Balancing Debtor and Creditors’ Interests in Bankruptcy Reorganization Proceedings: Best Practices for the Procedural Design of Claims’ Classification

By Anaïs Alle (Harvard Law School, L.L.M. 2022)

Anaïs Alle

Reorganization proceedings, in contrast to liquidation sales, constitute a rather recent development in insolvency law. Embodied by Chapter 11 in the US, this trend has been further brought to light by the European Directive 2019/1023 of 20 June, 2019 on restructuring and insolvency, that requires EU Member States to set up a preventive reorganization framework. Reorganization plans typically involve complex interplays between competing stakeholders’ interests, and the classification of claims for the purpose of voting on the reorganization plan is both an illustration of these tensions and a mechanism designed to address them. Choices of European policymakers, especially in France where the classification of claims represents a major change, can offer new perspectives on best practices for modern reorganization plans. The classification of claims is an important feature of reorganization proceedings. First, it appears as a countermeasure to the debtor-in-possession and other debtor-friendly rules. Second, it promotes the adoption of a plan against hold-out problems from hostile minority or out-of-the-money creditors. Third, it provides guarantees of fairness and viability of the plan, through the consent of a representative majority of creditors.

Given the importance of claims’ classification, the design of classes has drawn a lot of attention during the implementation of the EU Directive in France. Debtor-in-possession proceedings leave the debtor with significant power over classification, with the potential for abuse through “gerrymandering”, i.e., the strategic classification of claims to create an artificially accepting impaired class, ensuring the adoption of a potentially unfair plan. Bankruptcy statutes fail to provide clear and binding criteria to restrict such strategies. Similarly, Chapter 11 case law – although precedents, notably Matter of Greystone III Joint Venture out of the 5th Circuit, have suggested a ban on gerrymandering – has been reluctant to challenge debtors’ classifications. Instead, policymakers have set protective rules for creditors, mainly the best-interest-of-creditors test and the absolute priority rule. However, these protections may be circumvented and difficult to enforce.

In this context, procedural design is suggested as a means of reconciling debtor-friendly rules with effective protections for creditors, thus ensuring a balance of interests in reorganization proceedings. First, effective judicial review over the classification of claims appears desirable and is addressed under French law with (i) the appointment of a trustee, with limited powers, assisting the debtor in possession, and (ii) an early, dedicated and fast-tracked appeal against the classification of claims, allowing the judicial resolution of disputes over classification before the adoption of the plan. A similar result may be achieved through a reinforcement of classification hearings. Second, hostile classification strategies could be avoided through prepackaged plans, in which the debtor negotiates with its creditors prior to filing for Chapter 11. French law provides for a dedicated two-stage framework through conciliation proceedings – confidential negotiations under the supervision of a court-appointed professional – followed by fast-tracked reorganization proceedings, where the plan can be adopted through a vote in classes that have been designed within the conciliation negotiations. Such proceedings are consistent with the modern negotiated, deal-approach to reorganizations while making use of insolvency mechanisms against hold-out problems, thus favoring a preventive and pragmatic solution to distressed situations.

 

Click here to read the full article.

Bankruptcy-Remote Structuring: Reallocating Risk Through Law

By Steven Schwarcz (Stanley A. Star Distinguished Professor of Law & Business, Duke University School of Law)

Steven Schwarcz

Bankruptcy-remote structuring, a legal strategy with potential public policy implications, is crucial both to a range of important financial transactions—including securitization, project finance, covered bonds, oil-and-gas and mineral production payments, and other forms of structured financing—and to the ring-fencing of utilities and other publicly essential firms. In finance, the goal is contractually to reallocate risk by structuring securities-issuing entities that, absent the bankruptcy risks inherent to operating businesses, can attract investments based on specified cash flows. In ring-fencing, the goal is contractually to structure firms to minimize bankruptcy risks, thereby assuring their continued business operations.

Parties engaging in bankruptcy-remote structuring usually seek to reallocate risk more optimally, including by reducing information asymmetry and assigning higher risk to yield-seeking investors, thereby enabling firms to diversify and lower their costs of capital. In reality, bankruptcy-remote structuring can sometimes create harmful externalities. Some blame bankruptcy-remote securitization transactions, for example, for triggering the 2007-08 global financial crisis by shifting risk from contracting parties to the public.

