By David H. Sweeney, Jason P. Rubin, and Laura P. Warrick (Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP), with Practical Law Oil & Gas
Producers of hydrocarbons generally require some level of gathering, processing, and othermidstream services to monetize hydrocarbons. Midstream services are typically securedthrough contracts between the producers and the midstream providers. The fixed facilities thatare required to perform those midstream services require significant investment by themidstream providers and have capacity constraints. To ensure producers’ performance andprotect their investment, midstream providers often include in their contracts a dedication clausestyled as a “covenant running with the land”. This clause purports to dedicate the land orreserves to the midstream infrastructure and is intended to bind third parties, including estates in bankruptcy, as an interest in real property.
Decisions in recent Chapter 11 cases have challenged the notion that midstream servicescontracts containing purported covenants running with the land are not rejectable under section365 of the Bankruptcy Code. The result is that a debtor may be able to reject a midstreamcontract containing a covenant running with the land, repudiate future performance of its duties,and a midstream service provider may find its claims reduced to a pre-petition unsecured claim for monetary damages.
This article explores some recent case law regarding covenants running with the land inbankruptcy and offers practical suggestions for how producers and midstream providers mightnavigate the newly developing reality, including:
Conducting diligence on midstream contracts to identify red flags and address potentialissues before they become problems.
Addressing the shortcomings of covenants running with the land noted by bankruptcycourts.
Replacing covenants running with the land with a substitute, such as a presentlypossessory interest or a lien.
By Niklas Hüther (Indiana University) and Kristoph Kleiner (Indiana University)
”The bankruptcy system is supposed to work for everyone, but in many cases it works only for the powerful.” – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, July 28th, 2021
Researchers have long recognized that judicial outcomes are subject to the biases of the ruling judge. To alleviate concerns of fairness, courts in both the U.S. and abroad claim to assign judges to individual court cases randomly. From a policy perspective, randomization promotes public confidence in the judicial process by limiting forum shopping and the individual influence of any individual judge. From an academic perspective, recent empirical research in economics and finance exploits the random assignment of judges to causally identify of a wide range of legal outcomes.
This paper revisits the claim of randomized judicial assignment in the context of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Our research is motivated by legal scholarship arguing that debtors in recent cases are influencing judicial assignments (Levitin, 2021), as well as renewed interest in these issues from policy makers and the public (Merle and Bernstein, 2019; Randles 2020). Despite these arguments, there are reasons to believe assignment is random. For instance, after contacting all U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Iverson et al. (2017) found that only one court (the Eastern District of Wisconsin) reports assigning cases to judges non-randomly. In addition, a range of research including Bernstein et al. (2019)provides convincing evidence that debtor characteristics fail to predict judicial assignments. Missing from this literature is any large-scale empirical evidence of non-random assignment.
Analyzing U.S. corporate bankruptcy filings between 2010 and 2020, we provide new evidence that assignment is not random, but predicted by the lending decisions of hedge funds. By focusing on investments made before the assignment of a bankruptcy judge, our technique is not suspect to standard critiques that predictability is merely an outcome of ex-post data mining; instead, in order for investors to systemically invest in firms that are later assigned a preferred judge, it must be possible to infer future judicial assignments. In addition, we focus on hedge funds, as they routinely influence a wide range of bankruptcy outcomes including emergence and debt restructurings. The prevalence of these investors allows us to explore a new channel of activism in the distress debt market: activist influence in judicial assignment process prior to filing.
In our setting, judges can decide whether to convert a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to a Chapter 7 liquidation; while secured creditors may have a preference for liquidation, unsecured creditors recover more under reorganization. Exploiting this distinction, we confirm unsecured hedge fund creditors (relative to secured hedge funds) are significantly less likely to be assigned a judge with a tendency to convert Chapter 11 cases. We also extend our analysis to an alternate bankruptcy outcome measure: the unsecured creditor recovery rate according to the confirmed plan. We find unsecured hedge funds are far more likely to be assigned a judge with a high past unsecured recovery rate.
