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

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Harvard Law School)

Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies.  Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.

Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts) and here (by Jonathan C. Lipson).

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In October 2021, Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) executed a strategy to use the bankruptcy system to resolve a massive flood of personal injury lawsuits.  In doing so, J&J found a way to obtain the benefits of Chapter 11 without accepting the burden of operating a business under court oversight.  J&J achieved this outcome by executing a corporate law move dubbed the “Texas Two-Step.”  The Two-Step split J&J’s consumer division into two entities: (1) LTL Management LLC, which was allocated all of J&J’s baby powder-related tort liability; and (2) a second entity that contained the assets of its consumer businesses.  LTL Management subsequently filed for bankruptcy without the assets of the consumer business.  In a landmark recent opinion, Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey held that these maneuvers were not a bad faith bankruptcy filing.  As I argue below, Judge Kaplan’s ruling, which attempts to use bankruptcy law to ameliorate weaknesses in tort law, may inspire other wealthy firms to emulate J&J’s tactics.  It may also feed a potential backlash from higher courts and Congress that may make the bankruptcy system less useful to large firms.

In short, J&J’s bankruptcy strategy upends the traditional bargain that Chapter 11 offers to distressed corporations and their creditors.  Congress designed a bankruptcy system that provides companies with powerful protections, such as an automatic stay of non-bankruptcy litigation.  In exchange, companies must submit their assets to court oversight.  To be sure, a bankruptcy filing always undermines some of the bargaining power that mass tort claimants have outside of bankruptcy, such as the ability to bring many individual lawsuits.  However, the burden of court oversight also gives creditors bargaining power, as companies seek to exit bankruptcy quickly to escape the expense and distraction of a bankruptcy proceeding.  J&J argues it has found a better way of using the bankruptcy system: J&J would use a contract to make the assets of the consumer division available to pay any amounts owed to tort victims and its procedural machinations meant that those assets would not be depleted by wasteful court oversight.

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

The “Texas Two-Step” strategy deployed by J&J takes these existing strategies a step further by surgically separating assets from liabilities to create a favorable bargaining environment.  In holding that this maneuver was not a bad faith use of the bankruptcy system, Judge Kaplan opens the door to other wealthy firms to engage in similar maneuvering to resolve mass torts problems. For example, will the next company with headline-grabbing tort liability, such as an unexpected oil spill, respond by “spinning off” its liabilities into a bankruptcy filing?  In the past, this only would have happened if the resulting liability rendered the polluter insolvent, but now even wealthy and solvent firms may decide that their fiduciary duty requires them to use the bankruptcy system to deal with their liability.

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

Bankruptcy Court Ruling Imposes Lender Liability

By Daniel S. Shamah, Jeff Norton, Jennifer Taylor, Sung Pak, and Joshua Chow (O’Melveny & Myers LLP)

“Lender liability” is an umbrella term often used to describe claims against lenders who overstep their boundaries when seeking to enforce a loan.  It embraces both contractual and tort-based theories of liability, including claims for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fiduciary duty claims, as well as bankruptcy-based theories like equitable subordination.  While courts have historically held that lender liability claims are difficult to sustain, there are cases that give guidance on how lenders cross the line and the consequences of doing so.  In this recent article, the authors highlight one recent Texas bankruptcy court decision in which a court determined that a lender engaged in the kind of egregious conduct that could lead to disallowance of a loan and an award of damages and interest.  Lenders in particular should study this case closely for tips on how to avoid these landmines.

The full article is available here.

 

My Creditor’s Keeper: Escalation of Commitment and Custodial Fiduciary Duties in the Vicinity of Insolvency

By Amir Licht (Professor, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel)

Amir Licht

In several common law jurisdictions, creditors of corporate debtors enjoy legal protections through vicinity-of-insolvency fiduciary duties, beyond what their contracts with those companies afford them.  These duties form a notoriously murky area, where legal space warps.  The contours of this area are fuzzy.  Courts openly acknowledge that it is difficult to identify clear guideposts for its threshold—as to when exactly these duties are enlivened.  In a forthcoming article, I purport to make two main contributions.  First, the article expands the theoretical basis for a special legal regime in virtually insolvent firms by pointing out escalation of commitment as a potent and relevant factor that has been largely overlooked by insolvency scholars.  Second, this article addresses the substantive content of the duty to protect creditors where such duties are recognized.

