Note: The Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable is pleased to resume regular weekly posts for the academic year.
By Douglas G. Baird (University of Chicago Law School)
Negotiations are the lifeblood of Chapter 11, and a large part of the bankruptcy judge’s job is to police them. Bankruptcy judges are not dispensers of Solomonic wisdom. They are referees who ensure a level playing field. They insist that the parties follow the rules, but they do not enforce rules for their own sake nor do they allow their oversight to interfere with the flow of play. Their job is to give parties a chance to work together on equal terms to find a path forward.
Notwithstanding the centrality of negotiations, little of the written law says much about how bankruptcy judges should oversee them. The few explicit statutory mandates are pitched at a high level of abstraction. They require little more than that judges ensure that bargains be proposed in “good faith” and meet certain substantive conditions to be considered “fair and equitable,” without defining how the bargaining process could meet these standards. Precedent is similarly unhelpful. One can exhaust virtually all the guidance the Supreme Court has offered over the last century and a half in a few sentences: The judge cannot be a “silent registrar of agreements.” Nor can the judge approve deals that “alter the balance” of substantive rights set out in the statute. At the same time, the judge should not come to the aid of a creditor who declines a “fair offer.” Lower courts are similarly silent. Among the many hundreds of volumes of reported opinions, few provide much guidance.
Much less is up in the air than it first seems, however. The judge is bound by a coherent set of unwritten principles that derive from the Statute of 13 Elizabeth and fraudulent conveyance law as it was received in this country in the late eighteenth century. Over the course of the nineteenth century, judges drew on this uncodified power to craft an approach to policing negotiations between creditors and a financially distressed debtor. The legal reforms of the 1930s and the 1970s drew again on these same principles. This unwritten law remains central to modern reorganization practice.
The Unwritten Law of Corporate Reorganizations traces this long arc of reorganization law in the United States. It uncovers a history rich with interesting characters, including Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, corporate law giant Paul Cravath, and SEC chairman and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. Their stories illuminate the way bankruptcy judges have long used a set of unwritten rules, derived from fraudulent conveyance principles, to oversee the reorganization process.
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 Mark Roe and William Organek (Harvard Law School)
Note: This is the seventh 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), here (by David Skeel), and here (by Ralph Brubaker).
Considerable attention is now being paid to the Texas Two-Step in bankruptcy. The Two-Step anticipates the movement of assets and liabilities from one corporate entity to another, via a divisive merger that splits the assets and liabilities of the original entity. After the movement of the assets and liabilities, the liabilities sit in one entity (often a subsidiary of a larger enterprise). Meanwhile, the liabilities are separated from many of the assets (in the most controversial form of the Two-Steps), which sit in another entity. The entity with the bulk of the liabilities then files for bankruptcy. The Two-Step is central to the Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) bankruptcy of a subsidiary, aiming to separate the talc liabilities from J&J’s extensive assets.
When assets are transferred from a firm that is thereby rendered insolvent, or when the assets are transferred with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud creditors, the transferred assets can, of course, be recovered by the transferring firm as a fraudulent transfer. Bankr. Code § 548. Similar transactions are regularly accomplished under corporate structures as spinoffs: the firm moves assets into a subsidiary, for example, and then “spins” off the subsidiary’s stock to the firm’s stockholders. After the spinoff the old stockholders own two companies, one with the assets (and possibly some of the liabilities of the just-created subsidiary) and the other with the liabilities (and any remaining assets) of the original company.
The Texas divisive merger statute creates a fraudulent transfer conundrum, because it says movements of assets pursuant to a divisive merger are not transfers. If there’s no transfer, there’s no fraudulent transfer liability, as there must first be a transfer for there to be liability.
If the bankruptcy process were ousted of power to control fraudulent transfers, then the debtor firm would have more freedom to move assets and liabilities in ways that would allow the firm to escape liability. No judge would get to the meaty issues (e.g., was the transferring firm insolvent? were the transfers done with intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors? is the bankrupt firm with the bulk of the liabilities an alter ego or successor of the original firm?) because there’d never have been a triggering transfer.