We next test whether these estimates differ across the filings in our sample. First, we find that unsecured hedge fund claimants are assigned a preferable judge more commonly when the hedge fund invested shortly before the bankruptcy filing, suggesting hedge funds choose to invest explicitly to influence the filing. Second, we show the effects are greatest when the hedge fund is on the board of directors of the debtor at the time of filing, providing further support for the role of communication between debtor and creditor.
Finally, we conduct three robustness tests. First, we find no evidence that a judge’s future conversion rate (after controlling for the past conversion rate) is predicted by hedge fund investment, suggesting hedge funds are explicitly influencing judicial assignment based on information regarding past information. Second, focusing on the subset of districts that explicitly state random assignment within their district, we continue to find hedge fund investments predict assignment. Third, we include district-office-year fixed effects in our analysis and continue to find a relationship between hedge fund investments and assignment.
Moving forward, we believe there are two potential policies that can alleviate these issues. The first, and simplest, is for policy makers to develop a truly randomized process. Alternatively, policy makers can instead increase the number of bankruptcy judges, leading to lower predictability even if assignment is not fully randomized. Policy makers intent on a fairer judicial system should consider both proposals.
By Andreas Kostøl (Arizona State University – W.P. Carey School of Business; Norges Bank), Morten Grindaker (Norwegian Business School; Norges Bank), and Kasper Roszbach (Norges Bank; University of Groningen)
Policymakers have long been concerned about the potential negative effects of bankruptcy for CEOs and business dynamics. Fear of reputational scarring caused by bankruptcy could lead managers to take less risk than desired by owners, which could manifest in lower performance and lower rates of entrepreneurship and job growth.
CEOs influence a wide range of decisions, such as organizational practices, debt financing and whether to file for corporate bankruptcy or not. Empirical studies of Chapter 11 bankruptcy show that CEOs of large bankrupt firms suffer significant financial losses. The prospect of individually-borne income loss due to a corporate bankruptcy carries in it a risk that CEOs take decisions that are not aligned with the interest of the owners.
It remains an open empirical question, however, whether the observed personal costs should be attributed to the selection of CEOs with lower managerial skills, firm-specific human capital, or stigma in the executive labor market.
Our analysis attempts to answer this question by disentangling the stigma and skill effects by examining the causal effects of corporate bankruptcy on the personal income and career of CEOs in small and medium-sized companies in Norway. To this end, we exploit that bankruptcy petitions in Norway are randomly assigned to judges who have different degrees of strictness in their approval of bankruptcy filings. This institutional feature generates variation in firms’ likelihood of being declared bankrupt that is unrelated to firm or CEO characteristics. We use administrative panel data that identifies CEO’s sources of wealth and income and corporate positions to examine the effects of bankruptcy on their careers.
Two broad conclusions emerge from our empirical analysis.
First, we find that corporate bankruptcy has a long-lasting impact on CEOs’ careers. CEOs whose firms are declared bankrupt are 25 percentage points more likely to exit the executive workforce. Displaced CEOs find new employment quickly but do so by moving to lower-ranked positions in new firms. Bankruptcy also has an economically significant impact on CEO remuneration; we document an annual fall in capital income equal to about five percent of annual gross income. While the net present value of the average decline in capital income over the remainder of a CEO’s working-age career is equal to 60 percent of pre-bankruptcy annual income, we find no enduring effect on CEOs’ labor income after five years.
Second, our analysis shows that the displacement effects are much larger when default rates in the firms’ industry are low. For example, a CEOs is five times less likely to remain in the executive workforce if her/his firm experiences a bankruptcy while the bankruptcy frequency in the same industry is low. By contrast, variation in CEO wages is not driven by industry conditions. Post-bankruptcy, we find a greater mobility of CEOs between industries and an increased tendency to move to more productive firms with a higher-paid workforce, suggesting that managerial skills are portable.
