The Case for Bankruptcy Court Discretion to Shift Attorney’s Fees

By Daniel J. Bussel (Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law)

Daniel J. Bussel

Neither the “American Rule” (each party pays its own attorney) nor the “English Rule” (loser pays both parties’ attorneys) is the baseline principle in insolvency cases.  Most major parties do not bear their own attorney’s fees, win or lose.  Fee-shifting is pervasive; the bankruptcy court is directly involved in reviewing the fees; sometimes it’s almost impossible to figure who actually foots the bills.  This is true in US courts, which still generally purport to follow the “American Rule,” and courts in the UK, which generally purport to follow the “English Rule.”  In both countries, theory notwithstanding, equitable principles, born in England’s ancient chancery courts, permit discretionary fee-shifting in light of the collective nature of insolvency proceedings.

Unfortunately, some US courts, including the Supreme Court, disregarding this history and practice, anomalously cling to the American Rule, creating perverse incentives that disrupt the efficient functioning of the reorganization process.  Two leading examples are the Supreme Court’s decisions in Baker & Botts and Midland Funding, both critiqued in my paper, Fee-Shifting in Bankruptcy.  In Baker & Botts, the American Rule denies full compensation to the prevailing debtor’s attorney from any source, disincentivizing the pursuit of meritorious estate claims.  In Midland Funding, the American Rule rewards strategic manipulation by the holder of meritless claims, disincentivizing clearly valid objections.         

Abandoning the American Rule and authorizing a discretionary version of the English Rule as the default rule in bankruptcy for recovery of attorney’s fees is no radical step.  Empirical work is limited, but supports the conclusion that shifting from the American Rule to a discretionary version of the English Rule will have only a modest impact. In bankruptcy cases, an enormous amount of explicit and implicit fee shifting already occurs.  The bankruptcy courts have a well-developed set of procedures for regulating and allowing reasonable attorney’s fees.  They are well-positioned to exercise discretion in awarding attorney’s fees to control bullying and holdout tactics calculated to confer leverage by pressing weak claims and imposing costs on others.  

Several factors can appropriately guide court discretion to award fees in insolvency cases, including: 

  1. Whether the prevailing party or its adversary has a right to recover fees in nonbankruptcy litigation over the same issues. 
  2. Whether the bankruptcy code expressly contemplates recovery of fees as a component of damages. 
  3. The amount of fees and whether the stakes justify them. 
  4. The strength of the prevailing party’s merits case.
  5. Whether the nonprevailing party played the part of bully, holdout, or squeaky wheel. 
  6. Whether a systemic asymmetry exists between the parties allowing one party to implicitly shift fees whether it prevails or not and regardless of the court’s fee award. 
  7. Whether the prevailing party’s success in litigation will economically benefit others similarly situated or creditors generally. 
  8. Whether a fee award will advance the public interest in equitable administration of bankruptcy cases. 
  9. The extent to which a given fee award may be so onerous to the non-prevailing party that it would unreasonably deter access to the courts.
  10. Vexatious and unreasonable conduct by either (or both) of the litigants. 
  11. The extent to which the prevailing party incurred fees for considerations apart from the case at bar because of its status as a repeat player. 
  12. The extent to which the party seeking recovery of fees practically prevailed in the litigation.
  13. Whether the prevailing party is a natural person, a minor private party, a major party, the bankruptcy estate, or a governmental entity.
  14. Whether the non-prevailing party is a natural person, a minor private party, a major party, the bankruptcy estate, or a governmental entity.
  15. Assessing the practical economic incidence of fees initially borne by the estate.

The UK, starting from the English Rule, has created a discretionary fee-shifting regime in insolvency cases resembling the discretionary approach advocated here.  The English cases exhibit a continuing push-pull among (i) the desire to socialize costs of reorganizations that benefit third parties; (ii) concern about unduly discouraging participation by all affected constituents; and (iii) the problems posed by hold-outs, bullies and excessive litigiousness. See Matter of Virgin Active Holdings Ltd (Snowden, J.).  The realities of insolvency practice are impelling both the English and American systems towards court-supervised discretionary fee-shifting.

The damage done by the American Rule is limited by how pervasive fee-shifting already is in bankruptcy.  Fully embracing discretionary fee-shifting in favor of prevailing parties, however, is low-hanging fruit we can promptly gather in to facilitate sound administration of insolvent estates.

The full paper is available here.