The Texas statute itself is clear on its face that there’s no transfer under Texas law:
When a merger takes effect . . . all rights, title and interests to all . . . property owned by each . . . party to the merger is allocated . . . as provided in the plan of merger without . . . any transfer or assignment having occurred . . .
Commentatorshavenoted that a Two-Stepping debtor might make such an argument. While it has not yet been explicitly raised in the LTL bankruptcy, the commentators anticipated correctly that such an argument was coming. In another pending Texas Two-Step bankruptcy, In re DBMP, the debtor made this argument at length. In an oral ruling1 delivered a little more than a week ago, on July 7, Judge Craig Whitley agreed with the key plain meaning premises of the Two-Step argument but ultimately rejected it as facilitating “wholesale fraud.”
The court began by accepting the debtor’s interpretation that, under a plain meaning reading of the Texas statute, no transfer occurred; and under a plain meaning reading of section 548 of the Bankruptcy Code, a transfer is a necessary predicate for a fraudulent transfer to have occurred. Hence, a plain meaning construction of section 548 and the Texas statute means no fraudulent transfer exposure.
Judge Whitley saw where such a plain meaning reading led, but refused to go there, rejecting the debtor’s conclusion. Going down the plain meaning route would, he said, lead to absurd results, leaving plaintiffs with “no recourse whatsoever.” And such a reading would contradict another provision of the Texas statute, which states that a divisive merger is not meant to “abridge any . . . rights of any creditor under existing law,” Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 10.901. Finally, Judge Whitley went deep: such a plain language reading of the Texas statute would run contrary to longstanding general principles of Anglo-American fraudulent transfer law.
Judge Whitley’s conclusion was in our view correct. But the conclusion can be reached more directly—by a plain meaning reading of the Bankruptcy Code.
The bankruptcy courts have already been instructed by Congress not to pay attention to the Texas statute, even when the state statute declares that an asset disposition in a divisive merger is not a transfer. True, considerable policy issues (e.g., supremacy of federal law, the extent to which state property and contract law is incorporated into the bankruptcy process) could well be brought to bear if the Bankruptcy Code were unclear here. But the most straightforward way to answer the question raised in DBMP comes from a parsimonious textual analysis of the Code.
Here’s the Bankruptcy Code’s two-step ouster of the Texas Two-Step:
The text of the fraudulent transfer statute, section 548, begins: “The trustee may avoid any transfer . . . of an interest of the debtor in property . . . ” (emphasis added). If we stop there, a basis might be had for examining state law for whether a transfer cognizable under the Bankruptcy Code has taken place. Property is, after all, transferred under state law.
But the Code does not say that state law governs whether a movement of property is a bankruptcy transfer. The Code itself defines the term “transfer” and does so independently of state laws’ appellations, leading to Step 2 of the ouster.
Section 101(54) defines what a “transfer” is for bankruptcy purposes, such as section 548 (governing fraudulent transfers). It states: “The term ‘transfer’ means . . . each mode, direct or indirect, absolute or conditional, voluntary or involuntary, of disposing of or parting with (i) property; or (ii) an interest in property.”
The Code thereby instructs bankruptcy courts to conclude that a transfer has occurred for each “mode . . . of disposing of . . . property . . . .” A divisive merger under Texas law is surely a “mode . . . of disposing of . . . property. . . .” As a result, for bankruptcy purposes a Texas two-step is a transfer, whatever the Texas authorities decide to call it. And, therefore, the Texas Two-Step should have no import in bankruptcy for determining whether there’s been a transfer for bankruptcy purposes. Property has been disposed of. Thus, for Code purposes there is a “transfer.” The first statutory predicate to considering whether there has been a fraudulent transfer has been satisfied and the court could then go on to the other, meaty fraudulent transfer issues. The Texas Two-Step is a transfer because the Bankruptcy Code says it is.