Taken together, our findings suggest that negative career effects of bankruptcy can be attributed to stigma. When we eliminate the risk of low-skilled CEOs sorting into bankrupt firms, we find that the executive labor market interprets bankruptcy as a signal of lower managerial talent. This stigma effect is greater during better economic times. More details can be found in the full paper that is available here.
By Ron E. Meisler, Carl T. Tullson, Jennifer Madden, Justin Larsen (Skadden)
A number of recent bankruptcy court rulings have addressed the enforceability of “make-whole” premiums, payments that may be implicated in some loan agreements when debt is prepaid, or in certain cases, otherwise accelerated prior to its stated maturity. Make-whole litigation may turn on subtle distinctions of contractual language and is a zero-sum game where the outcome can be very costly to the borrower and substantially reduce recoveries to other stakeholders. Consequently, when debtors and creditors disagree on whether a make-whole has been triggered, they frequently assert complex and nuanced legal arguments.
In this article, we examine two recent make-whole cases from the Delaware bankruptcy courts: In re Mallinckrodt and In re Hertz. Mallinckrodt addressed whether a debtor’s plan of reorganization could deny payment of a make-whole, reinstate the underlying debt, and treat those claims as unimpaired. In comparison, Hertz considered whether creditors had claims for make-wholes under the specific language of the governing debt documents in the context of a plan that provided for payment of the principal and accrued interest in full, in cash, and therefore deemed those debt claims as unimpaired.
These cases reinforce the importance of carefully drafting make-whole provisions and the important distinction between chapter 11 plan of reorganization treatment, the effect of which could directly impact whether or not such creditors would be entitled to make-whole payments. Moreover, these cases emphasize that the law regarding make-wholes is not settled, and creditors and debtors alike should continue to monitor the evolving case law.
By Ronit J. Berkovich (Weil Gotshal & Manges) and Eric Einhorn (Weil Gotshal & Manges)
In a recent decision, In re Highland Cap. Mgmt., L.P.,1 the Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of Texas held that a debtor’s rejection of an executory contract with an arbitration clause precludes the court from compelling the debtor to arbitrate—notwithstanding the strong federal policy supporting enforcement of arbitration clauses, even in bankruptcy. Although rejection of a contract constitutes a breach and may give rise to a claim for monetary damages, the Court found that specific performance of an arbitration clause was not an appropriate remedy post-rejection. Highland provides an example of how bankruptcy courts may disregard contractual provisions—including an agreement to specifically perform—where they may irreconcilably conflict with the policy of the Bankruptcy Code.
Financially distressed companies often seek refuge in federal bankruptcy court to auction valuable assets and pay creditor claims. Mass tort defendants – including Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Boy Scouts of America, and USA Gymnastics – introduce new complexities to customary chapter 11 dynamics. Many mass tort defendants engage in criminality that inflicts widescale harm. These debtors fuel public scorn and earn a scarlet letter that can ultimately destroy the value of an otherwise profitable business. Scarlet-lettered companies could file for bankruptcy and quickly sell their assets to fund victims’ settlement trusts. This Article argues, however, that this traditional resolution option would eviscerate victim recoveries. Harsh public scrutiny has diminished the value of the resources necessary to satisfy claims, creating a discount that must be borne by victims.
My public benefit proposal charts a new course. Instead of accepting fire sale prices and an underfunded settlement trust, the scarlet-lettered company emerges from bankruptcy as a corporation for the public benefit. This modified reorganization offers victims the greatest recovery. The continued operation preserves value during a transition period, after which the going concern can be sold efficiently. Further, assets that have been tainted by corporate criminality are cleansed behind a philanthropy shield and sold to capture the value rebound. The victims’ collective is the owner of the new company and can participate in a shareholder windfall if the reorganized company experiences strong post-bankruptcy performance.
At the forefront of a new trend in aggregate litigation, this Article proposes a public benefit alternative to traditional resolution mechanisms. This approach delivers utility that will support application in a variety of contexts, assuming certain governance safeguards are maintained. In our new age of greater personal and corporate accountability, more scarlet-lettered companies will emerge and ultimately land in bankruptcy. The need to address the disposition of tainted assets will be paramount in compensating mass tort victims trying to reassemble fractured pieces. This Article explains a new phenomenon and reconceptualizes resolution dynamics in a way that will have policy implications that transcend aggregate litigation.