The standard account that is usually invoked to explain and justify special fiduciary duties to consider creditors’ interest points to the danger of opportunistic high-risk behavior by managers on behalf of shareholders.  I argue that this account may be sound but is nonetheless lacking.  In addition to such risk-shifting opportunism, lawmakers should also be mindful of managers’ tendency to unjustifiably continue failing projects, known as escalation of commitment.  Escalation of commitment refers to a phenomenon, in which people tend to remain married to their original choices and to commit resources to them even when it is no longer rational to do so.  Escalation of commitment is ubiquitous.  It has been observed in organizations large and small, in business corporations and in the public sector.  Escalation of commitment is not only an irrational and emotional personal behavior.  More often than not, it takes place in a broader social context of one’s ingroup—in particular, the board of directors, the organization, and one’s community and culture.

Escalation of commitment poses an equal, if not greater, challenge than risk shifting does to optimal regulation of companies in looming or virtual insolvency.  Being largely detached from rational calculations, escalation of commitment presents a more compelling justification for legal regulation, and a more interventionist one at that.  In this view, managers—especially owner-managers—of virtually insolvent firms may not enjoy the usual level of deference that the law affords to their business judgment in regular times, as their discretion at that point is prone to be clouded by a misplaced motivation to stay the course, weather the storm, and similarly-spirited no-quitting notions.  

Factors that could facilitate de-escalation include better information on costs and benefits of the project, regular evaluation and monitoring of projects, clear criteria for success and minimum target performance levels, and clear feedback about underperforming projects.  Such measures will have limited efficacy, however, if the information they generate is interpreted and acted on by decision-makers who have initiated the failing project and even by different persons who are nonetheless related to those decision-makers.  Change in management is thus essential.

While Delaware law rejects the idea of a pre-insolvency creditor-focused fiduciary duty, several jurisdictions do recognize duties to protect creditors, either as a duty to consider creditors’ interests or as the rule against wrongful (or insolvent, or reckless) trading.  I argue that these duties should be enlivened at the very edge of the zone of insolvency, close to the latter.  At that point, the mission of directors should transform from entrepreneurial to custodial.  That is, they should implement strategies that aim to preserve the firm—in working condition, to the extent possible, with a view to resuming regular business—but avoid seeking new projects with a view to maximizing profits.  This could mean that the shield of the business judgment rule may not be available to the same extent as in regular circumstances.  The Covid-19 pandemic that swept the globe in 2020 provides a fresh context for this approach and underscores the need to implement such a regime sensibly, with high deference to business decisions even if outside the scope of the business judgment rule.  The article concludes with a comparative analysis of creditor-oriented duties in several common law jurisdictions and examines how they could implement a custodial approach.

Bond Trustees, and the Rising Challenge of Activist Investors

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

Steven L. Schwarcz

Large financial institutions, such as U.S. Bank or Bank of NY Mellon, typically administer the governance of bond indentures—the contract under which bonds are issued—on behalf of the investors; in that role, they are called indenture trustees or, more colloquially, bond trustees. In Bond Trustees, and the Rising Challenge of Activist Investors, the 2020 TePoel Lecture at Creighton University School of Law, I examine how bond trustees should respond to this challenge.

Bondholders are the primary beneficiaries of indenture governance, just as shareholders are the primary beneficiaries of corporate governance. As beneficiaries, bondholders and shareholders have much different expectations. Indenture governance and corporate governance have evolved differently to meet those different expectations.

For example, because bondholders are only entitled to receive principal and accrued interest on their bonds, indenture governance has evolved to protect that recovery. In contrast, because shareholders, as residual claimants of the firm, are entitled to (and thus expect to receive) the firm’s surplus value, corporate governance has evolved to increase that value.

Most people would consider corporate governance as more important than indenture governance. In part, that’s because corporations and stock markets are highly visible to the average person. Also, a corporate manager’s job—to try to increase shareholder value—involves more judgment and discretion, and thus can be more interesting (and more desirable of scholarly study), than an indenture trustee’s job of merely protecting bondholder recovery.