This Article undertakes a normative analysis of bankruptcy-remote structuring, examining the extent to which parties should have the right to reallocate bankruptcy risk. It is the first to do so both from the standpoint of public policy—examining how bankruptcy-law policy should limit freedom of contract; and also from the standpoint of cost-benefit analysis (“CBA”)—examining how externalities should limit freedom of contract.

Traditionally, CBA weighs overall costs and benefits regardless of who pays the costs and who receives the benefits. That model makes sense for a neutral governmental assessment of costs and benefits, such as deciding whether to enact new regulation. In bankruptcy-remote structuring, however, the contracting parties both advocate and significantly stand to gain from the project. From a public policy standpoint, an impartial assessment of these private actions should weigh the socially relevant costs and benefits.

In that weighing, the Article explains why the socially relevant benefits of project finance that is used to facilitate the construction of critical infrastructure projects like powerplants and toll roads, as well as the socially relevant benefits of ring-fencing that is used to protect critical utilities, should exceed the socially relevant costs. However, for more generic structured finance transactions, like securitization, the CBA weighing is more difficult. These types of bankruptcy-remote transactions have valuable public benefits that are difficult to quantify. Their social costs are also difficult to quantify. Given these difficulties, the Article merely categorizes the benefits and costs without purporting to conclude how they balance. This approach has important precedent, including for assessing the costs and benefits of the Volcker Rule.

Finally, the Article examines how to reform bankruptcy-remote structuring to reduce its externalities, thereby rebalancing the costs and benefits to try to achieve net positive benefits.

Among other things, it compares the European Union’s regulatory framework that creates incentives for simple, transparent, and standardized (“STS”) securitization transactions and urges U.S. lawmakers to consider similar securitization reforms.

The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy Court Ruling Imposes Lender Liability

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

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

The full article is available here.

 

Voting Rights Assignment Unenforceable, but Subordinated Creditor Lacked Standing to Participate in Chapter 11 Plan Confirmation Process

By Dan B. Prieto (Jones Day) and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Dan B. Prieto
Mark G. Douglas

In In re Fencepost Productions Inc., 629 B.R. 289 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2021), the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Kansas recently addressed the enforceability of a provision in a pre-bankruptcy subordination agreement under which a subordinated creditor assigned to a senior creditor its right to vote on any chapter 11 plan proposed for the borrower. The bankruptcy court ruled that such a provision is not enforceable because it conflicts with the Bankruptcy Code. In a twist, however, the court concluded that the subordinated creditor lacked “prudential standing” to participate in the confirmation process because it was extremely out-of-the-money and therefore had no stake in the outcome of the case, but was attempting to assert the rights of third parties.

Courts disagree over whether an assignment of plan voting rights in an intercreditor or subordination agreement is enforceable. Regardless of the particular approach adopted by a court on this issue, the growing consensus is that agreements that seek to limit or waive junior creditors’ voting rights must contain express language to that effect. The ruling in Fencepost adds yet another chapter to the ongoing debate on this issue.

 The Fencepost court’s conclusion that the subordinated creditor lacked prudential standing would appear to be driven in part by the facts of the case, which involved a subordinated, clearly out-of-the-money creditor intent upon impeding an otherwise consensual reorganization.

The Bankruptcy Code, however, expressly provides to the contrary by, among other things, giving every “party in interest” (including creditors and interest holders, without making an exception in cases where there is no value available for distribution to them), the right to appear and be heard “on any issue” in a chapter 11 case, the right to vote on a chapter 11 plan, and the right to object to confirmation of a plan. These provisions arguably indicate that Congress intended to modify or abrogate prudential standing requirements when it enacted the Bankruptcy Code. Moreover, the “rights” any out-of-the-money creditor or shareholder would be seeking to enforce by participating in the confirmation process are arguably their own, rather than the rights of third parties.

A logical extension of the rationale articulated in Fencepost is that clearly out-of-the-money creditors or shareholders of an insolvent corporation would never have prudential standing to participate in the chapter 11 plan confirmation process. That approach would be contrary to court rulings and general practice in many chapter 11 cases.

The full article can be accessed here.