While we reach an identical conclusion to that of Judge Whitley, and we do not fault his reasoning from the bench, our analytic path is better in the long run for bankruptcy decisionmaking. The court’s reliance upon the best way to interpret the potential contradictions of the Texas Business Organizations Code is a precarious foundation for the ruling. One could imagine another bankruptcy court, faced with the Texas statute’s contradictions (“it’s not a transfer” vs. “it’s not in derogation of any other right”), interpreting and concluding differently.2Another judge might not consider such a result as absurd as Judge Whitley and we do. And yet another bankruptcy court could feel compelled to certify questions to the Texas Supreme Court on how to interpret the Texas divisive merger statute and its impact.
The new mass tort bankruptcies present major issues of policy and statutory construction for which answers will not be assured and apparent. But the question of whether there is a transfer for bankruptcy purposes is clear. A divisive merger is a disposition of property and, hence, the Code says it’s a transfer, thereby triggering the opening prerequisite to there being a fraudulent transfer.
The Code says so. Plainly.
1: A recording of the hearing is embedded in the linked PDF, which PDF may need to be downloaded in order to access the recording; the relevant portion of the hearing begins around 20:15 in the recording.
2: See Curtis W. Huff, The New Texas Business Corporation Act Merger Provisions, 21 St. Mary’s L.J. 109, 122-25 (1989).
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 Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University-Beasley School of Law)
Note: This is the second 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.
Forum shopping has long been an issue in chapter 11 reorganization, chiefly because liberal venue rules permit gamesmanship. Section 1408 of the Judicial Code allows a corporate debtor to “bootstrap” into the bankruptcy court of any district where at least one entity in the group was formed. If a forum is chosen “strategically,” Professors Lynn LoPucki and Bill Whitford first warned (in 1991), “the choice can have an important effect on the distribution of the losses emanating from a bankruptcy reorganization.”
They were describing what may be called “horizontal” forum shopping: picking among the nation’s roughly 200 bankruptcy panels to find the one the debtor considers best for its situation. Cases such as LTL Management and Purdue Pharma suggest there is another kind to think about, a variation on what proceduralists call “vertical” forum shopping.
Vertical forum shopping typically concerns competition between state and federal courts, and the rule of decision they apply (i.e., Erie v. Tompkins). Bankruptcy has a similar state-federal dynamic, but also presents the potential for broader, and more problematic, competitions.
LTL involves the chapter 11 reorganization of Johnson & Johnson’s tort-feasing talc subsidiary. The debtor had been formed shortly before bankruptcy in a controversial “divisive merger,” which many viewed as little more than a fancied-up fraudulent transfer. Talc plaintiffs moved to dismiss the case on grounds that it was not commenced in good faith.
In a thorough and thoughtful opinion, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan denied the motion because he believed the economic benefits of reorganization appeared to outweigh alternatives. But, the motion to dismiss also raised “a far more significant issue: which judicial system—the state/federal court trial system,” or chapter 11 “serves best the interests of th[e] bankruptcy estate, comprised primarily of present and future tort claimants with serious financial and physical injuries.”
This question—which system?—is bankruptcy’s version of vertical forum shopping.
On one hand, Judge Kaplan is probably right about the economics: chapter 11 is likely to pay more to more talc claimants than litigation in other courts. Nonbankruptcy litigation might produce a few outsize winners—billion-dollar verdicts or multi-million-dollar settlements—but there may be little left for most judgment creditors to collect.
On the other hand, chapter 11’s distributive benefits can trade off against what we might call “dignitary” interests, including individual rights to a “day in court” and a jury trial. Congress intended to preserve some dignitary protections in chapter 11 cases, including the right to a jury trial of contingent and unliquidated personal injury and wrongful death claims. But the rise of channeling injunctions and nondebtor releases has undermined those protections.
