[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Upending the Traditional Chapter 11 Bargain

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Harvard Law School)

Note: This is the third 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) and here (by Jonathan C. Lipson).

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In October 2021, Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) executed a strategy to use the bankruptcy system to resolve a massive flood of personal injury lawsuits.  In doing so, J&J found a way to obtain the benefits of Chapter 11 without accepting the burden of operating a business under court oversight.  J&J achieved this outcome by executing a corporate law move dubbed the “Texas Two-Step.”  The Two-Step split J&J’s consumer division into two entities: (1) LTL Management LLC, which was allocated all of J&J’s baby powder-related tort liability; and (2) a second entity that contained the assets of its consumer businesses.  LTL Management subsequently filed for bankruptcy without the assets of the consumer business.  In a landmark recent opinion, Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey held that these maneuvers were not a bad faith bankruptcy filing.  As I argue below, Judge Kaplan’s ruling, which attempts to use bankruptcy law to ameliorate weaknesses in tort law, may inspire other wealthy firms to emulate J&J’s tactics.  It may also feed a potential backlash from higher courts and Congress that may make the bankruptcy system less useful to large firms.

In short, J&J’s bankruptcy strategy upends the traditional bargain that Chapter 11 offers to distressed corporations and their creditors.  Congress designed a bankruptcy system that provides companies with powerful protections, such as an automatic stay of non-bankruptcy litigation.  In exchange, companies must submit their assets to court oversight.  To be sure, a bankruptcy filing always undermines some of the bargaining power that mass tort claimants have outside of bankruptcy, such as the ability to bring many individual lawsuits.  However, the burden of court oversight also gives creditors bargaining power, as companies seek to exit bankruptcy quickly to escape the expense and distraction of a bankruptcy proceeding.  J&J argues it has found a better way of using the bankruptcy system: J&J would use a contract to make the assets of the consumer division available to pay any amounts owed to tort victims and its procedural machinations meant that those assets would not be depleted by wasteful court oversight.

As Michael Francus recently argued, J&J’s strategy is best understood as the latest move in the long-standing chess game of hardball bankruptcy tactics between the lawyers who represent tort victims and the lawyers who advise large companies with tort liability.  For example, in 2003, Pfizer resurrected a dead subsidiary and caused it to file for bankruptcy to obtain a judicial order halting all litigation against Pfizer, which potentially had its own liability associated with the subsidiary’s products.  Pfizer’s strategy involved taking a corporation that had been defunct for over a decade, giving it an “independent board of directors,” employees and office space.  By doing so, Pfizer was able to benefit from a bankruptcy court injunction for several years before reaching a settlement after a decade of scorched earth litigation.  Other high-profile companies, most prominently Purdue Pharma, have also tried to stretch bankruptcy law to resolve claims against third parties without those entities filing for bankruptcy themselves.

The “Texas Two-Step” strategy deployed by J&J takes these existing strategies a step further by surgically separating assets from liabilities to create a favorable bargaining environment.  In holding that this maneuver was not a bad faith use of the bankruptcy system, Judge Kaplan opens the door to other wealthy firms to engage in similar maneuvering to resolve mass torts problems. For example, will the next company with headline-grabbing tort liability, such as an unexpected oil spill, respond by “spinning off” its liabilities into a bankruptcy filing?  In the past, this only would have happened if the resulting liability rendered the polluter insolvent, but now even wealthy and solvent firms may decide that their fiduciary duty requires them to use the bankruptcy system to deal with their liability.

In his ruling, Judge Kaplan overruled the arguments of, among others, a group of bankruptcy scholars (including myself) that worry that the complexity of J&J’s maneuvers will undermine public confidence in the integrity of the bankruptcy system. To be sure, Judge Kaplan’s opinion makes persuasive arguments about the limits of the tort system.  The question, though, is whether the ultimate outcome of Judge Kaplan’s attempt to use bankruptcy law to rectify problems in the tort system will be to create new problems for the bankruptcy system as Congress explores new legislation and appellate courts issue rulings that respond to perceived overreach by reducing the power of bankruptcy judges and, as a result, the usefulness of bankruptcy law.

