtor received less than reasonably equivalent value and/or was insolvent at the time or was made insolvent as the result of the obligation.
The Texas divisive merger statute presents no obstacle for this theory. That statute deals with allocation of assets and liabilities under separate provisions. The asset provision deems the allocation of assets not to be a transfer, but there is no equivalent language in the liabilities provision. That is, nothing in the Texas statute states that the allocation of liabilities is not the incurrence of an obligation.
Similarly, § 548 refers to incurrence of an obligation by the debtor, a concept that works much better than a focus on transferring property of the debtor. Whereas the transfer provision implicitly requires the debtor to have had property to transfer in the first instance, the incurrence provision has no similar implication. All that is required is that the debtor, BadCo, incur an obligation that left it insolvent or insufficiently capitalized, a description that fits the treatment of BadCo in a divisive merger to a tee.
For example, in the divisive merger that preceded the LTL Management LLC bankruptcy filing, the BadCo, LTL, was saddled with all of the talc liabilities of OldCo (Old JJCI), an unliquidated liability in the billions of dollars. As part of the same transaction, it was given royalty-producing assets worth enough to cover the anticipated professionals’ fees in the bankruptcy, and certain insurance policies. LTL was also allocated a funding agreement by which both GoodCo (New JJCI) and OldCo’s parent (J&J) were to cover talc liabilities inside or outside bankruptcy, up to the value of OldCo on the date of the divisive merger, provided that certain conditions to use are satisfied. All of OldCo’s other assets (valuable brands and the JJCI name) and other liabilities were allocated to New JJCI. If the talc claims against LTL exceed the value of OldCo, then LTL would be insolvent, and the incurrence of the talc liabilities would be avoidable under § 548.
The distinction between transfers and obligations may support a fresh look at § 548, but raises the question of the remedy. The Code’s remedial provision, § 550, deals solely with recovery for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate of any avoided transfers of property; it is not geared toward the incurrence of obligations. But § 550 may not be necessary as a remedial provision regarding incurrence of obligations. Section 548’s language that “[t]he trustee may avoid…any obligation incurred … by the debtor” may itself be all that is necessary.
So what does this mean in practical terms? The avoiding of the incurrence of an obligation does not mean that the obligation disappears. Instead, its allocation follows normal state law successor liability principles. In the case of LTL, successor liability would likely put the talc liability squarely back on GoodCo through its continuation of OldCo’s business.
Focusing on obligations does not itself answer the valuation question about BadCo’s solvency, but it is a far better fit with fraudulent transfer law than trying to shoe-horn a divisive merger transaction into the definition of a “transfer” by a company that did not exist at the time property was transferred.
[^] Professors Fitzgerald and Levitin are both retained as consultants by certain talc claimants in the LTL bankruptcy; their opinions are their own.
A series of excellent posts have probed the recent developments of the infamous Texas Two-Step, and so I have only three additional comments.
First, a threshold issue that hungers for resolution is the idiosyncrasy of Texas law. As Jonathan Lipson points out, vertical forum shopping has suitors flocking to the bankruptcy court system, but what they specifically want is application of Texas corporate law. Specifically, mass tort defendants must avail themselves of its Doublespeak divisional merger statute and its “non-transfer transfers.” The issue is whether a transfer ordinarily susceptible to fraudulent conveyance scrutiny can be statutorily immunized by legislative pronouncement that it is an “un-transfer.” While this might invite the sort of textualism disquisition that would enthrall some (can the legislature define the black, frequently granulated table spice as “salt” without offending well-socialized legal sensibilities?), I am thematically drawn to Mark Roe and William Organek’s supremacy argument mooting it all out: that the Bankruptcy Code’s definition of “transfer” may supersede Texas’s. But I don’t think they get all the way there. My hopefully congenial amendment to their position is that additional work must be done to get the ball over the finish line by making out a Butner argument—which ought not be heavy-lifting—that federal bankruptcy purposes (e.g., preserving all assets for collective creditor treatment) warrant overriding the presumptive deference to state law definitions of property entitlements.
Second, all substantive concern, e.g., expressed as upsetting bankruptcy’s “traditional bargain” in Jared Ellias’ words (and especially so if they are solvent, as Ralph Brubaker reminds), really boils down to this: Are they cheating? And as Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey have noted, what that really means is: Are there enough assets left for the claimants? And that, as the road-terminus Rome of so many bankruptcy matters, is ultimately a valuation question—of claims, assets, going-concern surplus…the whole nine yards. Forests of trees have died in service of bankruptcy scholarship on valuation, and, just to make you, Dear Likely Reader, feel old, recall that North LaSalle well-preceded the birth of most current law students. My two cents in these hyper-inflationary times is that whenever I distrust valuation, and Ken Ayotte notes elsewhere that we should be extra-distrustful with synthetic analogues to real assets, I revert to my instincts that it’s hard to beat having skin in the game. Indeed, the elegance of the Code’s section 524(g) is in requiring the backstopping by half the equity of the company. So a “funding agreement” is fine and dandy, as is an “extraordinarily large” contribution of capital, but it’s no pledging of cold, hard assets. Third-party releases on demand? Not so fast! If debtors want to reap the bankruptcy system efficiencies of speedy aggregate litigation, they should have to backstop that benefit with the internalized risk of real, teethy underwriting.
Finally, and this point segues from the prior observation, the role of the discretion accorded bankruptcy judges stands front and center with the Two-Step. As the presumable watchdogs of over-reaching-cum-under-endowing BadCo, the bankruptcy judges wield their power to dispatch for lack of good faith or for receiving lack of reasonably equivalent value. (For the efficacy of bankruptcy judges in valuation matters, see Forests, supra.) To feel comfortable with them, then, one requires a sense of attunement to the risks and issues at stake. Yet as David Skeel reminded us, the gushing endorsement of the bankruptcy system dripping in the LTL opinion (or, perhaps by corollary, angst about the state tort system) may augur poorly for a critical eye being cast on these un-mergers. Unless we see some pushback and demonstrated non-naivete, legislative intervention seems overdetermined, as Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts have already flagged.
I am broadly sympathetic to modular usages of the bankruptcy system, but I have also been around enough blocks to know that one person’s more efficient resolution is another’s value-extracting cudgel. To cheerily assume the riskless benefit (low risk, high returns!) of this latest bankruptcy innovation is not just blinkered but is a Siren call for legislative intervention.
By Joao Guilherme Thiesi da Silva (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP)
Bankruptcy regimes across the globe have been constantly changing in response to new market demands and the evolution of insolvency law principles and objectives. Part of the academic community argues that such changes may lead to a convergence of domestic bankruptcy laws, as a result of globalization and market integration. Scholars have reviewed the phenomena of changes and convergence of bankruptcy laws in Europe, East Asia and Africa. However, little attention has been given to Latin American countries, such as Brazil. This paper aims at contributing to the discussion on changes and convergence of bankruptcy law, by focusing on four recent experiences within the Brazilian legal system, namely (i) the recent adoption of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency, (ii) the ability of creditors to propose a competing plan of reorganization, (iii) the adoption of pre-insolvency procedures, and (iv) the recognition of bondholders’ right to vote on a plan of reorganization. This paper concludes that there are indicia of a continuous convergence of Brazilian bankruptcy law with foreign and international norms, as changes in Brazilian bankruptcy law have increasingly mirrored the law and practice of certain metropolitan nations, as well as global norms and soft laws developed by international organizations and standard setting bodies. This paper further discusses the diverse array of processes through which convergence has taken place in Brazilian bankruptcy law, as well as the main driving forces underlying this convergence, such as the increasing influence of cross-border investments and international market players.
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 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.