In Purdue Pharma, for example, the debtor’s controversial plan would give personal injury creditors a bare right to a jury trial against the company, and cap recoveries at about $48,000—surely not enough to cover the cost of the trial. Worse, it would eliminate the right entirely as to the Sackler family, which owned and controlled the company when it committed two sets of confessed drug crimes. The viability of those releases is pending before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Vertical forum shopping in chapter 11 can threaten not only the role of other courts, but also other branches of government. Again, while LTL spotted the issue, Purdue crystallized it.
A supplemental injunction at the beginning of Purdue halted administrative and regulatory actions against Purdue and the Sacklers. While this left the possibility of criminal prosecution, the U.S. Department of Justice negotiated deals with the Sacklers and Purdue that made it practically impossible for states to prosecute (and, of course, many preferred to settle with the Sacklers rather than fight, anyway).
Purdue Pharma and LTL are likely to be very different cases. The bankruptcy judge and the debtors in Purdue resisted important efforts to vindicate dignitary concerns, such as a bellwether trial of allegations against the Sacklers or a fulsome examination of them. Tragically, the lack of those efforts may have undercut the Sacklers’ proposed payout, leading the judge to declare himself “bitter.”
In LTL, by contrast, Judge Kaplan and the debtors have signaled a willingness to deploy these types of mechanisms, should the case remain in bankruptcy.
At this point, it is too early to know. Angered by the brazen nature of the divisive merger, the talc plaintiffs have appealed to the Third Circuit.
I discuss dignitary issues implicated by vertical forum shopping in chapter 11 in a draft paper, The Problem of Social Debt, which I can share if you email me (jlipson [at] temple [dot] edu).
Johnson & Johnson’s use of the Texas Two-Step to manage its talc liabilities has put the company, and the Two-Step, front and center in the roiling debates over aggressive uses of the bankruptcy system. Those debates have led to scholarly criticism, congressional hearings, and proposed legislation that would curtail debtors’ ability to so use the bankruptcy courts.
My Essay details the mechanics of the Two-Step. Beginning with the Texas divisive merger, the funding agreement, and forum shopping for the Fourth Circuit, the Essay fleshes out precisely how the Two-Step boxes in tort claimants. Like other scholarship, this Essay identifies the risk that such maneuvering effects a fraudulent transfer. It also goes a step further, arguing that the point of the Two-Step is not to succeed, but to delay. Fraudulent-transfer litigation in a bankruptcy consumes time because it requires an adversary proceeding, and that delay pressures tort claimants to settle. So the Two-Step can succeed as long as claimants cannot wait out the course of the bankruptcy, even if a court never declares the particular Two-Step to be a proper use of divisive merger law rather than an improper fraudulent transfer.
Instead of playing into this delay game, this Essay argues, courts should evaluate the Texas Two-Step for good faith. Tort claimants can raise such challenges as a motion to dismiss (as some have) and thus avoid the need for a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding. And under current doctrine, the Two-Step likely qualifies as a bad-faith filing: In most cases, the Two-Step is a litigation tactic. And the Two-Step, invariably, is filed by an entity created solely to file for bankruptcy. Both of those are doctrinal hallmarks of bad-faith bankruptcies.
More broadly, the Essay explains, the Two-Step and good-faith challenges to it underscore the continuing role of common law in bankruptcy. The Code does not define good-faith filing, so courts have developed the doctrine case by case. They may yet find an acceptable form of Two-Step, one which yields tort claimants the rights they would receive in, say, a Johnson & Johnson bankruptcy, without hurting Johnson & Johnson’s ability to do business by forcing the whole company into bankruptcy. Along the way, though, a vigilant common-law gatekeeping is warranted, and judges should not hesitate to dismiss Two-Steps thinking that a later ruling on a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding can adequately safeguard tort claimants from an improper use of the bankruptcy system.
The full essay will be available at 121 Mich. L. Rev. Online __ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.