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Vertical Forum Shopping in Bankruptcy

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.

The first post in this series can be found here.

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Jonathan C. Lipson

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).

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Introduction to LTL Management’s Bankruptcy

By Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts (Harvard Law School)

Note: This is the first 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.

Jin Lee
Amelia Ricketts

Judge Kaplan’s recent decision not to dismiss the LTL Management (LTL)/Johnson & Johnson (J&J) bankruptcy has further stirred controversy about the hotly debated Texas Two-Step Maneuver, and put an end to speculation on how the bankruptcy court would rule on J&J’s Texas Two-Step bankruptcy filing.  (The decision has been appealed directly to the Third Circuit).

The court rejected tort claimants’ arguments that LTL’s filing violated the good faith requirement for Chapter 11 filings or warranted “for cause” dismissal under Section 1112.  Judge Kaplan held that the filing was an appropriate use of the Bankruptcy Code to maximize value available to creditors, commenting that the bankruptcy court would be the “optimal” venue to resolve tort claimants’ treatment.  The judge emphasized compliance with the terms of the Texas divisional merger statute as evidence of J&J’s good faith.  He also viewed the funding agreement among LTL, J&J, and J&J’s consumer division subsidiary as providing LTL with appropriate capitalization to meet the talc claimants’ needs.  As a result, Judge Kaplan concluded that the talc claimants’ interests would be best served by the bankruptcy process and denied their motion to dismiss.

The full post discussing the case is available here: Introduction to LTL Management’s Bankruptcy.

 

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.

 

Due Process Alignment in Mass Restructurings

By Sergio J. Campos (University of Miami School of Law) and Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Sergio J. Campos
Samir D. Parikh

Mass tort defendants have recently begun exiting multi-district litigation (MDL) by filing for bankruptcy. This new strategy ushers defendants into a far more hospitable forum that offers accelerated resolution of all state and federal claims held by both current and future victims.

Bankruptcy’s resolution promise is alluring, but the process relies on a very large assumption: future claimants can be compelled to relinquish property rights – their cause of action against the corporate defendant – without consent or notice. Bankruptcy builds an entire resolution structure on the premise that the Bankruptcy Code’s untested interest representation scheme satisfies Due Process strictures. This Article questions that assumption, and identifies two compromised pillars. Primarily, the process for selecting the fiduciary that represents future victims’ interests (FCR) is broken. Further, the process by which courts estimate the value of thousands of mass tort claims places too much pressure on a jurist unfamiliar with personal injury claims. These compromised pillars raise the risk that the settlement trust will be underfunded and fail prematurely. In this outcome, future victims would have no recourse but to argue that the process did not satisfy Due Process, and the settlement should be unwound.

This Article proposes that the risk of a prematurely insolvent victims’ trust can be reduced considerably by making two adjustments. Our proposal seeks to (i) rebuild the FCR construct in order to ensure that future victims’ interests are effectively represented, and (ii) recalibrate the claim estimation process by facilitating coordination between the bankruptcy court and nonbankruptcy trial courts.

The full article is forthcoming in the Fordham Law Review and is available here.

 

Aviation Chapter 11 Cases Take Flight

By Kelly DiBlasi and Jason George (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP)

Kelly DiBlasi
Jason George

Increased competition, rising fuel costs, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused financial distress for airlines and other aviation companies and led to an increase in their use of Chapter 11 to address these issues. Chapter 11’s many tools, including the automatic stay, DIP financing, and the ability to reject burdensome contracts or bind dissenting creditors, are available to both domestic and foreign companies. However, one underappreciated aspect of Chapter 11 is its flexibility in different stages of a restructuring with varying levels of stakeholder consent. For example, a company at imminent risk of running out of cash, defaulting on obligations, and/or confronting creditors collecting significant overdue payables can use Chapter 11 to prevent creditors from exercising remedies against the company and its property. Other companies may already have agreement with key stakeholders on the major components of a reorganization plan, only needing an in-court process to implement certain aspects of the plan that cannot be accomplished out of court, such as binding dissenting creditors. Chapter 11 can accommodate all such scenarios. This flexibility, combined with the tools and benefits described above, makes Chapter 11 an attractive option for airlines and other aviation companies in distress. As the aviation industry continues to experience financial distress, it is anticipated that more companies in the industry will look at Chapter 11 as a viable option to pursue a restructuring.

