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.

“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.

“Confessions” of a Forum Shopper – A Debtor’s View of Venue Choice

posted in: Bankruptcy, Bankruptcy Reform | 0

By Andrew Dietderich (Sullivan & Cromwell LLP)

Andrew Dietderich

Corporate debtors can decide if, when and how to file for chapter 11. Recently, there is a great deal of concern about their ability to decide where. In a series of two articles for the ABI Journal, I explain as debtor’s counsel the practice of responsible forum shopping and argues that it is, on balance, a social good.

 Motivated by recently introduced legislation that would force domestic debtors to file chapter 11 only in the jurisdiction of their headquarters, Part I warns that mandating a single venue for a corporate debtor will impede legitimate restructurings and hurt companies and workers. There are important reasons why a distressed domestic corporation may need to file away from its headquarters: examples from my own experience include the need to preserve critical corporate contractual assets and to protect rank-and-file employee severance.  

 Since U.S. bankruptcy law necessarily varies from place to place around the country, someone has to decide what particular version of bankruptcy law should apply to each case given its unique factual context and reorganization purpose.  As with many other chapter 11 decisions, the board of directors of the debtor is the least worst alternative.   

Of course, there are some legitimate concerns with the current system of modified venue choice.  But the venue reform legislation proposed in Congress is too blunt of an instrument.  It is uninformed by experience in the trenches reorganizing distressed business and, if passed, would hurt some of the people it aims to help. Part I appears in the September issue of the ABI Journal, available here.

Part II of the series addresses international forum shopping—specifically the use of chapter 11 by non-U.S. debtors with minimal U.S. contracts—appears in the October issue of the ABI Journal.

Bankruptcy’s Equity Canon

By Jared Mayer (Law Clerk, Supreme Court of New Jersey)

Jared Mayer

The Bankruptcy Code constrains bankruptcy courts’ equitable powers, yet bankruptcy courts have often used those powers in ways that go beyond the Code’s text. This conflict creates tensions between various bankruptcy goals. The Code provides ex ante certainty and contains substantive policy choices, which equity threatens to compromise by allowing bankruptcy judges to override the text. Without equity, however, bankruptcy proceedings would provide parties with occasions to gain positional advantages in bankruptcy, thereby allowing them to unilaterally capture value at those other parties’ expense.

Drawing on insights from equity theory, this Essay identifies a role that equity can play to balance these interests. This Essay proposes an “equity canon” for bankruptcy courts to use when interpreting the Bankruptcy Code: judges should interpret unclear provisions by disregarding interpretations that would lead to inequitable outcomes. Equity theorists have illuminated equity’s role in combating opportunistic evasions of the law that cannot be identified and prevented ex ante. This is particularly important in bankruptcy. While bankruptcy proceedings are designed to maximize the estate’s value, parties nonetheless have incentives to capture value for themselves. Bankruptcy courts can use the equity canon to combat parties’ opportunistic exploitation of the Code while respecting the Code’s primacy.

The full Essay is available here.

Nothing herein reflects the views of the Supreme Court of New Jersey or the New Jersey Judiciary.

The Evolution of Corporate Rescue in Canada and the United States

By Jassmine Girgis (University of Calgary, Faculty of Law)

Jassmine Girgis

This chapter explores the evolution of corporate rescue in both Canada and the U.S. The timing and specific circumstances surrounding the legislation’s enactment were different in each country, but the underlying concepts and goals within the broader context of bankruptcy legislation were the same. Both countries had experienced the profound effects of business failure on directly impacted stakeholders, as well as on surrounding communities, and they recognized that saving companies would protect investments, preserve jobs, maintain the supplier and customer base, and prevent the wider impact of bankruptcy on society. To that end, both countries devised proceedings to restructure and rehabilitate financially distressed companies, allowing them to re-emerge with new debt or equity structures and continue operating as going concerns.

Historically, traditional restructurings – that is, proceedings in which the debtor company engages in lengthy negotiations with its creditors to restructure its debt obligations and business operations, all under the supervision of the court – were used extensively, dissolving unsuccessful companies while allowing others to emerge and continue operating. But these proceedings were slow, expensive, and cumbersome, and as changes in technology, firm assets, the economy and financial instruments modified the ways companies operated, and globalization altered their business methods and interactions with the community, a different process emerged. Rather than rescuing companies, this new process liquidated or merged them with other companies, and though traditional restructurings continued to occur, they have largely given way to sales or liquidations. Importantly, these emerging liquidation proceedings did not occur under bankruptcy or receivership regimes, but under the statutes that governed restructurings. They also occurred without meaningful consideration as to how this shift affects the public interest goals of the legislation.

