Purdue Examiner Letter

By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University Beasley School of Law), Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown Law Center), Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall University School of Law)

Jonathan C. Lipson
Jonathan C. Lipson
Adam J. Levitin
Stephen J. Lubben

Recently, we (along with colleagues at other law schools) asked that an examiner be appointed in the Purdue Pharma chapter 11 bankruptcy case, pending in the Southern District of New York. Although the Bankruptcy Court has not yet acted on that request (technically, it was in the form of a letter to the United States Trustee), it has generated controversy and media attention (e.g.WSJWaPoRachel Maddow), which will likely persist until there are credible answers to the questions that motivated our request:

  1. What was the role of the Sackler family (the owners of Purdue) in Purdue’s role in the opioid crisis? and
  2. To what extent did the Sacklers or other insiders strip assets out of Purdue in anticipation of bankruptcy?

Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code governs corporate reorganizations, such as Purdue Pharma’s, and provides that an examiner can be appointed if, among other things, it is in the interests of creditors and the debtor’s bankruptcy estate. Here, we argued that there is an overwhelming public interest which overlaps with the estate’s interest. This makes the need for an independent report on these two questions compelling.

As is well known, Purdue Pharma is at the center of the opioid crisis in America, having developed and marketed Oxycontin (among other drugs). This crisis has generated more than 2600 lawsuits against Purdue and the Sacklers, many brought by state and local governments that have had to bear the costs of drug addiction. The debtors and the Sacklers have proposed a settlement under which the Sacklers would cede the company to a “public trust” and make additional contributions, in exchange for releases. The settlement is alleged to be between $10 and $12 billion, with $3 billion of that coming from the Sacklers directly.  While some plaintiffs have agreed to the settlement, others have not, and are fighting the bankruptcy process.

Like many mass tort debtors—from Johns-Manville to PG&E—Purdue seeks to channel and control its liability through bankruptcy reorganization. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, of the Southern District of New York, has stayed the lawsuits, not just against Purdue, but also against the  Sacklers, even though they are not debtors in bankruptcy—in order to permit the debtors to negotiate a plan of reorganization that would embody the proposed settlement.

We argued that an independent examination would answer the two key questions more credibly and efficiently than other mechanisms in bankruptcy for three reasons.

First, unlike many mass-tort bankruptcies, these cases appear to shield non-debtors (the Sacklers) from discovery and potential liability, even though there are credible allegations that they may have actively contributed to the opioid crisis and/or stripped assets from the debtors. The important question is not whether the Sacklers are making a contribution to a bankruptcy plan in exchange for a release from future liability, but whether their contribution is appropriate in light of the answers to our two questions. It will be very difficult to assess that without an independent examiner’s report.

Second, because Purdue Pharma is privately held, it is hard to know what happened at the company before bankruptcy. The debtors have appointed a special committee of the board to look into the pre-bankruptcy transfers, but because the Sacklers apparently still control the debtors, it is hard to know how independent this committee was, or can be.  The committee is, for example, represented by the same counsel as Purdue Pharma, which may hamper the committee’s independence.  In any case, even where other high profile debtors, such as Enron, have used independent committees to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, courts have nevertheless appointed bankruptcy examiners to assess, verify, and supplement the work of those committees. It is hard to see why Purdue should be different.

Third, and perhaps most important, the opioid crisis is not like other mass torts because it has generated extraordinary public interest. Victims of the opioid crisis understandably want their day in court—which is something that bankruptcy tends to eliminate. While thousands of lawsuits would be wasteful, failing to take seriously the dignitary interests of victims of the opioid crisis could threaten the legitimacy and integrity of the bankruptcy system.  At the same time, if an independent examiner exonerates the Sacklers, this may help provide the redemption that they presumably want.

Although the United States Trustee has not yet sought an examiner, there have been three interesting developments since we sent the letter:

  1. On November 6, 2019 Marshall Huebner, counsel to the debtor in possession, emailed us to say that “the Debtors (likely along with other core stakeholders) intend to strongly oppose the request, which, with apologies to its authors, contains many misstatements of fact.”  However, Huebner identified no “misstatements of fact” (much less “many”).
  2. On November 15, 2019, ten days after we sent the letter, the debtors filed a stipulation with counsel to the creditors committee and certain members of the Sackler family. The debtors and the Sacklers agreed to produce certain information to the committee (on a “professional eyes’ only basis”) that may respond to certain of the questions we asked, but in exchange the committee relinquished its right to seek an examiner until mid-April 2020.  It is not clear how estate fiduciaries can properly cede such rights.
  3. On December 16, 2019, the debtors filed a redacted version of the “independent” report noted above.  It indicates that the Sacklers took about $10 billion in cash out of the debtors since 2008.  This is not surprising, since the total value of the proposed settlement would have a face amount of about $10 billion (but a substantially lower present value given its payment schedule, and would not cover interest on the $10 billion).

The takeaway seems to be that, even though no examiner has been appointed, the Sacklers and the debtors in possession have begun to produce some information that may help to answer the questions we believe are central to this case.  In this regard, the mere threat of an examiner might be having an effect.  However, the ability to assess and verify this information is limited, at least for the time being.

That no one has actually requested an examiner is, at one level, not surprising.  It is easy to imagine that managing this case is exceedingly difficult.  The insiders in the case—especially counsel to the debtors and the official committee, and Judge Drain—may view an examiner as a wrench in the delicate machinery of the proposed settlement.  Parties might therefore prefer to maintain the threat of an examiner, even as they are reluctant to pull the trigger on a motion.

