The Employee Rights in Employer Bankruptcy Act

Prof. Robert Hockett
Prof. Robert Hockett

By Robert Hockett (Cornell Law School)

The Blackjewel Coal bankruptcy of summer 2019 exposed critical weaknesses in our state-based system of employee creditor protection. Notwithstanding employees’ priority over other unsecured creditors in bankruptcy, and notwithstanding a bonding requirement imposed by the State of Kentucky, Blackjewel’s final round of paychecks paid to employees ‘bounced,’ confronting employees with imminent personal bankruptcies, forgone medical and other services, and even mortgage foreclosure and homelessness.

Happily, ultimate resolution of the Blackjewel case later in autumn saw the employees made whole and the company investigated for fraud. But this solution was anything but assured before it was reached, and employees in any event suffered substantial harm in the form of disrupted family budgets and substantial uncertainty as to ultimate recovery for months – including, critically, just as a new school year was commencing for employee families’ children.

It would seem well advised, then, to put in place a more permanent and reliable process for cases like that of Blackjewel and its employees. What is needed is a solution that is uniformly applicable, reliable, and known in advance such that all concerned parties can bargain and plan ‘in the shadow’ of the regime. Our present arrangements are subject to vagaries of state law and state budgets that vary across state jurisdictional space and fiscal time. The obvious solution to the difficulties raised by such variance is to subject this realm, like that of bankruptcy itself, to federal legislation.

A bill I have recently drafted and advocated aims to ‘fit the bill’ in effect called-for by the Blackjewel affair. It does so by (a) assigning the Department of Labor (‘DOL’) a permanent representation role in future employer insolvencies; (b) federalizing the employer bonding requirements now found only in inconsistently administered state laws; (c) establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund to tide employees over while bankruptcy proceedings are pending; and (d) holding employing-firms’ executive officers personally liable for violations of the Act’s requirements.

The reason for DOL representation and oversight is to ensure that employees have a coherent and powerful representative ‘at the table’ during insolvency proceedings – one that is endowed with oversight authority not only during, but in advance of insolvencies.

The reason for federalizing employer bonding requirements is that states often vary over time in respect of the seriousness with which they administer such requirements, presumably in part for reasons sounding in lobbying pressures and ideology but also for reasons of basic capacity – large employers, after all, often are ‘bigger’ than the states that would supervise them.

The reason for establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund is presumably obvious. What made Blackjewel’s travails so hard on employees was precisely the fact that ultimate resolution was long in coming, while employee families’ daily living expenses couldn’t ‘wait.’ Against such a backdrop it makes sense for DOL to do for employees what our Federal Reserve does for financial institutions while insolvency and consolidation proceedings are underway – viz., provide tide-over funding.

Finally, the reason for holding executive officers personally liable for compliance with the Act’s requirements should be obvious as well. For again as in the case of financial institutions, so here the only surefire way of ‘incentivizing’ firms to comply is to incentivize those through whom all firms act – their executives, as the term ‘executive’ (derived from ‘execute’) itself suggests. Diffuse shareholders, who often lack power over corporate officers, and insider shareholders, who often have interests at odds with the interests of non-executive employees in any event, simply aren’t up to the task.

Employing firms, their executives and their owners have enjoyed multiple forms of state patronage for decades in our nation, while employees have in general enjoyed only sporadic assistance from public sector institutions and, less now than any time since the early 20th century, labor unions. This Act will help further a cause that’s increasingly now recognized once again to be both morally and economically compelling: That is the task of protecting the interests of our own productive citizenry – our labor force.

The full article is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy’s Cathedral: Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Distress

By Vincent S.J. Buccola (University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School)

What good can a corporate bankruptcy regime do in the modern economy? The question bears asking because the environment in which distressed companies find themselves is so markedly different from the environment of just twenty years ago—to say nothing of the days of the equity receiverships, of sections 77 and 77B, of Chapters X and XI. The most important changes are well known: increased depth and liquidity of financial markets and, especially, increased capacity of financial contracting to say ex ante how distress will be resolved ex post. Recent efforts to take stock of contemporary bankruptcy practice, most notably the ABI’s Chapter 11 reform project, grapple implicitly with the significance of a changing environment. But by leaving the matter implicit, they underscore a lacuna about what the law’s marginal contribution to the economic order might be.