The full article can be found here.

Fifth Circuit Doubles Down on Right to Reject Filed-rate Contracts, but With an Exception

posted in: Bankruptcy, Chapter 11 | 0

By Ronald Silverman, John Beck and Katherine Lynn (Hogan Lovells)

Ronald Silverman
John Beck
Katherine Lynn

The Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Ultra Resources, Inc., in which it relied on and affirmed its prior 2004 decision — In re Mirant — and held that bankruptcy courts have the authority — at least in many common contexts — to reject filed-rate contracts without the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The court reasoned that rejection of such contracts only has an indirect effect on the filed-rate and is not a collateral attack, and therefore can be done without FERC’s approval.

Further, the Fifth Circuit held that rejection of a filed-rate contract does not violate 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(6) of the Bankruptcy Code because rejection does not change the rate itself, it merely ceases payment of the rate.  Thus, the decision further empowers debtors to reject filed-rate contracts in bankruptcy cases, so long as rejection does not amount to a rate change. 

However, the court did identify an exception to the general rule.  The opinion states that if a debtor seeks to reject a filed-rate contract, but still needs the capacity and seeks to secure a lower rate through rejection, such rejection would be impermissible without FERC’s approval, although that was not the situation in Ultra.  Left for future cases will be the determination of what particular circumstances will require FERC’s permission to reject a filed-rate contract.

Read the full article here.

Holdout Panic

By Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall Law School)

Stephen J. Lubben

It has been recognized that corporations themselves are designed to promote collective action, and thus “a primary function of corporate law is to coordinate and constrain individual behavior – even profit-motivated behavior.”  Given that corporate debt instruments largely serve a governance function amongst creditors, it is not surprising that they, like corporations themselves, tend to quash individual action in favor of the group.  But the divergence between individual and group interests comes to the fore in times of stress.

An individual creditor can be either an oppressed minority investor or a holdout.  Majority holders can be either the group seeking an efficient and beneficial restructuring, or effectively an insider group that collaborates with more formal insiders to extract value from minority creditors.  Which reality is genuine is highly dependent on the particular facts of the case at hand, and may be quite difficult for an outsider to discern.

Restructuring law attempts to balance this uncertainty by providing a series of checks and balances.  In general, restructuring law begins with a preference for the collective, but encircles the collective with a series of rules that protect individual creditors from abuse.  

Some of the balance comes from the agreements that create the creditor relationship or duties related to those agreements; however, other aspects of balance are external and come from outside structures like the Bankruptcy Code or the Trust Indenture Act.  In general, the basic challenge here is to find the point at which the illegitimate power of holdouts is reduced without trampling on the legitimate rights of minority creditors.  It is very easy to avoid holdouts if the majority always wins.

My paper explores the ways in which modern restructuring practice has moved toward that “majority always wins” extreme.  This change was not part of some grand plan, but rather the result of a series of incremental decisions, each reacting to perceived abuses by holdouts.  But in indulging our fears of holdouts, we have lost the essential balance of the system.

Take the example of the RSA – or restructuring support agreement – that, in a variety of ways, can represent a generalized assault on the requirement in section 1123(a)(4) that a chapter 11 plan must “provide the same treatment for each claim or interest of a particular class.”  RSAs achieve this end by providing for backstop fees paid to a select group that will never have to backstop anything or DIP loans that the debtor does not really need.

In one recent case, pre-bankruptcy the debtor contracted with a sub-group of its secured noteholders to have those noteholders make an interest payment on the notes.   That is, some of the secured noteholders paid the interest payment due to all the secured noteholders.

In exchange, these distinctive noteholders received new “super-priority secured notes” secured by a lien that surpassed the old secured notes’ liens, while also carrying a hefty 10% coupon.  When the debtor filed for chapter 11 later that same year, to implement its own RSA-driven plan, the new super-priority notes were paid in full, with interest and “make whole call” fees.  In short, the select lenders made a small, six-month loan for a very high return at low risk.  This opportunity was not available to everyone in the original class of noteholders.

