By Jeanne L. Schroeder and David Gray Carlson (Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law)
Courts have struggled toward a unified theory to explain when the trustee has exclusive jurisdiction to sue a third party for harms done to a bankrupt debtor, and when creditors have exclusive jurisdiction to sue the third party. Courts have proclaimed that when every creditor can sue the third party, then none of them can, and the right belongs solely to the trustee. Creditor rights are “generalized.” If only a proper subset of creditors can sue the third party, then the trustee is not able to subrogate to the subset. Such creditors are “particularized.” This paper proclaims the test a failure. It announces the result rather than producing it. There are no generalized creditor rights or particularized creditor rights. There are only creditor rights and causes of action that are property of the estate. As for creditor rights, the trustee is subrogated to fraudulent transfer avoidance rights under Bankruptcy Code § 544(b)(1). Otherwise, the trustee is not subrogated. “Piercing the corporate veil” is not a generalized creditor right and not a cause of action at all. It is the assertion that two persons are the same person. If the corporate veil can be pierced, property of the apparent third person is actually property of the bankruptcy estate. For this reason, the trustee has control and the creditors are kept at bay by bankruptcy’s “automatic stay.” The article defends the recent settlement with the Sackler family in the historic Purdue Pharmacy opioid bankruptcy as entirely within the province of the bankruptcy estate.
Corporate bankruptcy cases have recently undergone a shift. After decades where creditors exercised outsized control, equity sponsors have now ascended the throne. This new group exploits contractual loopholes and employs coercive tactics to initiate creditor-on-creditor violence. The result is the ability to dictate outcomes in distress situations where equity sponsors would normally be idle passengers. The unwritten rules have been rewritten.
This new disequilibrium has the potential to fundamentally harm the financial ecosystem. Scholars have successfully chronicled the new tactics, but formulating the means to mitigate market distortion has been elusive. Most scholars have appealed to the judiciary to intervene. Unfortunately, the judiciary has rejected this call, arguing that sophisticated parties should address coercion through contracts. What if that is not possible? An efficient public debt market relies on some sort of check on outright exploitation. The inability to manage bad actors renders these markets more volatile and amplifies contagion risk for national and global economies. Further, coercive measures allow a company that should have sought bankruptcy protection or some other substantive restructuring to artificially limp along. There is a significant risk that this iniquitousness destroys value and there is little left to salvage by the time the company actually lands in bankruptcy.
This Article argues that a significant movement towards equilibrium is attainable by adjusting two aspects of this ecosystem. Primarily, I advocate for amendment of section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code to exclude leveraged buyouts from the fraudulent transfer safe harbors. My proposal aligns the section with its historical underpinnings and acts as a natural check on debt levels in overly aggressive acquisitions. This proposal reduces the need for coercive restructuring measures when a corporation experiences financial distress. On the backend, Delaware courts have limited creditors to derivative breach-of-fiduciary-duty actions, even when a corporation is insolvent and directors are actively attacking certain stakeholders. Delaware case law protects the mechanism by which equity sponsors implement coercion. I argue that when a corporation is insolvent, directors and officers who undertake hostile actions against specific creditors to whom they owe fiduciary duties should be subject to direct claims by those creditors. Unable to act with impunity, directors would be forced to properly consider all key stakeholders in formulating rehabilitation measures.
Editor’s Note: On November 1, 2022, the BRT concluded our eight-part series on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies (see below for the full list of posts in the series). On January 30, 2023, the Third Circuit released its opinion dismissing the bankruptcy filing of LTL Management, raising a host of new questions for mass tort bankruptcies. In response, the BRT invited contributors to the prior series, as well as some new voices, to analyze the decision and what it might mean for the future of mass tort bankruptcies.
We will resume our series on crypto bankruptcies next week!
In “The Dismissal of LTL and What Lies Ahead for Mass Tort Bankruptcy,” William Organek (Harvard Law School) summarizes the Third Circuit’s opinion dismissing LTL’s bankruptcy filing. The post then describes key takeaways from the opinion, suggesting how this might impact future mass tort bankruptcy filings, LTL’s tort creditors, and parent company Johnson & Johnson. Finally, it examines questions raised by mass tort bankruptcies that the opinion does not answer, instead leaving them for future cases and debtors.
