Aviation Chapter 11 Cases Take Flight

By Kelly DiBlasi and Jason George (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP)

Kelly DiBlasi
Jason George

Increased competition, rising fuel costs, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused financial distress for airlines and other aviation companies and led to an increase in their use of Chapter 11 to address these issues. Chapter 11’s many tools, including the automatic stay, DIP financing, and the ability to reject burdensome contracts or bind dissenting creditors, are available to both domestic and foreign companies. However, one underappreciated aspect of Chapter 11 is its flexibility in different stages of a restructuring with varying levels of stakeholder consent. For example, a company at imminent risk of running out of cash, defaulting on obligations, and/or confronting creditors collecting significant overdue payables can use Chapter 11 to prevent creditors from exercising remedies against the company and its property. Other companies may already have agreement with key stakeholders on the major components of a reorganization plan, only needing an in-court process to implement certain aspects of the plan that cannot be accomplished out of court, such as binding dissenting creditors. Chapter 11 can accommodate all such scenarios. This flexibility, combined with the tools and benefits described above, makes Chapter 11 an attractive option for airlines and other aviation companies in distress. As the aviation industry continues to experience financial distress, it is anticipated that more companies in the industry will look at Chapter 11 as a viable option to pursue a restructuring.

The full article can be found here.

Recent Delaware Bankruptcy Rulings Address Whether a Plan of Reorganization Can Deny a ‘Make-Whole’ Payment Without Impairing Lenders’ Claims

By Ron E. Meisler, Carl T. Tullson, Jennifer Madden, Justin Larsen (Skadden)

A number of recent bankruptcy court rulings have addressed the enforceability of “make-whole” premiums, payments that may be implicated in some loan agreements when debt is prepaid, or in certain cases, otherwise accelerated prior to its stated maturity. Make-whole litigation may turn on subtle distinctions of contractual language and is a zero-sum game where the outcome can be very costly to the borrower and substantially reduce recoveries to other stakeholders. Consequently, when debtors and creditors disagree on whether a make-whole has been triggered, they frequently assert complex and nuanced legal arguments.

In this article, we examine two recent make-whole cases from the Delaware bankruptcy courts: In re Mallinckrodt and In re Hertz. Mallinckrodt addressed whether a debtor’s plan of reorganization could deny payment of a make-whole, reinstate the underlying debt, and treat those claims as unimpaired. In comparison, Hertz considered whether creditors had claims for make-wholes under the specific language of the governing debt documents in the context of a plan that provided for payment of the principal and accrued interest in full, in cash, and therefore deemed those debt claims as unimpaired.

These cases reinforce the importance of carefully drafting make-whole provisions and the important distinction between chapter 11 plan of reorganization treatment, the effect of which could directly impact whether or not such creditors would be entitled to make-whole payments. Moreover, these cases emphasize that the law regarding make-wholes is not settled, and creditors and debtors alike should continue to monitor the evolving case law.

The full article is available here.

Voting Rights Assignment Unenforceable, but Subordinated Creditor Lacked Standing to Participate in Chapter 11 Plan Confirmation Process

By Dan B. Prieto (Jones Day) and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Dan B. Prieto
Mark G. Douglas

In In re Fencepost Productions Inc., 629 B.R. 289 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2021), the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Kansas recently addressed the enforceability of a provision in a pre-bankruptcy subordination agreement under which a subordinated creditor assigned to a senior creditor its right to vote on any chapter 11 plan proposed for the borrower. The bankruptcy court ruled that such a provision is not enforceable because it conflicts with the Bankruptcy Code. In a twist, however, the court concluded that the subordinated creditor lacked “prudential standing” to participate in the confirmation process because it was extremely out-of-the-money and therefore had no stake in the outcome of the case, but was attempting to assert the rights of third parties.

Courts disagree over whether an assignment of plan voting rights in an intercreditor or subordination agreement is enforceable. Regardless of the particular approach adopted by a court on this issue, the growing consensus is that agreements that seek to limit or waive junior creditors’ voting rights must contain express language to that effect. The ruling in Fencepost adds yet another chapter to the ongoing debate on this issue.

 The Fencepost court’s conclusion that the subordinated creditor lacked prudential standing would appear to be driven in part by the facts of the case, which involved a subordinated, clearly out-of-the-money creditor intent upon impeding an otherwise consensual reorganization.