The Aftermath of a Complicated Breakup: Third Circuit Holds Stalking Horse Bidder in Terminated Transaction May Assert Potential Administrative Expense Claim Notwithstanding Disallowance of Its Termination Fee

By Ronit J. Berkovich (Weil)

Ronit J. Berkovich

In a recent decision, In re Energy Future Holdings Corp., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 7400 (3d Cir. 2021) (“EFH II”), the Third Circuit held that a stalking horse may assert an administrative expense claim under section 503(b)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code for certain transactional expenses, even when it is not entitled to a termination fee.

In EFH II, the debtors terminated a merger agreement with a stalking horse and the stalking horse applied for payment of a termination fee.  After the application was denied, the stalking horse filed an administrative expense application for costs incurred in attempting to complete the merger.  In response, various bondholders jointly filed a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment.  After the Delaware Bankruptcy Court granted the bondholders’ motions, the Third Circuit ruled that the administrative claim should not have been denied without further factual inquiry because the stalking horse plausibly alleged that it benefited the estate by providing information, accepting risks, and paving the way for a later successful deal.

 In so holding, the Third Circuit applied a broad standard for pleading a plausible administrative claim under section 503(b)(1)(A).  Going forward, it may be harder to obtain denial of an administrative expense application in the Third Circuit without a discovery process and evidentiary hearing.  While this decision establishes an alternative means for stalking horses to recover certain transactional expenses, its actual impact remains to be seen, as parties can draft provisions in transactional documents to address the scope of recoverable administrative claims.

The full article is available here.

Value Tracing and Priority in Cross-Border Group Bankruptcies: Solving the Nortel Problem from the Bottom Up

posted in: Priority, Valuation | 0

By Edward J. Janger (Professor, Brooklyn Law School) and Stephan Madaus (Professor, Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg)

Edward J. Janger
Stephan Madaus

The Nortel bankruptcy case is simultaneously the biggest success and biggest failure in the recent history of cross-border restructuring practice. On the plus side, the coordinated sale of an insolvent telecom firm’s key assets created a pool of value worth $7 billion—much larger than could have been accomplished through piecemeal local liquidation of spectrum licenses and intellectual property rights.  On the minus side, the fights over value allocation swallowed up a gargantuan part of that value—an estimated $2.6 billion.

 This article suggests a simple, perhaps naïve, solution to this problem.  The fights centered on alleged entitlements to priority—upward deviations from equal treatment and pro rata distribution. These fights were complicated by Nortel’s structure as a global corporate group. The claims were based on, among other things: (1) liens; (2) corporate structure; (3) territorial jurisdiction; and (4) local statutory priorities. Interactions among these claims to priority made it virtually impossible to unscramble the egg.  In our view, a straightforward solution to this problem is to remember that a creditor asserting priority has the burden of establishing the realizable value of its claim to priority in excess of its pro rata distribution.

The article proceeds in three steps.

First, it describes the current architecture for dealing with the insolvency of corporate groups and the problem posed by cases like Nortel and Lehman.

Second, it details the various types of claims to priority that can exist within a corporate group and explores the nature of priority.  It then develops the concept of “homeless value” and the “rump estate.”  Claims to priority may be hierarchical or they may be plural. They may be traceable to assets, countries, or entities, or they may inhere in the group. Regardless, when a firm continues to operate in bankruptcy (or is sold as a going concern), the relative position of the claimants must be fixed at the outset. Thereafter, subject to respecting the priority of the newly fixed claims, governance should be situated with the variable claimants to this unsituated value—the “rump estate.” These claimants are the ones who will benefit from any increase in value and pay for any decrease.

Third, the article suggests an approach to value allocation that would vastly simplify cases like Nortel, but which also provides a mechanism to allocate value in rescue cases where the firm continues to operate. The simple point is that priority claimants should have the burden of establishing the realizable value of their priority. This requirement establishes an entitlement floor for, and limits the veto rights of, these priority claimants. As such, it provides a legal default for allocating value in going concern sale cases, and a cram-down standard for restructurings.

The full article is available here.