“Confessions” of a Forum Shopper, Part II – Debtors Without Borders

By Andrew Dietderich (Sullivan & Cromwell LLP)

Andrew Dietderich

Part II of Andrew Dietderich’s treatment of the practical side of forum shopping addresses the use of Chapter 11 by non-U.S. corporations with only limited U.S. contacts.  The logic of international bankruptcy law – as reflected in Chapter 15 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and the UNCITRAL Model Law – suggests that these types of Chapter 11 filings should not happen.  Instead of filing for Chapter 11, non-U.S. companies should file for plenary proceedings only in their home country, i.e., where they are headquartered or otherwise have their “center of main interest.”  The role of U.S. courts should be limited to recognition and assistance of the home country proceeding under Chapter 15.

The article explains why these Chapter 11 cases happen and why “forum shopping” against the grain of international insolvency conventions is necessary for certain types of cross-border cases.  Chapter 11 is sometimes the best (or the only) way to reorganize companies headquartered outside of the U.S., and U.S. courts have been uniquely effective at supervising these reorganizations in a manner fair to all stakeholders. 

The article also suggests that the U.S. has a national interest in making its bankruptcy courts available for these types of cases, that principles of international comity are as active in Chapter 11 as they are in Chapter 15, and that non-U.S. stakeholders have nothing to fear from this application of Chapter 11 in the coming years. Part II appears in the October issue of the ABI Journal, available here.

“Confessions” of a Forum Shopper – A Debtor’s View of Venue Choice

posted in: Bankruptcy, Bankruptcy Reform | 0

By Andrew Dietderich (Sullivan & Cromwell LLP)

Andrew Dietderich

Corporate debtors can decide if, when and how to file for chapter 11. Recently, there is a great deal of concern about their ability to decide where. In a series of two articles for the ABI Journal, I explain as debtor’s counsel the practice of responsible forum shopping and argues that it is, on balance, a social good.

 Motivated by recently introduced legislation that would force domestic debtors to file chapter 11 only in the jurisdiction of their headquarters, Part I warns that mandating a single venue for a corporate debtor will impede legitimate restructurings and hurt companies and workers. There are important reasons why a distressed domestic corporation may need to file away from its headquarters: examples from my own experience include the need to preserve critical corporate contractual assets and to protect rank-and-file employee severance.  

 Since U.S. bankruptcy law necessarily varies from place to place around the country, someone has to decide what particular version of bankruptcy law should apply to each case given its unique factual context and reorganization purpose.  As with many other chapter 11 decisions, the board of directors of the debtor is the least worst alternative.   

Of course, there are some legitimate concerns with the current system of modified venue choice.  But the venue reform legislation proposed in Congress is too blunt of an instrument.  It is uninformed by experience in the trenches reorganizing distressed business and, if passed, would hurt some of the people it aims to help. Part I appears in the September issue of the ABI Journal, available here.

Part II of the series addresses international forum shopping—specifically the use of chapter 11 by non-U.S. debtors with minimal U.S. contracts—appears in the October issue of the ABI Journal.

Mass Exploitation

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School; Fulbright Schuman Scholar; Bloomberg Law; Fulbright Commission)

Samir D. Parikh

Modern mass tort defendants – including Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, USA Gymnastics, and Boy Scouts of America – have developed unprecedented techniques for resolving mass tort cases; innovation coupled with exploitation. Three weapons in this new arsenal are particularly noteworthy. Before a filing, divisive mergers allow corporate defendants to access bankruptcy on their terms. Once in bankruptcy, these mass restructuring debtors curate advantageous provisions in the Bankruptcy Code to craft their own ad hoc resolution mechanism implemented through plans of reorganization. This maneuver facilitates various questionable outcomes, including the third-party releases the Sackler family recently secured. Finally, in order to minimize its financial contribution to a victims’ settlement trust, a mass restructuring debtor can agree to convert its tainted business into a public benefit company after bankruptcy and devote future profits – no matter how speculative they may be – to victims.

The net effect of these legal innovations is difficult to assess because the intricacies are not fully understood. Debtors argue that these resolution devices provide accelerated and amplified distributions. And forum shopping has landed cases before accommodating jurists willing to tolerate unorthodoxy. The fear, however, is that mass tort victims are being exploited. The aggregation of these maneuvers may allow culpable parties to sequester funds outside of the bankruptcy court’s purview and then rely on statutory loopholes to suppress victim recoveries.  Mass restructuring debtors are also pursuing victim balkanization – an attempt to pit current victims against future victims in order to facilitate settlements that may actually create disparate treatment across victim classes.