The Purdue bankruptcy is, however, bigger than the financial claims of any of Purdue’s creditors.  Purdue is a not a case that can be run like a standard chapter 11 because there is a strong public interest in establishing a clear and independent record of what Purdue and the Sacklers knew and did about the dangers of opioids, and the extent of the Sacklers’ transactions with Purdue. Establishing these facts credibly is important not just for the dignitary interests of opioid victims and their families, but also so that creditors can properly evaluate any settlement that emerges as part of the reorganization process.

Without credible answers to the questions we asked, there will be a shadow over these cases, one that may ultimately threaten the integrity of the reorganization process.

The full letter is available here.

 

Insider Trading: Are Insolvent Firms Different?

By Andrew Verstein (Wake Forest University School of Law)

Are insolvent firms different from solvent firms with respect to insider trading law and policy? One difference is the level of regulation of trading in the residual claims of the firm. In solvent firms, the residual claims are equity securities, and equity securities are subject to the full ambit of trading restrictions. In insolvent firms, non-equity claims are typically residual claims that are subject to less stringent regulation precisely because they are not equity and they may not even be securities. As a result, insider trading regulations apply with lesser force to the most economically significant and informationally-sensitive interests in an insolvent company. Insolvency is therefore deregulatory.

While insolvency deregulates, it also expands the reach of other aspects of federal insider trading law. That is because bankruptcy law creates new roles and new duties. Since insider trading law hinges on duties, these new relationships expand the coverage of insider trading restrictions.

I consider these tradeoffs in a forthcoming article, and I offer two tentative conclusions.  

First, we should not rush to close the “loopholes” in insider trading law that open with regards to the residual claims. Deregulating insider trading is a Faustian bargain—greater price accuracy at the risk of lesser liquidity, fairness, and managerial integrity—but we should be more willing to accept the bargain with respect to insolvent firms than solvent ones.

Second, we should be solicitous of efforts to shield members of creditors’ committees from extensive insider trading regulation because these creditors occupy a position without analogue in the solvent firm: they both receive and contribute material, nonpublic information. Traditional insider trading law theory may not have the resources to manage a two-way flow of information, requiring new and accommodating thought.

The full article is available here.

Three Provocative Business Bankruptcy Decisions of 2018

By Michael L. Cook (Schulte, Roth & Zabel LLP).

The appellate courts have issued at least three provocative, if not questionable, business bankruptcy decisions in the past six months.

Lakeridge:  In March, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court avoided the substantive merits of a 2016 split decision by the Ninth Circuit that had permitted a Chapter 11 debtor to manipulate the reorganization plan process.  Despite the Court’s narrow holding approving the Ninth Circuit’s “clear error” standard for reviewing a bankruptcy court’s fact findings, four Justices wrote two separate opinions challenging the Court’s limited review of the Ninth Circuit’s stunning decision in the face of a powerful dissent.

In re Anderson:  The Second Circuit, on March 7, 2018, held that an asserted bankruptcy discharge violation was not arbitrable due to a conflict between the Federal Arbitration Act and the Bankruptcy Code.  Two months later, though, the Supreme Court stressed that it had rejected every effort to “conjure” conflicts between the Arbitration Act and a raft of other Federal statutes.

In re Temptnology:  the First Circuit, on January 12, 2018, in a split decision, wiped out the rights of a trademark licensee, explicitly rejecting a 2012 decision by the Seventh Circuit.  The First Circuit’s majority opinion relied on a heavily criticized 1985 Fourth Circuit decision, premising its  holding on the primacy of Federal bankruptcy law over Federal trademark law and distinguishing between a statutory breach and a common law breach.

The losing parties in the First and Second Circuit cases filed petitions for certiorari in June, 2018.  Given the Circuit split in one case and the later Supreme Court arbitration ruling in the other, both cases warrant Supreme Court review.

The full article is available here.


We at the Bankruptcy Roundtable will take a break from posting this August and hope that you too will be able to get away from your desk at work. We’ll be back after Labor Day.

Insider Status and U.S. Bank v. Village at Lakeridge

By Ronit J. Berkovich and David Li (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP).

The U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n v. Village at Lakeridge, LLC, 583 U.S. ___ (2018), offered plenty of hints on an important topic while simultaneously ruling very little about it.  In chapter 11, whether a creditor qualifies as an “insider” can have enormous implications on a range of issues, including plan confirmation, fraudulent transfer and preference analyses, and severance payment and employee incentive/retention plan (KEIP/KERP) approvals.  Lakeridge involved a dispute as to whether the bankruptcy court properly determined in confirming a plan that the sole impaired accepting creditor (the romantic partner of one of the debtor’s officers) was not a “non-statutory” insider.  If the creditor actually were such an insider, then the chapter 11 plan should not have been confirmed.

In granting cert to hear the case, the Supreme Court expressly declined the opportunity to address whether the Ninth Circuit articulated the correct legal test to determine if a person qualifies as a non-statutory insider.  Instead, the Supreme Court granted cert only to answer the narrow question of whether the Ninth Circuit applied the correct standard of review to the lower court’s determination.  Justice Kagan, writing for the Court, kept to that script by simply affirming the Ninth Circuit’s decision to apply a clear error standard of review.  Concurrences by Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor, however, each acknowledged shortcomings in the legal test the Ninth Circuit applied and each appeared to invite lower courts to consider alternative approaches.  As a whole, Lakeridge provides little binding guidance, and practitioners can expect further development in non-statutory insider law by the Courts of Appeals.

The article is available here.