The Bankruptcy Code, however, expressly provides to the contrary by, among other things, giving every “party in interest” (including creditors and interest holders, without making an exception in cases where there is no value available for distribution to them), the right to appear and be heard “on any issue” in a chapter 11 case, the right to vote on a chapter 11 plan, and the right to object to confirmation of a plan. These provisions arguably indicate that Congress intended to modify or abrogate prudential standing requirements when it enacted the Bankruptcy Code. Moreover, the “rights” any out-of-the-money creditor or shareholder would be seeking to enforce by participating in the confirmation process are arguably their own, rather than the rights of third parties.

A logical extension of the rationale articulated in Fencepost is that clearly out-of-the-money creditors or shareholders of an insolvent corporation would never have prudential standing to participate in the chapter 11 plan confirmation process. That approach would be contrary to court rulings and general practice in many chapter 11 cases.

The full article can be accessed here.

The Hertz Maneuver (and the Limits of Bankruptcy Law)

By Anthony J. Casey (Professor of Law, The University of Chicago Law School), Joshua C. Macey (Assistant Professor of Law, The University of Chicago Law School)

Anthony J. Casey
Joshua C. Macey

On June 11, 2020, the Hertz Corporation attempted to become the first corporate debtor to finance a bankruptcy proceeding by issuing new shares of common stock to the public. Though many thought Hertz’s equity was worthless, its stock was trading at a positive value on the secondary markets, and Hertz was attempting to tap into that market value. When the bankruptcy court blessed the plan, many observers responded with outrage on behalf of retail investors who, they argued, were being duped into a worthless investment. They suggested that the law should prevent retail investors from buying these shares. Ultimately, the Securities Exchange Commission signaled that it had similar concerns and effectively killed the proposal.

This essay explores the questions raised by this incident. It argues that commentators were focused on the wrong bankruptcy problem. Contrary to the view of the commentators, Hertz’s bankruptcy does not show that retail investors require bankruptcy-specific protections. The Hertz maneuver does, however, highlight distortions created by bankruptcy law’s distribution rule, known as the absolute priority rule. That rule cuts off future opportunities for those holding equity (or junior claims) in a debtor firm and makes it difficult for stockholders and unsecured creditors to make long-term investments in the firm’s future value. From this perspective, existing proposals to alter bankruptcy’s priority rules begin to look like a form of investor protection that could facilitate investment in a firm’s long-term value.

The full article is available here.

Second Circuit Affirms Enforceability of Swaps’ Flip Provisions

By Shmuel Vasser (Dechert)

Shmuel Vasser

Swaps, like other financial contracts (repurchase agreements, securities contracts, commodities contracts, forward agreements and master netting agreements), receive special treatment under the Bankruptcy Code.  Their acceleration, liquidation and termination is not prohibited as an ipso facto clause and the exercise of setoff rights is not subject to the automatic stay.  Transfers made in connection with these contracts are also exempt from avoidance as preferences and constructive fraudulent transfers as well as actual fraudulent transfer under state law.  But their scope is not always free from doubt.  Are provisions that modify the debtor’s priority of payment upon bankruptcy protected as well?  Are provisions that the swap incorporates by reference protected?  Must the swap counterparty itself exercise the right to liquidate, terminate and accelerate the swap?  The Second Circuit just answered these questions.

The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy Process for Sale

By Kenneth Ayotte (University of California Berkeley School of Law) and Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings College of the Law)

Kenneth Ayotte
Jared A. Ellias

The lenders that fund Chapter 11 reorganizations exert significant influence over the bankruptcy process through the contract associated with the debtor-in-possession (“DIP”) loan. In this Article, we study a large sample of DIP loan contracts and document a trend: over the past three decades, DIP lenders have steadily increased their contractual control of Chapter 11. In fact, today’s DIP loan agreements routinely go so far as to dictate the very outcome of the restructuring process. When managers sell control over the bankruptcy case to a subset of the creditors in exchange for compensation, we call this transaction a “bankruptcy process sale.” We model two situations where process sales raise bankruptcy policy concerns: (1) when a senior creditor leverages the debtor’s need for financing to lock in a preferred outcome at the outset of the case (“plan protection”); and (2) when a senior creditor steers the case to protect its claim against litigation (“entitlement protection”). We show that both scenarios can lead to bankruptcy outcomes that fail to maximize the value of the firm for creditors as a whole. We study a new dataset that uses the text of 1.5 million court documents to identify creditor conflict over process sales, and our analysis offers evidence consistent with the predictions of the model.