In “Over-Thinking Ramifications of the Dismissal of LTL Management LLC’s Bankruptcy,” Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (ret.) (University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Tucker Arensberg, P.C.) explains how the Third Circuit’s opinion merely applies existing Third Circuit precedent to a single debtor to reach a fact-specific conclusion about the appropriateness of bankruptcy for LTL Management LLC. In doing so, the post argues against concerns that the opinion will make it more difficult for companies facing imminent financial distress to use bankruptcy to resolve their liabilities, even in the mass tort context.
Note: Judge Fitzgerald is a consultant for counsel for certain parties in the LTL bankruptcy, and the opinions expressed herein are solely her own.
In “The Implications of LTL’s Per-Debtor Analysis,” Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown University Law Center and Gordian Crypto Advisors LLC) describes how the LTL decision interacts with the standard entity separateness explanation for much of corporate law. If courts read the opinion strictly to require a debtor-by-debtor analysis of insolvency, this could have major implications for joint administration, venue, and other issues central to bankruptcy administration that stretch far beyond the mass tort context.
Note: Adam Levitin is a consultant for counsel for certain parties in the LTL bankruptcy, and the opinions expressed herein are solely his own.
In “Waltz Across Texas: The Texas Three-Step,” Edward J. Janger (Brooklyn Law School) and John A. E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School) explore how the seemingly limited decision in the LTL bankruptcy cannot be divorced from wider questions about why bankruptcy is being used to resolve mass tort liability. Focusing on the essential role that third-party releases play in mass tort bankruptcy filings, it suggests that we consider not only whether financial distress is required for good faith, but also what should be required of nondebtors seeking third-party releases and what justifies such extraordinary relief.
In “The Third Circuit’s New One-Step: Good Faith as Purpose in LTL,” Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University–Beasley School of Law) analyzes the LTL decision by examining how the court understands the concept of good faith. Earlier decisions in the Third Circuit relied on a primarily contractualist, or rules-based approach to good faith–does a debtor face financial trouble or does it have a substantial number of creditors? The LTL decision, however, endorses a more policy-oriented, or standards-based approach to good faith, asking whether the contemplated use of bankruptcy appropriately furthers the policy goals of chapter 11. This could lead to a re-evaluation of whether bankruptcy should be used for resolving mass torts, and some of the tools used by bankruptcy courts to facilitate a deal among the debtor and its creditors. This could have particular ramifications for other mass tort bankruptcies such as that of Purdue Pharma.
A Different Look at Sec. 548 and Concluding Thoughts, by Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Tucker Arensberg, P.C.) and Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown University Law Center and Gordian Crypto Advisors LLC); and John A.E. Pottow (University of Michigan School of Law)
Note: This is the eighth in a series of posts on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies. Styled as a coda of sorts, this double-post includes a new view on section 548 by Judge Judith Fitzgerald (ret.) and Adam Levitin, and some commentary on the other posts in the series by John Pottow.
Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable periodically for additional contributing posts by academics and others from institutions across the country.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), here (by Jared A. Ellias), here (by Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey), here (by David Skeel), here (by Ralph Brubaker), and here (by Mark Roe and William Organek).
Post One: The Texas Two-Step: A Different Look at Bankruptcy Code Section 548
By Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (ret.) (Professor in the Practice of Law, University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Shareholder, Tucker Arensberg, P.C.) and Adam J. Levitin (Anne Fleming Research Professor & Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center; Principal, Gordian Crypto Advisors LLC)[^]
Is the divisive merger in a Texas Two-Step bankruptcy a fraudulent transfer? To date, much of the analysis has focused on the question of the “transfer” of assets. From this perspective, the application of fraudulent transfer law is an uncomfortable fit. In a divisive merger, OldCo disposes of assets and liabilities by assigning the valuable assets to GoodCo and dumping the disfavored liabilities on BadCo. Yet the Texas divisive merger statute provides that “all rights, title and interest” in property are allocated in a divisive merger without “any transfer or assignment having occurred.” If state law deems the divisive merger not to constitute any form of transfer, how can a fraudulent transfer have occurred?