Still, indenture governance is critically important. Domestically and worldwide, the amounts invested in bonds dwarfs the amounts invested in stock. Recent data show, for example, that global bond issuance is almost 30 times greater than global equity issuance.

An indenture trustee’s governance duties turn on whether the trustee is acting pre-default, or post-default. Once an indenture defaults, the law requires the indenture trustee to act on behalf of the bondholders as would a prudent person in similar circumstances regarding its own affairs. Many post-default decisions—such as whether to accelerate the maturity of the bonds or to liquidate collateral—involve difficult judgment calls. These decisions are made more difficult by what I have called a “protection gap”: when things go wrong, investors often blame parties with deep pockets, especially indenture trustees, for failing to protect them. Post-default indenture governance becomes even more complicated when the bondholders themselves have conflicting interests, caused, for example, by conflicting payment priorities or conflicting sources of payment.

Notwithstanding its complexities, post-default indenture governance is informed by case law. And perhaps because of its complexities, post-default indenture governance is also informed by legal scholarship. In contrast, pre-default indenture governance is not yet well informed by either case law or legal scholarship. The rising challenge of activist investors is now making it critical to also understand what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be.

Historically, an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have been seen as ministerial and limited to the specific terms of the indenture, such as selecting bonds for redemption and preparing and delivering certificates. Since the financial crisis, some investors argue that indenture trustees of securitized bond issues, in which investors are paid from collections on underlying financial assets such as mortgage loans, should have pre-default fiduciary duties. Indeed, complaints in recent lawsuits allege that those indenture trustees should “police the deal” for the investors.

These allegations are not compelling. Indenture trustees receive relatively tiny fees and don’t even negotiate the terms of the indentures. In contrast, the institutional investors in securitized bond issues, including activist investors, are highly sophisticated. Indenture trustees could not understand complex securitized bond issues better than those investors.

Furthermore, parties other than indenture trustees are assigned monitoring duties to protect the investors. Notably, securitized bond issues require a party, usually called a servicer, to service and collect payment on the underlying financial assets. In litigation following the financial crisis, which caused widespread defaults on residential mortgage loans, some investors argued that indenture trustees in mortgage securitization transactions should have monitored or supervised the performance of the mortgage-loan servicer.

Imposing such duties on the indenture trustee would be duplicative and expensive. Rather, an indenture trustee that actually becomes aware of servicing problems should act in a common sense and practical manner. For example, it might enter into conversations with the servicer about its performance and communicate the results of those conversations to the investors. It also might seek, or request the investors to provide, formal investor directions.

Typically, indentures allow investors with at least 25-50 percent of voting rights to direct the indenture trustee to act.

The full TePoel Lecture is available here: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3543656.

For a related Roundtable post, see Steven L. Schwarcz, Indenture Trustee Duties: The Pre-Default Puzzle.

Bankruptcy Sales: Is A Public Auction Required to Assure That Property Is Sold for The Highest and Best Price?

By Vicki R. Harding (Vicki R. Harding, PLLC)

A buyer negotiating acquisition of commercial real estate from a Chapter 7 trustee or a Chapter 11 debtor-in-possession will almost always hear the mantra: “I have a fiduciary duty to maximize value for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate” – which the seller insists means the property must be sold through a public auction. The potential buyer may be designated as the stalking horse (e.g. its offer will be treated as an opening bid), and it may have input on the bidding procedures (bidder qualifications, minimum overbid, purchase price payment terms, etc.). But at the end of the day it runs a risk that after investing time and money in pursuing the acquisition someone else may be selected as having made a “higher and better” offer.

However, that is not always the case.  In re 160 Royal Palm, LLC, 600 B.R. 119 (S.D. Fla. 2019) presents an interesting case study. As discussed in Bankruptcy Sales: Highest Is Not Always Best, the bankruptcy court allowed a debtor to withdraw property from a previously authorized public auction and to proceed with a private sale to a designated buyer, subject only to an overbid by the stalking horse from the public auction. The court approved the private sale over the objection of a third party that claimed that in a public auction it would bid at least $1 million more than the private sale purchase price.

The full article is available here.

Indenture Trustee Duties: The Pre-Default Puzzle

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

Indenture trustees act for the benefit of the investors in a company’s bonds. They perform this role for virtually all companies that issue bonds, whether in the United States or abroad. The existing scholarship on their duties focuses on the post-default scenario. In many countries, including the United States, the law then imposes a ‘prudent person’ standard. This Article, in contrast, examines an indenture trustee’s “pre-default” duties.