In a forthcoming article, Bankruptcy’s Cathedral, I hazard a general answer and elaborate its implications for a few prominent uses of bankruptcy in today’s practice.

The characteristic function of bankruptcy law, I say, is to recharacterize the mode in which an investor’s relationship to a distressed firm is governed. In particular, bankruptcy frequently toggles the protection of an investor’s economic interests from a property rule, in the Calabresi and Melamed sense, to a liability rule. It swaps out the investor’s unilateral right upon default to withdraw her investment, when such a right would ordinarily prevail, in favor of a judicially mediated procedure designed to give her the official value of her right. The automatic stay furnishes an example. It extinguishes a secured creditor’s power to repossess and sell collateral, and supplies instead a right only to what the bankruptcy judge determines to be “adequate protection” of its interest in the collateral.

This toggling function can be useful, Property rules are often more efficient during a company’s financial health than during distress. A state-contingent meta rule that switches between the two thus might be optimal. But what about financial contracting? Why can’t investors stipulate state-contingent meta rules if indeed they can maximize surplus by doing so? The short answer is that in some cases contract is sufficient, but in other cases legal or practical impediments are insuperable. The marginal contribution of bankruptcy law, then, is to supply toggling rules where investors cannot practically do so on their own.

One implication of my approach is to index the justifiable scope of bankruptcy to contingent facts about the efficacy of financial contracting. In environments where it is difficult for investors to specify state-contingent toggling rules, whether because of legal prohibition or practical impossibility, the compass for bankruptcy law is wider. As contract becomes more efficacious, bankruptcy’s brief grows correspondingly shorter.

This normative schema can be used to assess one-by-one the many actual interventions of bankruptcy laws. I scrutinize three uses of bankruptcy that are important in today’s practice: to confirm prepackaged plans, to effect going-concern sales, and to take advantage of the automatic stay. I find plausible justifications for a legal institution to bind holdout creditors and to extinguish in rem claims against a debtor’s assets. The automatic stay, on the other hand, is harder to justify. (The curious must read within to find out why.) More generally, though, my approach shows how one can weigh the contributions of a bankruptcy regime against its redundant or even counterproductive in light of contracting innovations.

The complete article is available for download here.

Reorganizing Health Care Bankruptcy

By Laura Coordes (Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law)

Many health care providers are experiencing financial distress, and if the predicted wave of health care bankruptcies materializes, the entire U.S. economy could suffer. Unfortunately, health care providers are part of a growing group of “bankruptcy misfits,” in the sense that bankruptcy does not work for them the way it works for other businesses. This is so for two primary reasons. First, the Bankruptcy Code is insufficiently specific with respect to health care debtors. Second, the Code lacks an organizing principle to allow the court to reconcile the competing players and interests in a health care bankruptcy case.

Previous attempts to address these issues have not succeeded. Notably, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 scattered reforms across the Code, making bankruptcy more complicated for health care debtors. As a result, some have argued that these debtors are better off using bankruptcy alternatives such as state receiverships to address their debts.

In Reorganizing Health Care Bankruptcy, I assert that despite their bankruptcy misfit status, health care providers can realize distinct benefits from bankruptcy relief. To be effective, however, this relief must respond to health care providers’ unique needs. Creating separate Bankruptcy Code subchapters for health care business bankruptcies would allow Congress to clarify many aspects of health care bankruptcy and enable the development of specific procedures and a distinct organizing principle unique to health care provider bankruptcies. Although this proposal contemplates a significant structural change to the Bankruptcy Code, the Article explains why this change is warranted as part of the Code’s necessary evolution.

The full article is available here.