By Jeffrey Cohen, Michael A. Kaplan, and Colleen M. Maker (Lowenstein Sandler)
InLoan Forgiveness as Basis for Fraudulent Transfer Claims, authors Jeffrey Cohen, Michael A. Kaplan, and Colleen M. Maker address fraudulent transfer litigation as a valuable weapon in the bankruptcy code arsenal, to target assets transferred or disposed of prior to bankruptcy with the potential to provide at least some recovery to creditors of the debtor’s estate. The article examines debt cancellation as an overlooked, but still potentially viable and valuable, basis for a fraudulent transfer cause of action.
Avoidance actions may include not only transfers with fraudulent intent, but also constructive fraud through loan forgiveness or debt cancellation. For example, if a company makes loans to subsidiaries and then formally or informally either writes off, forgives and cancels the loan prior to bankruptcy, that action has the same impact as a fraudulent transfer: creditors are left holding the bag while the beneficiary is unaffected and may even receive a windfall at the expense of the creditors.
Intercompany transfers are often considered within the ordinary course of business in a complex corporate structure, and loans to directors and officers are not rare. However, avoidance actions regarding forgiveness of debt are seldom brought due of issues of standing, resources, discovery, and cost weighed against the viability of the claim. Parties must assess whether the possibility of recovery outweighs the risks or if limited resources are better used elsewhere, perhaps through direct distribution to creditors.
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.
On December 19, 2019, the Second Circuit issued its amended opinion in In re Tribune Company Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation, 2019 WL 6971499 (2d Cir. Dec. 19, 2019), which held the “safe harbor” provision in section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code covers Tribune Company’s payments made to public shareholders as Tribune constitutes a “financial institution” in pursuance with the Bankruptcy Code definition, and such definition includes the “customer” of a financial institution when the financial institution acts as the customer’s “agent or custodian…in connection with a securities contract”.
The Second Circuit’s opinion was controversial in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., 138 S.Ct. 883 (2018) on the scope of safe harbor, with law firms perceiving it as moving away from the position of Merit by opening new room for application of safe harbor protection. Jones Day suggests that the Tribune’s reasoning “avoided the strictures of Merit”, while Nelson Mullins finds it “shifting the focus from the financial institution as a ‘mere conduit’ to an ‘agent’.” Kramer Levin comments that the decision represents a “dramatic, and perhaps unexpected, extension of the safe harbor from the position it occupied in the immediate aftermath of Merit.” Weil calls it throwing the 546(e) safe harbor a lifeline.
Firms also find the case paving a way to protect LBO payments from subsequent attacks. King & Spalding notes that the Second Circuit’s opinion provides protection for recipients involved in LBO transaction where the debtor is the “customer” of the intermediary financial institutions. Cadwalader believes that the decision may “narrow the impact” of Merit, as market participants could structure their transaction to involve a financial institution thereby bypassing the “mere conduit” carve-out. Skadden agrees on the likely trend of structured LBOs, highlights that the customer defense is “likely to continue gaining momentum” after the Second Circuit’s decision. Parties would ensure they meet the “financial institution” and “customer” criteria methodically articulated in Tribune. “An appropriately structured principal/agent relationship could continue to shelter transfers or distributions within the ambit of section 546(e) safe harbors,” says Weil, adding that the operative facts will be key to strengthen the position.
Finally, Gibson Dunn notes that Tribune is not binding on other circuits. It remains to be seen whether such holding will be extended to different circumstances by other courts. “Some courts may find (in contrast to the Second Circuit) that the Supreme Court in Merit could not possibly have intended that its narrowing of the section 546(e) safe harbor be so easily vitiated by an argument that the Court itself acknowledged in a footnote,” says Kramer Levin.
In a prior Roundtable post, Professor Bussel noted that a plain meaning interpretation of the term “financial institution” should not include the customers of commercial banks, thus precluding a sharp change from Merit.