It is critical to try to define those duties because activist investors, including hedge funds and so-called “vulture fund” investors that purchase defaulted bonds at deep discounts, increasingly are making pre-default demands on indenture trustees, who must know how to respond. Also, the manner in which they respond can have widespread economic consequences because the bond market is huge—in 2018, approximately $43 trillion in the United States and $103 trillion worldwide.

Activist investors are also suing indenture trustees for losses on their bonds, alleging they should have taken pre-default actions to protect the bonds. To avoid the risk of liability, indenture trustees should know how they should discharge their pre-default duties.

The indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have not been seriously re-examined since enactment of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, although the bond market has changed dramatically since then. Institutional investors now dominate; there are few individual retail investors. By virtue of their sophistication and the size of their bondholding, institutional investors face less of a collective action problem than retail investors had faced. Also, as mentioned, certain activist investors increasingly are engaging in high-risk strategic investing.

Whether or not due to these market changes, there are at least two views today of the indenture trustee’s pre-default role. By far the dominant view—and the view that comports with existing law and the plain language of indentures—is that indenture trustees have no pre-default fiduciary duties to investors. Rather, their duties are ministerial and limited to the usually administrative functions specified in the indenture. Since the 2007-08 financial crisis, however, some investors argue that indenture trustees—especially those of securitized bond issues, who act for the benefit of investors whose right to payment is limited to collections on specified financial assets (such as mortgage loans)—should have some pre-default fiduciary duties.

My Article analyzes what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be, starting by considering the possible normative frameworks for legally imposing duties in a business context. I consider two potentially overlapping frameworks: to correct market failures, and to maximize efficiency. I also consider a formalistic rationale for legally imposing duties—because securitized bond issues involve purchased financial assets, they more closely resemble a traditional trust; and trustees of a traditional trust have fiduciary duties.

Based on its analysis, the Article concludes (among other things) that, pre-default, the indenture trustee’s duties should only be those specified in the indenture. The Article also applies that standard to the types of issues that may arise in lawsuits against indenture trustees.

For example, even prior to a formal default, one or more investors may demand that the indenture trustee take some enforcement or other remedial action to try to correct a problem. Compliance with that demand could be expensive, reducing the value of the estate for investors generally. Taking remedial action could therefore create a conflict if it would disproportionately benefit only certain investors. Absent instructions from the requisite investor threshold contractually required to direct the indenture trustee, the trustee should have the right to refuse to take a demanded action. In case of doubt, an indenture trustee could itself seek instructions. The Article also examines practical issues—and practical ways to resolve those issues—that might sometimes impair formation of the requisite investor threshold to direct the indenture trustee.

The full article is available here.

Financially Distressed Companies, Restructuring and Creditors’ Interests: What is a Director to Do?

By Andrew Keay (University of Leeds)

Out of court restructuring is a popular and, according to many, optimal way of resolving the circumstances of insolvent companies in the UK, and probably more so since the advent in the UK of the Enterprises Act 2002. One concern that some commentators have raised is the fact that the opportunities to engage in such restructuring are likely to be reduced given the way that the courts have approached claims that directors who have initiated restructuring strategies are liable for breach of duty in failing to take into account the interests of company creditors when their company is insolvent or near to it (as applied by section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 in the UK). Allied to this is the concern that if directors are not granted freedom to use their discretion in entering into a restructuring process companies might be placed into administration or liquidation when they have some prospect of continuing to trade and to do so profitably, because directors may choose to be risk averse in placing a company into administration or liquidation rather than take the risk of being held liable for breach of the duty if they attempt restructuring. This paper examines whether the aforementioned concerns are realistic, given the law, and, if they are, what directors should be doing to ensure that they do not breach the obligation in relation to creditors. These are important issues as little consideration has been given in the UK to the issue of liability of directors for breach of duty in the wake of a restructuring. The issues are considered in light of section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 which makes the director’s duty to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the shareholders (as under section 172(1) and providing for what is known as ‘enlightened shareholder value’) subject to any rule of law that requires directors to consider the interests of creditors. It is a rule of law in the UK (and in many Commonwealth countries and Ireland) that when their company is insolvent or in dire financial distress directors must take into account the interests of creditors.