Rethinking “Too Big To Fail”

 By Saule T. Omarova (Cornell University)

“Too big to fail” – or “TBTF” – is a popular metaphor for a core dysfunction of today’s financial system: the recurrent pattern of government bailouts of large, systemically important financial institutions. The financial crisis of 2008 made TBTF a household term, a powerful symbol of the pernicious society-wide pattern of “privatizing gains and socializing losses.” It continues to frame much of the public policy debate on financial regulation even today, ten years after the crisis. Yet, the analytical content of this term remains remarkably unclear.

In a forthcoming article, I take a fresh look at the nature of the TBTF problem in finance and offer a coherent framework for understanding the cluster of closely related, but conceptually distinct, regulatory and policy challenges this label actually denotes. I begin by identifying the fundamental paradox at the heart of the TBTF concept: TBTF is an entity-centric, micro-level metaphor for a complex of interrelated systemic, macro-level problems. I argue that, while largely unacknowledged, this inherent tension between the micro and the macro, the entity and the system, critically shapes the design and implementation of the key post-2008 regulatory reforms in the financial sector.

To trace these dynamics, I deconstruct the TBTF metaphor into its two basic components: (1) the “F” factor focused on the “failure” of individual financial firms; and (2) the “B” factor focused on their “bigness” (i.e., relative size and structural significance). Isolating and examining these conceptually distinct components helps to explain why the potential for failure (and bailout) of individual firms – or the “F” factor – continues to be the principal focus of the ongoing TBTF policy debate, while the more explicitly structural, relational issues associated with financial firms’ “bigness” – or the “B” factor – remain largely in the background of that debate.

Analyzing post-crisis legislative and regulatory efforts to solve the TBTF problem through this simplifying lens reveals critical gaps in that process, which consistently favors the inherently micro-level “F” factor solutions over the more explicitly macro-level “B” factor ones. It also suggests potential ways of rebalancing and expanding the TBTF policy toolkit to encompass a wider range of measures targeting the relevant systemic dynamics in a more direct and assertive manner. Admittedly, implementing such deliberately structural measures would require a qualitative shift in the way we think and talk about the financial system and its dysfunctions – not an easy precondition to meet in practice. Yet, as I argue in the article, this deep attitudinal shift is the necessary first step toward finally achieving the lofty – and persistently elusive – goal of eliminating the TBTF phenomenon in finance.

The complete article is available for download here.

 

Bankruptcy for Banks: A Tribute (and Little Plea) to Jay Westbrook

By David A. Skeel, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

Over the past several years, Congress has considered various versions of a legislative reform that would amend the Bankruptcy Code to facilitate the prompt reorganization of systemically important financial institutions (“SIFIs”). The reform would adapt the “Single Point of Entry” strategy devised for use under Title II of the Dodd Frank Act to bankruptcy. In each context, the assets, short term liabilities, and secured debt of the troubled SIFI would be transferred to a newly created bridge institution, leaving behind its stock and long-term debt. The newly recapitalized bridge institution would be fully solvent, and could contribute liquidity to the troubled subsidiaries as necessary. Although the bankruptcy for banks legislation appears to have strong support in Congress, its reception among bankruptcy scholars has been mixed.

In this short essay, I take the opportunity of a celebration of the work and influence of Jay Westbrook to explore his and his fellow critics’ opposition to bankruptcy for banks. I begin the essay by surveying Jay’s wide-ranging contributions to bankruptcy scholarship. Jay’s functional analysis has had a profound effect on scholars’ understanding of key issues in domestic bankruptcy law, and Jay has been the leading scholarly figure on cross-border insolvency. After surveying Jay’s influence, I turn to the topic at hand: bankruptcy for banks. Jay has been a strong critic of the proposed reforms, arguing among other things that financial institutions need to be resolved by regulators and an administrative process, not bankruptcy. After addressing these and other objections, I ask Jay if he might reconsider his opposition if the legislation were amended to respond to several of his primary concerns.

The essay is available here.