The first part of this chapter discusses what happened: the history of these statutes, the reasons traditional restructurings emerged, and the eventual move to liquidations. The second part explores the three broad reasons liquidation plans replaced restructuring. First, an increase in secured debt left secured creditors in control of the financially distressed debtor corporations, and secured creditors typically prefer liquidation over restructuring. Second, the decline in the manufacturing and industrial era and growth of a service-oriented economy impacted firm assets; assets became less firm-specific and more fungible. Finally, increasingly complex financial instruments altered the composition of creditors; creditors at the table now include hedge funds and other non-traditional lenders, and they may be motivated by factors beyond saving the distressed company or maximizing its asset value.

The third part of this chapter addresses the consequences of using rescue legislation to liquidate companies. First, the governing legislation was not meant to be used in this way, and stakeholders in these expedited sales do not have the benefit of the procedural and substantive safeguards that arise in restructuring proceedings. Second, it is arguable that these liquidation proceedings do not fulfil the public policy goals of restructuring legislation. Finally, embedded within public policy is the concept of value-maximization, but what ‘value’ means and how it can be maximized, is not static, and may have different connotations under traditional restructurings than under liquidations.

The last part considers the most feasible way forward for each country: where does corporate rescue go from here? This section examines whether the bankruptcy forum should be abandoned in favour of non-bankruptcy legislation or private contracts, or whether the answer lies in improving the current legislative schemes. Although many do not want to see restructuring legislation overhauled, they do recognize that this legislation was enacted under different circumstances, in a different market, when corporations looked vastly different than they do today, and that to remain relevant, it must come to reflect today’s society and corporations. Doing so requires reconceptualizing how liquidation fits into the public policy goals of the statute and reassessing the concept of value to determine what it should encompass. 

The full chapter is 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

Corporate Reorganization as Labor Insurance in Bankruptcy

By Diana Bonfim (Banco de Portugal; Catholic University of Portugal – Catolica Lisbon School of Business and Economics) and Gil Nogueira (Bank of Portugal – Research Department)

Diana Bonfim
Gil Nogueira

How does corporate reorganization affect labor outcomes in bankruptcy? The existing literature argues that corporate reorganization affects the reallocation of labor because it retains workers in bankrupt firms. In some cases, bankrupt firms remain alive for too long and retain workers inefficiently. In other cases, reorganization reduces the probability of inefficient liquidation.

In this paper we show that resource retention is not the only determinant of labor outcomes in bankruptcy. The decision process in bankruptcy creates a principal-agent problem between firms’ claimholders and other stakeholders (e.g., workers, suppliers). Claimholders decide bankruptcy outcomes but other stakeholders with limited say in the bankruptcy process are also affected by these outcomes. 

Workers are among these stakeholders. They use job contracts with firms as a form of insurance in times of adversity. In the absence of corporate reorganization, workers lose these job contracts and experience persistent costs of job loss. Reorganization improves labor outcomes because it reduces the probability that workers lose the insurance provided by job contracts when the costs of job loss are high.

We test this hypothesis empirically using data from Portuguese reorganization cases. The institutional setting has several features that help design an adequate empirical strategy. First, reorganization cases are randomly allocated across judges. We use this random assignment as a source of variation in the probability of reorganization that is not affected by other factors that also influence workers’ careers. Second, Portuguese firms report financial statements annually, which we use to check whether reorganization affects labor reallocation to more productive or profitable firms. Finally, we link this data to a rich administrative employer-employee matched dataset, which allows us to track workers who eventually change jobs. This dataset is unique because it contains rich job descriptors. We use this data to establish a relationship between corporate reorganization and the scarring effect of bankruptcy on workers’ job functions.

We uncover three main findings. First, we measure the effect of corporate reorganization on the sorting of workers to productive and profitable firms. In five years, only about 20% of the workforce remains in reorganized firms. Many workers from reorganized firms find jobs with new employers. We find no evidence that reorganization affects the reallocation of labor to efficient or profitable firms.

Second, reorganization is an important source of labor insurance against negative productions shocks. In the short term, reorganization increases the probability that workers are employed. In the long term, reorganization increases wages and reduces the scarring effect of job downgrading that is often observed in recessions. Reorganization reduces the probability that workers move to less skill-intensive occupations and increases occupation wage premia. 

Third, we show that reorganization improves job transitions to new employers. Reorganization increases the average time it takes to leave a firm that files for bankruptcy by one year. Reorganization reduces the probability that workers move to low-paying jobs and increases the probability that workers find high-paying jobs with new employers.

Overall, our results show that corporate reorganization is an important source of labor insurance in bankruptcy, thereby mitigating the scarring effect of job loss. The full article is available 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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