This Essay is the first to identify and assess the new shadowed practices in mass restructuring cases, providing perspective on interdisciplinary dynamics that have eluded academics and policymakers. This is one of the most controversial legal issues in the country today, but there is scant scholarship exploring improvement of the flawed machinery. This Essay seeks to create a dialogue to explore whether a legislative or statutory response is necessary and what shape such a response could take.

The full article will be available at 170 U. Pa. L. Rev. Online ___ (forthcoming 2021) and can be accessed here.

My Creditor’s Keeper: Escalation of Commitment and Custodial Fiduciary Duties in the Vicinity of Insolvency

By Amir Licht (Professor, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel)

Amir Licht

In several common law jurisdictions, creditors of corporate debtors enjoy legal protections through vicinity-of-insolvency fiduciary duties, beyond what their contracts with those companies afford them.  These duties form a notoriously murky area, where legal space warps.  The contours of this area are fuzzy.  Courts openly acknowledge that it is difficult to identify clear guideposts for its threshold—as to when exactly these duties are enlivened.  In a forthcoming article, I purport to make two main contributions.  First, the article expands the theoretical basis for a special legal regime in virtually insolvent firms by pointing out escalation of commitment as a potent and relevant factor that has been largely overlooked by insolvency scholars.  Second, this article addresses the substantive content of the duty to protect creditors where such duties are recognized.

The standard account that is usually invoked to explain and justify special fiduciary duties to consider creditors’ interest points to the danger of opportunistic high-risk behavior by managers on behalf of shareholders.  I argue that this account may be sound but is nonetheless lacking.  In addition to such risk-shifting opportunism, lawmakers should also be mindful of managers’ tendency to unjustifiably continue failing projects, known as escalation of commitment.  Escalation of commitment refers to a phenomenon, in which people tend to remain married to their original choices and to commit resources to them even when it is no longer rational to do so.  Escalation of commitment is ubiquitous.  It has been observed in organizations large and small, in business corporations and in the public sector.  Escalation of commitment is not only an irrational and emotional personal behavior.  More often than not, it takes place in a broader social context of one’s ingroup—in particular, the board of directors, the organization, and one’s community and culture.

Escalation of commitment poses an equal, if not greater, challenge than risk shifting does to optimal regulation of companies in looming or virtual insolvency.  Being largely detached from rational calculations, escalation of commitment presents a more compelling justification for legal regulation, and a more interventionist one at that.  In this view, managers—especially owner-managers—of virtually insolvent firms may not enjoy the usual level of deference that the law affords to their business judgment in regular times, as their discretion at that point is prone to be clouded by a misplaced motivation to stay the course, weather the storm, and similarly-spirited no-quitting notions.  

Factors that could facilitate de-escalation include better information on costs and benefits of the project, regular evaluation and monitoring of projects, clear criteria for success and minimum target performance levels, and clear feedback about underperforming projects.  Such measures will have limited efficacy, however, if the information they generate is interpreted and acted on by decision-makers who have initiated the failing project and even by different persons who are nonetheless related to those decision-makers.  Change in management is thus essential.

While Delaware law rejects the idea of a pre-insolvency creditor-focused fiduciary duty, several jurisdictions do recognize duties to protect creditors, either as a duty to consider creditors’ interests or as the rule against wrongful (or insolvent, or reckless) trading.  I argue that these duties should be enlivened at the very edge of the zone of insolvency, close to the latter.  At that point, the mission of directors should transform from entrepreneurial to custodial.  That is, they should implement strategies that aim to preserve the firm—in working condition, to the extent possible, with a view to resuming regular business—but avoid seeking new projects with a view to maximizing profits.  This could mean that the shield of the business judgment rule may not be available to the same extent as in regular circumstances.  The Covid-19 pandemic that swept the globe in 2020 provides a fresh context for this approach and underscores the need to implement such a regime sensibly, with high deference to business decisions even if outside the scope of the business judgment rule.  The article concludes with a comparative analysis of creditor-oriented duties in several common law jurisdictions and examines how they could implement a custodial approach.

Bankruptcy & Bailouts; Subsidies & Stimulus: The Government Toolset for Responding to Market Distress

By Anthony J. Casey (The University of Chicago Law School)

Anthony J. Casey

In the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic shut down economies around the world, pressure arose for governments to respond to the growing threat of pandemic-related market distress. In the United States, the initial proposals for government action varied in nature and focus. Some proposals targeted the financial system while others targeted small businesses and individuals. Others were intended to bail out large businesses and specific industries. Still other proposals took a more institutional focus. In the context of bankruptcy law, many imagined building up the bankruptcy system as a primary bulwark against a seemingly imminent wave of economic and financial distress.