Loan to Bond Substitution: An Empirical Analysis on the Functioning of the Substitution Channel for Eurozone Firms

By Francesco Ruggiero (University of Naples Federico II)

This paper contributes to the literature by enhancing the understanding of the link between bank debt and bond market debt in the Eurozone. This implication is particularly important for small firms that usually rely heavily on bank loans, and are likely to be excluded from the credit market during crises. In this paper, I find that firms based in the Eurozone can substitute bonds for loans in response to changing credit conditions. But the substitution is only partial, and firms will end up raising less funds than needed. Despite the bank centric feature of the European financial market that encourages firms to rely a lot on bank loans, bonds still serve as a substitute to loans. Firms in the Eurozone choose to substitute bonds for loans especially in periods in which the banking sector is in distress or the central bank implements policies to enhance credit.

The comparison with the U.S. firms (provided as benchmark) requires an in-depth analysis on the relative roles of the banking system and the financial market in Europe and the U.S. The divergence in results might indicate that policies enacted by the Fed in the U.S. might not be the best fit for European system. European Central Bank (“ECB”)  should thus tackle similar problems differently. In principle, the central bank’s expansive monetary policies should have affected bank lending positively as well. The reason why it did not work as expected along this transmission channel is that  the banks tend to hoard extra liquidity received from the ECB to deal with potential  sudden shortages in the future.

The full article is available here.

 

 

The Year in Bankruptcy: 2017

by Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day).

In their annual chronicle of business bankruptcy, financial, economic, and related developments in the U.S., Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas of Jones Day review the most significant events of 2017, including business bankruptcy filing statistics and industry trends; newsworthy developments regarding sovereign and commonwealth debt; the top 10 public-company bankruptcies of the year; notable private and cross-border bankruptcy cases; significant business bankruptcy and U.S. Supreme Court bankruptcy rulings; bankruptcy-related legislative and regulatory developments; noteworthy chapter 11 plan confirmations and exits from bankruptcy; and more.

The article is available here.

Proposed Bill: Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2018

posted in: Bankruptcy Reform, Legislation | 0

Earlier this month, Senators John Cornyn, R-TX, and Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, introduced the Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2018. With the aim of “prevent[ing] big companies from cherry-picking courts that they think will rule in their favor and to crack down on this corporate abuse of our nation’s bankruptcy laws,” the Act would amend §1408 of the Bankruptcy Act to require debtors to file in the district “in which the principal assets or principal place of business” are located. It would also bar debtors from tag-along filings in jurisdictions where their affiliates have ongoing bankruptcy proceedings unless that affiliate “owns, controls, is the general partner, or holds 50 percent or more of the outstanding voting securities” of the debtor. In short, the proposed Act would eliminate the domicile venue option and the affiliate option that allows larger parent companies to file in the same venue as a smaller subsidiary.

Significantly, the Act would oust Delaware from its position of bankruptcy venue of choice for the many businesses that do not operate in Delaware but are domiciled in Delaware by virtue of having incorporated there. The bankruptcy court in Delaware is the venue now chosen by many public firms that file to reorganize in chapter 11.

In response to the bill’s introduction, Delaware’s Governor and congressional delegation issued a joint statement:

Many American companies, large and small, choose to incorporate in Delaware because of the expertise and experience of our judges, attorneys, and business leaders. Denying American businesses the ability to file for bankruptcy in the courts of their choice would not only hurt Delaware’s economy but also hurt businesses of all sizes and the national economy as a whole. This is a misguided policy, and we strongly oppose it.

Senator Coons later published an additional statement emphasizing that the “Cornyn-Warren bill is bad for businesses everywhere, but it would be a disaster for Delaware.”

Bankruptcy venue reform was proposed, but not passed, in 2005 (S.314) and again in 2011 (H.R.2533). In seeking to remove the domicile and affiliate bankruptcy venue options, the Cornyn-Warren bill most closely mirrors the 2011 bill, H.R.2533, which Professor David Skeel has stated “would [have] overturn[ed] a long history of bankruptcy practice; it would undermine the effectiveness of our corporate bankruptcy system; it would increase the administrative costs of the system; and it would not help the very parties the proposal is ostensibly designed to help.”

If passed, the Act would require a major change in bankruptcy strategy for many businesses, but it remains to be seen whether the Act will gain traction in Congress.

(By Harold King, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2019.)