The full article is available here.

Rethinking Priority: The Dawn of the Relative Priority Rule and a New ‘Best Interest of Creditors’ Test in the European Union

By Axel Krohn (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany)

Axel Krohn

The European Directive on restructuring and insolvency (“Directive”), which came into force in July 2019, has triggered a series of interesting debates. The possibility for EU Member States to subject the cram-down from Article 11 to a “relative priority rule” (“EU RPR”) when implementing the Directive into national law has proven to be particularly controversial.

Despite a confusing conceptual overlap with approaches presented in the U.S., the European interpretation of “relative priority” breaks new ground. The rule stipulates that, under a restructuring plan, dissenting voting classes have to be treated merely more favorably than any junior class. Although the Directive allows national lawmakers to refrain from the EU RPR and introduce a familiar “absolute priority rule” (“APR”)—that is, that a dissenting class of creditors must be paid in full before junior parties may receive any distributions—the EU RPR has already found supporters in various jurisdictions and should therefore be thoroughly examined.

This article identifies one aspect of the cram-down that has received little attention to date. In addition to the EU RPR, the European legislature has introduced a new “best interest of creditors” test (“EU BIT”), which does not—as in 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(7)(ii)—use the value that a party could expect in a hypothetical liquidation as a comparator, but refers to the “next-best-alternative scenario.” Although the concept of combining the EU RPR and the EU BIT is coherent in theory and may even eliminate some misconceptions about the EU RPR, the interaction of the two cram-down elements is likely to raise problems in practice.

First, this article discusses the concepts of the two priority rules and traces the motives of the European legislature for introducing the EU RPR.

Three aspects in particular appear to have motivated the legislature in drawing up the rule. For one, the legislature wished to create more flexibility in plan negotiations and thus respond in particular to special needs in the restructuring of smaller businesses. The rule may bring advantages, especially when it is reasonable to enable existing shareholders to participate in the continued business by means of an equity interest. Second, with regard to some Member States, the desire has arisen to create an instrument to overcome structural blocking positions of certain preferential (priority) creditors, in particular tax authorities. Finally, there is a trend in Europe which sees in the Directive a procedure that enables a structured contractual renegotiation of debts and detaches itself from the “traditional laws of insolvency law,” including the APR.

This article then deals with the new EU BIT and examines its interaction with the EU RPR.

It is worth noting that the EU BIT plays a much more important role in an EU RPR cram-down than under an APR. By moving away from the traditional liquidation benchmark and instead linking to the “next-best-alternative scenario,” the test protects precisely the value that can be achieved from the perspective of a creditor outside insolvency without cooperating with other parties. The then remaining reorganization surplus, which is subject to the EU RPR, is that fraction of the going concern surplus which can only be achieved through the combined efforts of all parties involved, but which creditors cannot claim in an individual case of enforcement.

Despite this harmonious interaction in theory, doubts may be expressed as to whether the combination of the EU RPR and the EU BIT would work in practice. The new focus on the hypothetical next-best-alternative scenario value will likely lead to an additional stress point in plan negotiations. The EU RPR, which does not itself contain a clear guideline for the distribution of the remaining surplus, is then to be applied between two unclear values, namely the hypothetical next-best-alternative value and the presumed reorganization value. It is reasonable to assume that the resulting distributional uncertainty will cause new hold-up potential and render it difficult to realize consensual plans, especially in larger restructuring cases. Also, it seems likely that unsophisticated junior creditors will face difficulties in defending their rights adequately in view of the potentially unclear next-best-alternative scenario value, and that others will try to use this to their advantage in complex negotiations.

The full article is available here.