The Hertz Maneuver (and the Limits of Bankruptcy Law)

By Anthony J. Casey (Professor of Law, The University of Chicago Law School), Joshua C. Macey (Assistant Professor of Law, The University of Chicago Law School)

Anthony J. Casey
Joshua C. Macey

On June 11, 2020, the Hertz Corporation attempted to become the first corporate debtor to finance a bankruptcy proceeding by issuing new shares of common stock to the public. Though many thought Hertz’s equity was worthless, its stock was trading at a positive value on the secondary markets, and Hertz was attempting to tap into that market value. When the bankruptcy court blessed the plan, many observers responded with outrage on behalf of retail investors who, they argued, were being duped into a worthless investment. They suggested that the law should prevent retail investors from buying these shares. Ultimately, the Securities Exchange Commission signaled that it had similar concerns and effectively killed the proposal.

This essay explores the questions raised by this incident. It argues that commentators were focused on the wrong bankruptcy problem. Contrary to the view of the commentators, Hertz’s bankruptcy does not show that retail investors require bankruptcy-specific protections. The Hertz maneuver does, however, highlight distortions created by bankruptcy law’s distribution rule, known as the absolute priority rule. That rule cuts off future opportunities for those holding equity (or junior claims) in a debtor firm and makes it difficult for stockholders and unsecured creditors to make long-term investments in the firm’s future value. From this perspective, existing proposals to alter bankruptcy’s priority rules begin to look like a form of investor protection that could facilitate investment in a firm’s long-term value.

The full article is available here.

Rethinking Priority: The Dawn of the Relative Priority Rule and a New ‘Best Interest of Creditors’ Test in the European Union

By Axel Krohn (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany)

Axel Krohn

The European Directive on restructuring and insolvency (“Directive”), which came into force in July 2019, has triggered a series of interesting debates. The possibility for EU Member States to subject the cram-down from Article 11 to a “relative priority rule” (“EU RPR”) when implementing the Directive into national law has proven to be particularly controversial.

Despite a confusing conceptual overlap with approaches presented in the U.S., the European interpretation of “relative priority” breaks new ground. The rule stipulates that, under a restructuring plan, dissenting voting classes have to be treated merely more favorably than any junior class. Although the Directive allows national lawmakers to refrain from the EU RPR and introduce a familiar “absolute priority rule” (“APR”)—that is, that a dissenting class of creditors must be paid in full before junior parties may receive any distributions—the EU RPR has already found supporters in various jurisdictions and should therefore be thoroughly examined.

This article identifies one aspect of the cram-down that has received little attention to date. In addition to the EU RPR, the European legislature has introduced a new “best interest of creditors” test (“EU BIT”), which does not—as in 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(7)(ii)—use the value that a party could expect in a hypothetical liquidation as a comparator, but refers to the “next-best-alternative scenario.” Although the concept of combining the EU RPR and the EU BIT is coherent in theory and may even eliminate some misconceptions about the EU RPR, the interaction of the two cram-down elements is likely to raise problems in practice.

First, this article discusses the concepts of the two priority rules and traces the motives of the European legislature for introducing the EU RPR.

Three aspects in particular appear to have motivated the legislature in drawing up the rule. For one, the legislature wished to create more flexibility in plan negotiations and thus respond in particular to special needs in the restructuring of smaller businesses. The rule may bring advantages, especially when it is reasonable to enable existing shareholders to participate in the continued business by means of an equity interest. Second, with regard to some Member States, the desire has arisen to create an instrument to overcome structural blocking positions of certain preferential (priority) creditors, in particular tax authorities. Finally, there is a trend in Europe which sees in the Directive a procedure that enables a structured contractual renegotiation of debts and detaches itself from the “traditional laws of insolvency law,” including the APR.

This article then deals with the new EU BIT and examines its interaction with the EU RPR.

It is worth noting that the EU BIT plays a much more important role in an EU RPR cram-down than under an APR. By moving away from the traditional liquidation benchmark and instead linking to the “next-best-alternative scenario,” the test protects precisely the value that can be achieved from the perspective of a creditor outside insolvency without cooperating with other parties. The then remaining reorganization surplus, which is subject to the EU RPR, is that fraction of the going concern surplus which can only be achieved through the combined efforts of all parties involved, but which creditors cannot claim in an individual case of enforcement.