As Roe and Organek rightly contend, the Supremacy Clause mandates use of the Bankruptcy Code (“Code”) definition of “transfer” to the exclusion of contrary state law. Likewise, the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act has its own definition of transfer and indicates that the definitions are “[a]s used in this [Act],” such that even under state law the divisive merger statute’s definition of transfer would not control in a fraudulent transfer, voidable transactions, or § 544(b) action.
The key problem with viewing a divisive merger through the “transfer” lens is that Code § 548 requires the transfer to be one made by the debtor—BadCo—of its property or an interest it held in property. BadCo, however, did not exist at the time of the transfer and had no property at all. The transfer of the assets to GoodCo was not from BadCo, but from OldCo, which no longer exists. These seem to create impediments to attacking a divisive merger as a fraudulent transfer.
In order to bring the divisive merger within the ambit of § 548, a complainant might have to take an additional step, such as establishing that BadCo was the alter ego of the entity that transferred the property (as Roe and Organek note), or substantively consolidating BadCo and GoodCo. Without consolidation of BadCo and GoodCo, or an unwinding of the divisive merger altogether, a court could conclude that BadCo did not transfer property or an interest in property.
There is another part of § 548, however, that is a better fit for attacking a divisive merger. Section 548 also permits the avoidance of an obligation incurred by the debtor, for which the debtor received less than reasonably equivalent value and/or was insolvent at the time or was made insolvent as the result of the obligation.
The Texas divisive merger statute presents no obstacle for this theory. That statute deals with allocation of assets and liabilities under separate provisions. The asset provision deems the allocation of assets not to be a transfer, but there is no equivalent language in the liabilities provision. That is, nothing in the Texas statute states that the allocation of liabilities is not the incurrence of an obligation.
Similarly, § 548 refers to incurrence of an obligation by the debtor, a concept that works much better than a focus on transferring property of the debtor. Whereas the transfer provision implicitly requires the debtor to have had property to transfer in the first instance, the incurrence provision has no similar implication. All that is required is that the debtor, BadCo, incur an obligation that left it insolvent or insufficiently capitalized, a description that fits the treatment of BadCo in a divisive merger to a tee.
For example, in the divisive merger that preceded the LTL Management LLC bankruptcy filing, the BadCo, LTL, was saddled with all of the talc liabilities of OldCo (Old JJCI), an unliquidated liability in the billions of dollars. As part of the same transaction, it was given royalty-producing assets worth enough to cover the anticipated professionals’ fees in the bankruptcy, and certain insurance policies. LTL was also allocated a funding agreement by which both GoodCo (New JJCI) and OldCo’s parent (J&J) were to cover talc liabilities inside or outside bankruptcy, up to the value of OldCo on the date of the divisive merger, provided that certain conditions to use are satisfied. All of OldCo’s other assets (valuable brands and the JJCI name) and other liabilities were allocated to New JJCI. If the talc claims against LTL exceed the value of OldCo, then LTL would be insolvent, and the incurrence of the talc liabilities would be avoidable under § 548.
The distinction between transfers and obligations may support a fresh look at § 548, but raises the question of the remedy. The Code’s remedial provision, § 550, deals solely with recovery for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate of any avoided transfers of property; it is not geared toward the incurrence of obligations. But § 550 may not be necessary as a remedial provision regarding incurrence of obligations. Section 548’s language that “[t]he trustee may avoid…any obligation incurred … by the debtor” may itself be all that is necessary.
So what does this mean in practical terms? The avoiding of the incurrence of an obligation does not mean that the obligation disappears. Instead, its allocation follows normal state law successor liability principles. In the case of LTL, successor liability would likely put the talc liability squarely back on GoodCo through its continuation of OldCo’s business.