With the exception of measures related to financial markets, the actual responses formed a chaotic mix of disconnected half-measures that neither stabilized the economy nor provided meaningful relief to those most affected. While that failure may be attributed in part to general government dysfunction and legislative gridlock, a large part of the problem arises from the lack of a clearly identified framework to guide government responses.

The main lesson here is that the appropriateness of tools deployed to alleviate a crisis depends on the nature of the specific problem at hand, and scattershot approaches are unlikely to work. As obvious as that principle may seem, it was largely ignored in 2020. Much of the confusion in the pandemic responses is attributable to using the wrong tools and implementing measures that lacked any clear purpose.

In particular, governments and commentators lost sight of two important distinctions in deciding how to act. The first is the distinction between tools appropriate for addressing economic distress and those appropriate for addressing financial distress. The second is the distinction between a systemic crisis where distress is spreading and an instance of firm-specific distress where the harm—though perhaps large—is contained.

These distinctions present four types of market distress: specific economic, systemic economic, specific financial, and systemic financial. Each type is distinct from the others, and for each there is a category of appropriate government responses (respectively): direct subsidies, general stimulus, bankruptcy proceedings, and financial bailouts. We thus have this matrix:

Systemic Specific
Economic General Stimulus Direct Subsidies
Financial Financial Bailouts Bankruptcy Proceedings

(Chapter 11)

 

The importance of understanding these classifications is most evident in the flawed proposals for pandemic-related fixes to bankruptcy law and in the lack of a centralized economic plan to support failing small businesses around the country.

In a new article, I lay out this framework for identifying the right tools for responding to different forms of market distress.  I describe the relationship between the category of tools and the type of distress. Having presented the framework, I then use it to closely examine the interaction between pandemic responses and bankruptcy law. This analysis is particularly important because efforts to understand the bankruptcy system’s role during the pandemic provide the starkest example of confused analysis of appropriate responses to systemic crises, and because a striking decline in bankruptcy filings in 2020 has puzzled many commentators.

Germany Poised for Big Step Towards Corporate Restructuring Best Practice

By Sacha Luerken (Kirkland & Ellis)

Sacha Luerken

Germany’s insolvency law has only in very few cases – around 1% of filings – been used for a Chapter 11-style going concern restructuring of a debtor company. Initiatives to introduce processes like the scheme of arrangement, an English procedure that was also commonly used to restructure non-English companies and is capable of Chapter 15 recognition in the U.S., were not successful, even though recoveries for unsecured creditors in Germany are remarkably low compared to other jurisdictions.

A paradigm shift occurred when the EU in June 2019 passed its directive 2019/1023 on preventive restructuring frameworks, which requires all EU member states to introduce a restructuring process for companies in financial difficulties, but before an actual insolvency. On September 18, 2020, a draft law was presented to introduce a scheme-like procedure in Germany, which provides for a restructuring of selected liabilities with 75% majority by amount in class, a cross-class cram-down subject to tests similar as in a U.S. Chapter 11 proceeding, a court-approved stay on enforcement and collateral realization, and even a rejection of onerous contracts by the court.

The draft law has been welcomed as a big step towards a restructuring culture in Germany by many advisors and practitioners, and as a potential blueprint for the implementation of the EU directive in other European jurisdictions.

The full article is available here.

Reprinted with permission from the October 06, 2020 edition of the Law.com International 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com.

Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses and Protecting Workers in the Age of COVID-19

By Jessica Ljustina (Harvard Law School)

Since March, executives of 18 large companies received over $135 million total in bonuses prior to their companies filing under Chapter 11, while “[t]hose same companies laid off tens of thousands of workers,” according to a Washington Post report. These recent examples are illustrative of gaps left by the last major reform targeting bankruptcy bonuses. Further reforms have been introduced in Congress every few years since 2005. Referencing inequality and perceived abuses in the context of COVID-19, the House Judiciary Committee advanced the current House bill to the full chamber on September 29, 2020, marking the proposed legislation’s furthest progress thus far.

H.R. 7370, the Protecting Employees and Retirees in Business Bankruptcies Act of 2020 (PERBB) would present significant changes to the Bankruptcy Code aimed at protecting workers. The bill would expand from existing regulation of insider retention bonuses to include a broader set of payments to insiders, senior executive officers, the 20 highest compensated employees who are not insiders or senior executives, department and division managers, and any consultants providing services to the debtor.