Despite this harmonious interaction in theory, doubts may be expressed as to whether the combination of the EU RPR and the EU BIT would work in practice. The new focus on the hypothetical next-best-alternative scenario value will likely lead to an additional stress point in plan negotiations. The EU RPR, which does not itself contain a clear guideline for the distribution of the remaining surplus, is then to be applied between two unclear values, namely the hypothetical next-best-alternative value and the presumed reorganization value. It is reasonable to assume that the resulting distributional uncertainty will cause new hold-up potential and render it difficult to realize consensual plans, especially in larger restructuring cases. Also, it seems likely that unsophisticated junior creditors will face difficulties in defending their rights adequately in view of the potentially unclear next-best-alternative scenario value, and that others will try to use this to their advantage in complex negotiations.

The full article is available here.

Where Past is Prologue: Applying Lessons from the Past to Protect ABL Lenders in a World of Future Distress

By Shana A. Elberg, Seth E. Jacobson, & George R. Howard (Skadden)

Shana A. Elberg
Seth E. Jacobson
George R. Howard

Today, U.S. borrowers are more indebted than ever before. Borrowers have become increasingly aggressive in using secured leverage, and in taking advantage of “cov-lite” loan documents to engage in creative (and sometimes controversial) transactions to transfer assets beyond the reach of existing secured lenders by way of distributions to shareholders or contributions to unrestricted subsidiaries and then utilize those assets to raise additional secured financing. While the debt levels and cov-lite structures of leveraged loans may create risks for many stakeholders, lenders under asset-based loan facilities (“ABL facilities”) should be well-positioned to weather any storm. ABL facilities typically offer lenders greater protections in a liquidation scenario. In addition, ABL facilities often are a critical lynchpin of debtor-in-possession financing facilities when borrowers are looking to effectuate comprehensive restructurings through chapter 11. There are several tools available to ABL lenders to protect their credit position in the event that a borrower finds itself in a distressed situation. Lenders should position themselves to understand and use the chapter 11 process to ensure their debt claims retain, and even gain, protections in bankruptcy.

The full article is available here.

Ultra III: Law Firm Perspectives

By Xiao Ma (Harvard Law School)

Xiao Ma

On November 26, 2019, the Fifth Circuit granted a petition for rehearing en banc and issued a revised opinion in In re Ultra Petroleum Corp., No. 17-20793 (5th Cir. Nov. 26, 2019). The new opinion reaffirmed the court’s prior holding that the alternation of a claim by the Bankruptcy Code does not render a claim impaired under 11 U.S.C. § 1124(1), while withdrew the court’s earlier guidance that make-whole premium was the “economic equivalent of ‘interest’” together with its prior suggestion on setting the appropriate post-petition interest rate via reference to general post-judgment interest statute or bankruptcy court’s equitable discretion.

Noting that issues relating to make-whole premiums is a common dispute in modern bankruptcy, the Fifth Circuit retracted its dicta and emphasized in the revised opinion that specific facts are essential in determining the difficult question of whether any premiums are effectively unmatured interest. The court concluded that “[t]he bankruptcy court is often best equipped to understand these individual dynamics – at least in the first instance.”

Firms took notice of the issues remain unsolved and offered perspectives on implications of this case. Morgan Lewis specifically notes that the revised opinion did not alter the original opinion’s reversal of the bankruptcy court’s ruling that creditors who are unimpaired in a bankruptcy plan pursuant to section 1124(a)(1) must receive the full amount of their claim under state law. Weil finds the opinion “does not answer the question of whether, or when, a make-whole may be payable in the Fifth Circuit”, but acknowledges that the ruling is “viewed by some as a victory” for certain creditors. Cleary highlights that the court’s revised opinion “withdrew essentially all of the guidance it had offered in its prior opinion” which had cast doubt on the enforceability of make-whole claims in bankruptcy. “Given the legal and economic significance of the questions left to be resolved”, debtors and creditors alike are likely to watch closely how the questions will proceed at the bankruptcy court, says Mayer Brown.

An earlier post on the Roundtable, Fifth Circuit’s Ultra Petroleum Decision Suggests Make-Wholes are Unenforceable in Bankruptcy, Questions Collectability of Contract Rate Postpetition Interest, discussed the original opinion on Ultra by the Fifth Circuit dated Jan. 17, 2019.

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