Focusing on obligations does not itself answer the valuation question about BadCo’s solvency, but it is a far better fit with fraudulent transfer law than trying to shoe-horn a divisive merger transaction into the definition of a “transfer” by a company that did not exist at the time property was transferred.
[^] Professors Fitzgerald and Levitin are both retained as consultants by certain talc claimants in the LTL bankruptcy; their opinions are their own.
A series of excellent posts have probed the recent developments of the infamous Texas Two-Step, and so I have only three additional comments.
First, a threshold issue that hungers for resolution is the idiosyncrasy of Texas law. As Jonathan Lipson points out, vertical forum shopping has suitors flocking to the bankruptcy court system, but what they specifically want is application of Texas corporate law. Specifically, mass tort defendants must avail themselves of its Doublespeak divisional merger statute and its “non-transfer transfers.” The issue is whether a transfer ordinarily susceptible to fraudulent conveyance scrutiny can be statutorily immunized by legislative pronouncement that it is an “un-transfer.” While this might invite the sort of textualism disquisition that would enthrall some (can the legislature define the black, frequently granulated table spice as “salt” without offending well-socialized legal sensibilities?), I am thematically drawn to Mark Roe and William Organek’s supremacy argument mooting it all out: that the Bankruptcy Code’s definition of “transfer” may supersede Texas’s. But I don’t think they get all the way there. My hopefully congenial amendment to their position is that additional work must be done to get the ball over the finish line by making out a Butner argument—which ought not be heavy-lifting—that federal bankruptcy purposes (e.g., preserving all assets for collective creditor treatment) warrant overriding the presumptive deference to state law definitions of property entitlements.
Second, all substantive concern, e.g., expressed as upsetting bankruptcy’s “traditional bargain” in Jared Ellias’ words (and especially so if they are solvent, as Ralph Brubaker reminds), really boils down to this: Are they cheating? And as Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey have noted, what that really means is: Are there enough assets left for the claimants? And that, as the road-terminus Rome of so many bankruptcy matters, is ultimately a valuation question—of claims, assets, going-concern surplus…the whole nine yards. Forests of trees have died in service of bankruptcy scholarship on valuation, and, just to make you, Dear Likely Reader, feel old, recall that North LaSalle well-preceded the birth of most current law students. My two cents in these hyper-inflationary times is that whenever I distrust valuation, and Ken Ayotte notes elsewhere that we should be extra-distrustful with synthetic analogues to real assets, I revert to my instincts that it’s hard to beat having skin in the game. Indeed, the elegance of the Code’s section 524(g) is in requiring the backstopping by half the equity of the company. So a “funding agreement” is fine and dandy, as is an “extraordinarily large” contribution of capital, but it’s no pledging of cold, hard assets. Third-party releases on demand? Not so fast! If debtors want to reap the bankruptcy system efficiencies of speedy aggregate litigation, they should have to backstop that benefit with the internalized risk of real, teethy underwriting.
Finally, and this point segues from the prior observation, the role of the discretion accorded bankruptcy judges stands front and center with the Two-Step. As the presumable watchdogs of over-reaching-cum-under-endowing BadCo, the bankruptcy judges wield their power to dispatch for lack of good faith or for receiving lack of reasonably equivalent value. (For the efficacy of bankruptcy judges in valuation matters, see Forests, supra.) To feel comfortable with them, then, one requires a sense of attunement to the risks and issues at stake. Yet as David Skeel reminded us, the gushing endorsement of the bankruptcy system dripping in the LTL opinion (or, perhaps by corollary, angst about the state tort system) may augur poorly for a critical eye being cast on these un-mergers. Unless we see some pushback and demonstrated non-naivete, legislative intervention seems overdetermined, as Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts have already flagged.
I am broadly sympathetic to modular usages of the bankruptcy system, but I have also been around enough blocks to know that one person’s more efficient resolution is another’s value-extracting cudgel. To cheerily assume the riskless benefit (low risk, high returns!) of this latest bankruptcy innovation is not just blinkered but is a Siren call for legislative intervention.
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).