In short, I conclude that the modern American restructuring system has evolved to favor the interests of the majority to the point where a debtor and a majority of its lenders can inflict serious harm on minority creditors.  At some point, this reality is bound to have consequences for both the debt markets and the utility of chapter 11.

The full article is available here.

Texas Two-Stepping Out of Bankruptcy

By Michael A. Francus (Harvard Law School)

Michael Francus

Johnson & Johnson’s use of the Texas Two-Step to manage its talc liabilities has put the company, and the Two-Step, front and center in the roiling debates over aggressive uses of the bankruptcy system. Those debates have led to scholarly criticism, congressional hearings, and proposed legislation that would curtail debtors’ ability to so use the bankruptcy courts.

My Essay details the mechanics of the Two-Step. Beginning with the Texas divisive merger, the funding agreement, and forum shopping for the Fourth Circuit, the Essay fleshes out precisely how the Two-Step boxes in tort claimants. Like other scholarship, this Essay identifies the risk that such maneuvering effects a fraudulent transfer. It also goes a step further, arguing that the point of the Two-Step is not to succeed, but to delay. Fraudulent-transfer litigation in a bankruptcy consumes time because it requires an adversary proceeding, and that delay pressures tort claimants to settle. So the Two-Step can succeed as long as claimants cannot wait out the course of the bankruptcy, even if a court never declares the particular Two-Step to be a proper use of divisive merger law rather than an improper fraudulent transfer.

Instead of playing into this delay game, this Essay argues, courts should evaluate the Texas Two-Step for good faith. Tort claimants can raise such challenges as a motion to dismiss (as some have) and thus avoid the need for a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding. And under current doctrine, the Two-Step likely qualifies as a bad-faith filing: In most cases, the Two-Step is a litigation tactic. And the Two-Step, invariably, is filed by an entity created solely to file for bankruptcy. Both of those are doctrinal hallmarks of bad-faith bankruptcies.

More broadly, the Essay explains, the Two-Step and good-faith challenges to it underscore the continuing role of common law in bankruptcy. The Code does not define good-faith filing, so courts have developed the doctrine case by case. They may yet find an acceptable form of Two-Step, one which yields tort claimants the rights they would receive in, say, a Johnson & Johnson bankruptcy, without hurting Johnson & Johnson’s ability to do business by forcing the whole company into bankruptcy. Along the way, though, a vigilant common-law gatekeeping is warranted, and judges should not hesitate to dismiss Two-Steps thinking that a later ruling on a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding can adequately safeguard tort claimants from an improper use of the bankruptcy system.

The full essay will be available at 121 Mich. L. Rev. Online __ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.

A Russian Sovereign Debt Default? No Longer Improbable

By Dennis Hranitzky, Richard East, Liesl Fichardt, Epaminontas Triantafilou, Yasseen Gailani, and Rupert Goodway (Quinn Emmanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP)

The article summarizes the likelihood and implications of a sovereign bond default by the Russian Federation. It first discusses the economic sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation, their impact on Russia’s ability to access gold and foreign currency reserves and the consequences of sanctions on Russia’s ability to satisfy its obligations under the approximately $40 billion in UK law bonds. Noting that a payment default will likely lead to litigation arbitration, the article analyzes key provisions of the bonds, noting that atypical of sovereign bonds, they include no choice of law or venue provisions or waiver of sovereign immunity. The article explores anticipated litigation hurdles in both the US and the UK, with a focus on sovereign immunity and forum non conveniens defenses that may be available to Russia, including the particular difficulties that may be faced by litigants in enforcing a judgment from a US or UK court in the absence of a sovereign immunity waiver. The analysis of sovereign immunity necessarily includes consideration of the commercial activity exception and the article analyzes the US and UK interpretation of this exception. The availability of judgment enforcement discovery is also addressed, noting that broad written and sworn deposition discovery of both the debtor and third parties is the norm in the US and also potentially available in the UK. The article concludes with a recommendation that holders of Russian bonds organize themselves and seek advice on their options prior to the occurrence of a default.

The full article is available here.

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