The full article will be available at 117 Nw. U. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.
On July 9, 2021, Southern District of New York Judge J. Paul Oetken held that §503(c) of the Bankruptcy Code prohibits board-appointed officers from receiving payments under a key employee retention plan (KERP) “absent a particularly strong showing that they do not perform a significant role in management,” as such officers are “insiders” within the definition of §101(31)(B)(ii). In re LSC Communications, Inc., 631 B.R. 818 (S.D.N.Y. 2021). This was the case even though the Bankruptcy Court found that the employees in question were officers “in title only.” Id. at 820. Judge Oetken’s ruling affects six employees who received KERP payments under the reorganization plan of LSC Communications, Inc. (“LSC”), which filed for Chapter 11 relief in April 2020.
In its initial order, the Bankruptcy Court approved payments under the KERP for all 190 covered employees. U.S. Trustee William K. Harrington appealed the decision to the District Court, claiming that, as LSC was incorporated in Delaware, the court should apply Delaware state law, which provides that any person appointed by a corporation’s board of directors is an officer. In response, LSC countered that the employees could not be considered insiders because they lacked any significant decision-making authority.
Judge Oetken wrote that case law regarding who constitutes an “officer” is “less than clear,” noting that the Bankruptcy Code does not define the term or provide any insight regarding its meaning. Id. at 824. Although Judge Oetken rejected the Trustee’s argument that state law exclusively applies when determining whether an employee is an officer under the Bankruptcy Code, he concluded that the Bankruptcy Court erred by looking beyond the fact that the six employees were appointed by LSC’s board. Even if a court chooses to undertake a more expansive analysis, he wrote, the fact that the six employees were appointed by the board and would be deemed officers under Delaware corporate law should “weigh heavily in concluding that the employees are officers for Bankruptcy Code purposes.” Id. at 826. In supporting his position, Judge Oetken claimed that giving more weight to objective criterion like appointment by the board provides greater clarity to the parties than the kind of “functional, non-exhaustive test” used by the Bankruptcy Court, although he noted that this kind of test may still be appropriate in some cases. Id. at 825.
This case, and its somewhat unusual holding, seems to present a scenario that has become exceedingly rare. In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report finding that debtors regularly avoid restrictions in the Bankruptcy Code by paying bonuses before or after filing for bankruptcy or by designating bonuses during bankruptcy as “incentive” payments. The report stated that fewer than 1% of debtors requested court approval to pay employee bonuses during 2020 and, when debtors did seek court approval, the courts approved “nearly all” of those requests. Maria Chutchian wrote in a recent Reuters article that creditors rarely challenge such bonus payments in court, noting debtors will often arrange private deals with creditors before filing for bankruptcy. In the same article, she discusses the Mallinckrodt restructuring, in which the pharmaceutical company’s creditors chose to challenge bonus payments to executives facing accusations of misconduct related to the opioid epidemic. The judge allowed the payments, stating that “mere allegations” of misconduct did not suffice to render them inappropriate.
Finally, Jared Elias concluded in an article published in 2019 that, although fewer companies have used court-approved bonus plans in the years since the Bankruptcy Code’s bonus provisions were reformed in 2005, the overall level of executive compensation has remained the same. This lends support to the GAO’s analysis and the anecdotes collected by Reuters that KERPs are rarely used because parties have ample opportunity to achieve the same end while avoiding the scrutiny of §503(c). He argues that bankruptcy and district court judges are poorly equipped to police payments made before or after a debtor files for bankruptcy, and that the U.S. Trustee’s office and creditors struggle to do so due to information asymmetries and limited resources.