Updated Overview of the Jevic Files: How Courts Are Interpreting and Applying the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Structured Dismissals and Priority Skipping

By Shane G. Ramsey and John T. Baxter (Nelson Mullins)

Shane G. Ramsey
John T. Baxter

The U.S. Supreme Court in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., 137 S.Ct. 973 (2017), addressed the issue of chapter 11 debtors using structured dismissals to end-run the statutory priority rules. The Court’s ruling preserved the priority system, holding that the bankruptcy court could not approve a structured dismissal of a chapter 11 case that provided for distributions that failed to follow the standard priority rules unless the affected creditors consented to such treatment. Although the Bankruptcy Code does not expressly apply its priority distribution scheme to a structured dismissal, the Court clarified that courts should do so.

As a way to track how bankruptcy courts across the country are applying the ruling in Jevic, the Nelson Mullins Bankruptcy Protector has introduced a new periodic series: the Jevic Files. As of December 31, 2019, the Jevic Files has collected and summarized twenty-one cases across nineteen jurisdictions. While the majority of the cases involved structured dismissals in the context of a chapter 11 case, courts have also applied the ruling in Jevic to the dismissal of chapter 13 plans; the priority of trustee payments in a chapter 7 case; and even a state court foreclosure hearing that came on the heels of a dismissed chapter 11 case. As Jevic continues to be interpreted and applied in bankruptcy (and other) courts throughout the country, we will continue to keep an updated summary of cases through the Jevic Files.

The article is available here.

Corporate Restructuring under Relative and Absolute Priority Default Rules: A Comparative Assessment

By Jonathan Seymour, Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)

Jonathan Seymour
Prof. Jonathan Seymour
Steven L. Schwarcz
Prof. Steven L. Schwarcz

The European Union recently adopted a Restructuring Directive intended to facilitate the reorganization of insolvent and other financially troubled firms. Although the central goal of the Directive parallels that of Chapter 11 of U.S. bankruptcy law—to protect and maximize the value of financially distressed but economically viable enterprises by consensually reorganizing their capital structure—the Directive introduces an innovative but controversial option: that EU Member States can decree that reorganization negotiations should be subject to a relative priority default rule, as opposed to the type of absolute priority default rule used by Chapter 11.

The purpose of the default rule—whether relative or absolute priority—is to provide a mechanism whereby a plan of reorganization may be approved notwithstanding failure of the parties to reach a consensus. Such a “cram down” plan reflects that one or more classes of impaired creditors or shareholders dissents. In that case, the EU’s relative priority default rule would allow confirmation of the cram down plan so long as senior classes are treated more favorably than junior classes. In contrast, Chapter 11’s absolute priority default rule would require senior classes to be paid in full before junior classes receive any distribution under the cram down plan.

EU officials argue that relative priority would provide a fairer and more pragmatic default rule than absolute priority. We disagree. As explained below, we believe that a relative priority default rule would, perversely, make consensual reorganization plans less likely. We also illustrate why a relative priority default rule could produce unfair and economically undesirable outcomes.

A relative priority default rule would make consensual reorganization plans less likely because, unlike an absolute priority default rule, it would not function as a penalty default. Absolute priority functions as a penalty default because it would require a costly and contentious going-concern valuation of the debtor, in order to determine what share of the equity in the reorganized debtor is necessary to pay the claims of senior classes in full before any remaining value may be paid to junior classes. To avoid that cost and contention, the parties are motivated to negotiate a consensual plan, even if they would have to give up some value.

Relative priority, in contrast, would not operate effectively as a penalty default rule. A debtor could gain approval of a nonconsensual (i.e., cram down) plan without any valuation of the reorganized business. Even if a valuation is required, a simple and relatively inexpensive floor or ceiling valuation should suffice, rather than the precise valuation required under absolute priority. Parties therefore would have little incentive to compromise.

A relative priority default rule also would permit unfair outcomes. Our article shows how such a default rule would permit shareholders to retain much of the value in a reorganized business, while forcing creditors to accept significantly less than full payment. That could make debt investments less attractive in EU Member States that adopt a relative priority default rule. At the same time, relative priority would create incentives, as was the case in the early years of the U.S. bankruptcy laws, for senior and junior classes to collude to “squeeze” intermediate classes. Additionally, by reducing the risk of insolvency for shareholders and management, relative priority could operate as a subsidy for overleveraged businesses and encourage risky behavior.