The paper finds that while directors might be subject to liability in entering into restructuring attempts, this is only going to occur in limited cases and so there should not be particular concern over liability. This is because first of all courts will not hold directors liable if they acted in good faith and took into account the interests of creditors, and regarded these interests as paramount in their considerations. Even if the directors failed to take into account the interests of creditors or failed to make them paramount, they will not be liable where the court finds that the honest and intelligent director, taking into account creditors’ interests, would have entered into the restructuring in any event on the basis that it would benefit creditors. Obviously if directors restructure in such a way as to benefit themselves or specific creditors, or they have improper motives, then liability is more likely to ensue. But, where the directors have acted reasonably then they should be safe from challenge.

The full article is available here.

Fifth Circuit Rules That Corporate Charter Provision Requiring Shareholder Consent for Bankruptcy Filing Is Enforceable but Declines to Rule on Validity of “Golden Shares”

By Mark A. Cody and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day).

In a highly anticipated decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a bankruptcy court order dismissing a chapter 11 case filed by a corporation without obtaining—as required by its corporate charter—the consent of a preferred shareholder that was also controlled by a creditor of the corporation. In Franchise Services of North America, Inc. v. Macquarie Capital (USA), Inc. (In re Franchise Services of North America, Inc.), 891 F.3d 198 (5th Cir. 2018), a Fifth Circuit panel ruled that: (i) state law determines who has the authority to file a voluntary bankruptcy petition on behalf of a corporation; (ii) federal law does not strip a bona fide equity holder of its preemptive voting rights merely because it is also a creditor; and (iii) the preferred shareholder-creditor was not a controlling shareholder under applicable state law such that it had a fiduciary duty to the corporation which would impact any decision to approve or prevent a bankruptcy filing.

However, to the disappointment of many observers, the Fifth Circuit declined to decide whether “blocking provisions” and “golden shares”—either generally or when wielded by a party that is both a creditor and an equity holder—are valid and enforceable. Such provisions have been increasingly relied upon by creditors, including private equity sponsors and other investors who take both equity and debt positions in a portfolio company, as a means of managing or limiting access to bankruptcy protection, but with mixed results in the courts. Franchise Services does little to remedy the unsettled state of bankruptcy jurisprudence regarding this important issue. Moreover, because the case involved a minority shareholder-creditor without any fiduciary obligations, the decision did not involve many of the more difficult questions posed by other cases involving these issues.

The article is available here.

Fiduciary Duties in Bankruptcy and Insolvency

By John A. E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School).

Although discussed nowhere in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, fiduciary duties play a central role in guiding the administration of an insolvent debtor’s assets. Regulatory oversight of trustees is only loosely circumscribed by statute, but significant lacunae exist regarding specification of the duties of loyalty.  In assessing what fiduciary obligations are owed to secured creditors, unsecured creditors, and debtors, some courts build upon the general principle that the trustee’s fiduciary duty of loyalty flows to all creditors. Other courts, though, work from the premise that secured creditors are better situated to look after themselves and that a trustee’s primary obligation is to unsecured creditors, perhaps especially non-priority general creditors. The Supreme Court has also weighed in, stating that a DIP’s fiduciary duties run directly (if somewhat delphically) to “the corporation.” How then does a trustee choose between beneficiaries of the estate, and what remedies are there for losing parties disappointed with this allegiance decision?  This book chapter explores the fiduciary obligations of trustees (including DIPs) under both statute and common law. There is a special focus on the intrinsic conflicts that arise within the “menagerie of heterogeneous creditors” that constitute the claimants of a bankruptcy estate.  A single normative theory seems unlikely to explain the results (so much for the “residual fiduciary beneficiary”!).  What does seem clear is that trustees are “more fiduciary” for some constituencies than for others.  Fortunately, U.S. bankruptcy courts are accustomed to shifting allegiances and disalignments of interest. Thus, the bankruptcy system may be well-suited to handle the endemic conflicts of interest between corporate constituencies through various bankruptcy-specific mechanisms, such as the institution of the Creditors Committee and the norm of engaged judicial oversight.

The full article is available here.