Given the above, it appears that Judge Oetken’s decision this past summer may ultimately prove to be an anomaly. In most cases, these bonus payments simply will not become a part of the bankruptcy plan. Debtors can avoid scrutiny by making payments before or after filing for bankruptcy. If they decide they must make the payments during bankruptcy, they can reduce the scrutiny they will incur by recharacterizing them as incentive payments, thereby avoiding the heightened restrictions that apply to KERPs. And, even if they decide to include the payments in their restructuring plan, it seems unlikely that creditors will challenge the payments—particularly if counsel has chosen to arrange a deal behind the scenes to avoid a dispute in court.
By Kenneth Ayotte (University of California – Berkeley School of Law) and Christina Scullly (University of California – Berkeley School of Law)
The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon describes a complex system as one “made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way.” The modern large Chapter 11 fits this definition quite well. Debt contracts with overlapping provisions lie within capital structures with multiple classes of claims, layered across numerous legal entities. Distressed restructuring transactions give rise to complex litigation over entitlements to the firm’s value. Bankruptcy case governance strategies are driven by intercreditor and restructuring support agreements that are constantly evolving.
Traditional law and economics theory of bankruptcy has little to say about this complexity, except to assume that rational, forward-looking “sophisticated parties” have anticipated it and managed it optimally. Taken to its logical conclusions, this perspective leaves no useful role for bankruptcy law. After all, if some feature of the Bankruptcy Code were useful, sophisticated parties would find a way to put it in their contracts. Mandatory features, even bedrock ones like the automatic stay, become no more than harmful interferences with contractual freedom.
Simplified models that assume omnisciently rational actors are useful tools in corporate finance: they isolate the forces that drive capital structure decisions and generate testable empirical predictions. But as normative models of bankruptcy law design, they are fundamentally flawed. We provide two case studies, one involving a complex contract (J. Crew), and another involving a complex capital structure (Nine West). Taken together, they suggest that it is time for law and economics scholars to take the uncomfortable but necessary step to acknowledge bounded rationality. Bankruptcy law must function not just for the optimal contracts a theorist derives, but also for the “good enough” contracts parties actually write, and the unpredictable interactions these imperfect contracts can generate.
Our first case study recounts the narrative behind the J. Crew restructuring, the most well-known of many “liability management transactions” that have become part of the distressed borrower’s playbook. The J. Crew case illustrates how a complex loan agreement with numerous interacting terms gives rise to loopholes that sophisticated parties can exploit. We describe the two-step transaction by which J. Crew combined multiple provisions in a term loan agreement to transfer the lenders’ collateral to an unrestricted subsidiary to refinance other debt. Though one particular “trap door” provision received the most public attention, our study reveals that other contractual weaknesses, such as the administrative agent’s low-powered incentives as a lender representative, also enabled the collateral transfer.
The growing importance of liability management strategies suggests that the true effect of greater sophistication is not optimal debt contracts, but instead, a magnification of their inevitable flaws. To understand these trends, we first need a model of contracting where such weaknesses can exist. Acknowledging bounded rationality in contracting is a necessary first step toward an agenda that understands the imperfect ways complex contracts evolve. This agenda can help scholars gain an understanding what drives contractual change, why loopholes form and close, and the costs and benefits of contractual complexity.
A second case study, Nine West, illustrates a “butterfly effect” of complex capital structures: small changes can have large and unanticipated effects when a bankruptcy occurs. Sycamore Capital Partners acquired Nine West and related fashion brands in a leveraged buyout in 2014. It reorganized its corporate structure in the process, leaving most of the debt with Nine West and spinning out other brands to itself, free of debt. An eleventh-hour decision to add more debt to the deal, and to make this debt senior through subsidiary guarantees, gave rise to a dizzyingly complex array of entitlement disputes between parent and subsidiary creditors about the uncertain ownership of assets and responsibility for debts across the entities in the Nine West corporate group. These disputes contributed to the exorbitant professional fees incurred in the bankruptcy case that consumed over 20% of the company’s enterprise value.