Through expanding the scope of executive compensation subject to restrictions, PERBB may more effectively reduce management bonuses paid in bankruptcy. However, the House version of PERBB fails to address bonus payments prior to filing for bankruptcy, a key issue identified at the outset of the post. The related Senate bill has an additional provision which would designate any transfer made to management “made in anticipation of bankruptcy” as a §547 preference avoidable by the trustee.

The full post, including a summary of proposed changes to the Code, is available here.

The full text of the House bill can be accessed here. A redline of relevant 11 U.S.C. provisions reflecting amendments proposed in H.R. 7370 is available here. The full text of Senate bill can be accessed here.

For related Roundtable posts, see Jared Ellias, Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses; James H. M. Sprayregen, Christopher T. Greco, and Neal Paul Donnelly (Kirkland & Ellis), Recent Lessons on Management Compensation at Various States of the Chapter 11.

The New Mass Torts Bargain

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Samir D. Parikh

Mass torts create a unique scale of harm and liabilities. Corporate tortfeasors are desperate to settle claims but condition settlement upon resolution of substantially all claims at a known price—commonly referred to as a global settlement. Without this, corporate tortfeasors are willing to continue with protracted and fragmented litigation across jurisdictions. Global settlements can be elusive in these cases. Mass torts are oftentimes characterized by non-homogenous victim groups that include both current victims and unknown, future victims—individuals whose harm has not yet manifested and may not do so for years. Despite this incongruence, the claims of these future victims must be aggregated as part of any global settlement. This is the tragedy of the mass tort anticommons: without unanimity, victim groups are unable to access settlement resources in a timely or meaningful way, but actual coordination across the group can be impossible.

Current resolution structures have proven ill-equipped to efficiently and equitably address the novel challenges posed by mass torts. Many cases cannot satisfy Rule 23’s requirements for class action certification. Multidistrict litigation is the most frequently invoked resolution structure, but the MDL process is distorted. The process was initially designed for one district court to streamline pretrial procedures before remanding cases for adjudication. Instead, MDL courts have turned into captive settlement negotiations. In response, a new strategy for resolving modern mass torts has emerged. Corporate tortfeasors—including Purdue Pharma, Boy Scouts of America, and USA Gymnastics—have started filing for bankruptcy. These mass restructurings automatically halt the affected MDL cases and transfer proceedings to a bankruptcy court—a process I describe as bankruptcy preemption. Unfortunately, bankruptcy preemption replaces one deficient structure with another. Mass restructuring debtors are exploiting statutory gaps in the bankruptcy code in order to bind victims through an unpredictable, ad hoc structure. The new bargain creates myriad risks, including insolvent settlement trusts and disparate treatment across victim classes.

This Article is the first to attempt a reconceptualization of how modern mass torts should be resolved and delivers an unprecedented normative construct focused on addressing anticommons dynamics through statutory amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. These changes, coupled with an evolved perspective on fundamental structural anomalies, are designed to improve predictability, efficiency, and victim recoveries. More broadly, this Article attempts to animate scholarly debate of this new, non-class aggregate litigation strategy that will reshape the field.

The full article is available here.

Oversecured Creditor’s Right to Contractual Default-Rate Interest Allowed Under State Law

By Stacey L. Corr-Irvine and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Stacey L. Corr-Irvine
Mark G. Douglas

It is generally well understood that an “oversecured” creditor is entitled to interest and, to the extent provided for under a loan agreement, related fees and charges as part of its secured claim in a bankruptcy case. Although section 506(b) of the Bankruptcy Code provides that fees, costs or charges allowed as part of a secured claim must be “reasonable,” the provision does not expressly impose any restrictions on the amount or nature of interest allowable as part of a secured claim. A Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Eighth Circuit recently considered whether a secured creditor is entitled to contractual default-rate interest under section 506(b).

In In re Family Pharmacy, Inc., 614 B.R. 58 (B.A.P. 8th Cir. 2020), the panel reversed a bankruptcy court’s order disallowing a secured creditor’s claim for interest at the default rate under the parties’ contract using a penalty-type analysis generally applied to liquidated damages provisions. According to the panel, such an analysis cannot be applied to default interest provisions. The panel also held that the bankruptcy court erred when it held that the default interest rate was unenforceable based on “equitable considerations.”

The full article is available here.

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