For all of these reasons, we believe that EU Members States should avoid adopting a relative priority default rule. Our article also responds to potential defenses of that option. We demonstrate that relative priority is unnecessary to deter holdout creditors from obstructing the plan negotiation process. We additionally explain why relative priority is not needed to promote successful reorganizations of small and medium sized businesses. To the extent that traditional Chapter 11-style reorganization has not worked well for small businesses in the US, we suggest that the recent Small Business Reorganization Act provides a better restructuring model by permitting such businesses to reorganize on a “best efforts” basis.

The full article is available here.

A Functional Law and Economics Analysis of the Restructuring Directive from a French Law Perspective

Vasile Rotaru (Droit & Croissance / The Rules for Growth Institute)

From a functional law and economics perspective, the recent European restructuring directive (the ‘Directive’) brings both welcome innovations and multiple pitfalls. Its final text bears the traces of the divergent objectives and inspirations of its drafters. In a recent paper, I attempt to provide a thorough analysis of the different hidden ‘models’ and important measures of the Directive, as well as its unfortunate oversights.

The first part of the paper lays the theoretical foundations of the subsequent analysis. It has long been argued that insolvency law should pursue two objectives: (i) facilitating debtor’s ex ante access to finance; and (ii) ensuring an efficient ex post distribution of resources in the economy, by restructuring economically viable companies with bad capital structures and swiftly liquidating companies with an unsustainable business. Together, the two should result in wealth maximization, the default (but by no means only) criterion for assessing business law’s merits.

The paper takes a ‘functional’ approach, which is fueled by a deep skepticism towards any extensive cost-benefit analysis. It suggests that the ex ante focus should be on ensuring that a suitable epistemic framework is in place when the decision as to the redistribution of resources has to be taken. This implies incentivizing decision-makers to reliably reveal their preferences and bear the costs of their actions while diminishing coordination failures and potential conflicts of interests. Starting with this intuition, I attempt to reformulate the classical creditors’ bargain theory, underlining that so called ‘preventive’ proceedings are no exception.

In the second part of the paper, I rely on this theoretical framework to provide a critical analysis of the main measures of the Directive. I show that the apparent complexity of its final text (the contemplated proceedings could potentially take more than 70 forms) is owed to its drafters pursuing divergent objectives: economic efficiency or short-term preservation of businesses and jobs at all costs, with an unfortunate bias in favor of the latter (especially concerning SMEs).

Moreover, two coherent formal ‘models’ of proceedings are offered. The first is a unitary, public proceeding, with a potential general moratorium for up to four months. The second is a two-step proceeding—partially inspired by the current French model—that would start with an amicable phase devoid of wide publicity and would be accompanied by individual moratoria granted on a casuistic basis where they seem justified. The second, short and public ‘closing’ phase would be triggered in the specific circumstances where the restructuring plan has to be forced upon dissenting stakeholders. Once a decision has been made as to the objectives and formal model, most of the subsequent transposition options follow.

The Directive implies a devolution of decision-making powers to classes of affected stakeholders, although the court preserves a far too important role. Indeed, stakeholders are in the best position to identify and exploit any restructuring gain. It remains to be seen which criteria will be used to ensure that the interests of members of a class are aligned and no abusive behavior takes place. Where a plan is not approved by all classes of stakeholders, the Directive provides for a cross-class cram-down, where a majority of classes or at least one class of stakeholders who are ‘in the money’ must approve the plan. The latter option could potentially lead to abuses and uncertainties, given the meagre experience of European practitioners with valuations as a going concern. The cram-down can involve a debt-equity swap imposed both on shareholders, who should be treated as any other class of stakeholders and dissenting creditors. This possibility is not trivial, as it forces creditors to continue financing the business, and should be duly justified.

Unfortunately, the contemplated protections of stakeholders’ interests are somewhat underwhelming. For instance, instead of ensuring that all stakeholders share the restructuring gain in accordance with their respective ranks in the capital structure, the Directive provides for a confusing and dangerous ‘relative’ priority rule, which will likely render the negotiations unpredictable, or, alternatively, for an incomplete ‘absolute’ priority rule. Moreover, no protection is provided against debtor’s potentially abusive behavior before the opening of proceedings.

Finally, the paper offers some insights into the expected impact of its transposition into French law. In particular, its last part suggests that any transposition needs to aim at increasing the transparency and predictability of restructuring proceedings in order to foster secondary debt markets, and therefore to ensure that impatient creditors can easily be replaced by those interested in the restructuring gain.

The full article is available here.

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