Insights from the study of complex systems can more realistically inform our models of bankruptcy law design. For example, an important feature of complex systems design is robustness: the system must be able to function effectively under suboptimal conditions. Features like the automatic stay and judicial oversight play a valuable role in preventing imperfections and gaps from propagating. Because interactions across contracts are most likely to lead to unanticipated effects, a perspective based in bounded rationality is also consistent with bankruptcy’s special role as a tool for addressing multiple creditor problems. Overall, we believe there is significant insight to be gained from the recognition that even sophisticated parties are imperfect.
By Michael J. Cohen, Michael A. Rosenthal & Matthew J. Williams (Gibson Dunn)
The recent decision in In re Purdue Pharma did not uphold the third-party releases in the bankruptcy court’s approved plan. This post discuss the third-party releases issue.
— Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Editors
On July 28, 2021, certain Democratic members of Congress, primarily in response to the $4.325 billion contribution made by the Sackler family to fund the settlement underpinning Purdue Pharma’s chapter 11 plan, introduced the Nondebtor Release Prohibition Act of 2021 (the “NRPA”), which proposes to amend the Bankruptcy Code to (i) prohibit the use of non-consensual third party releases in chapter 11 plans, (ii) limit so-called “Section 105” injunctions to stay lawsuits against third parties to a period no greater than 90 days after the commencement of a bankruptcy case, and (iii) provide a ground for dismissing a bankruptcy case commenced by a debtor that was formed within 10 years prior to such case via a divisional merger that separated material assets from liabilities.
When viewed against the backdrop of current complex chapter 11 practice, the NRPA is a flawed remedy for issues for which alternative means of redress already exist. First, the proposed elimination of the important bankruptcy tools of non-consensual third party releases and Section 105 injunctions – each of which is extraordinary in nature and only permitted in the rarest of circumstances – is a blunt force measure that threatens to vitiate the longstanding bankruptcy policy of favoring settlements over interminable value-destructive litigation. Second, the loss of these tools may cause inequitable disruption in currently pending cases and stymie the implementation of critical creditor-supported strategies to resolve the most difficult cases going forward. Moreover, a per se prohibition against non-debtor releases would contravene core bankruptcy principles by elevating the interests of a minority of creditors who would otherwise be bound to the terms of a chapter 11 plan containing such a release that is supported by the requisite majorities required under the Bankruptcy Code. Third, while the disincentive against divisional mergers would affect a far more limited set of cases, it appears that the harm raised by some divisional mergers that are followed by bankruptcy may be adequately addressed through clarifying the applicability of fraudulent transfer law to challenge these transactions.
On November 3, 2021, the House Judiciary Committee sent the NRPA to the House floor for further consideration; the Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to act on the bill. For more detail on the NRPA and our analysis of the bill, please find the full article here.
By Ralph Brubaker (James H.M. Sprayregen Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law)
The recent decision in In re Purdue Pharma did not uphold the third-party releases in the bankruptcy court’s approved plan. This post discuss the third-party releases issue.
— Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Editors
This response to Professor Lindsey Simon’s Bankruptcy Grifters article challenges the controversial practice at the epicenter of the bankruptcy grifter phenomenon that Simon critiques: so-called nonconsensual nondebtor (or third-party) “releases” and “channeling” injunctions that discharge the mass tort obligations of solvent nondebtor entities who have not themselves filed bankruptcy. These nondebtor releases are an illegitimate and unconstitutional exercise of substantive lawmaking powers by the federal courts that contravenes the separation-of-powers limitations embedded in both the Bankruptcy Clause and Erie’s constitutional holding. The federal courts have manufactured out of whole cloth the unique, extraordinary power to impose mandatory non-opt-out settlement of a nondebtor’s mass tort liability on unconsenting tort victims through the bankruptcy proceedings of a codefendant. The bankruptcy “necessity” that supposedly justifies this astounding and unique settlement power—to mandate nonconsensual non-opt-out “settlements” that are otherwise impermissible and unconstitutional—is (at best) naive credulity or (at worst) specious sophistry.
Nonconsensual nondebtor releases are not “necessary” for the bankruptcy process to facilitate efficient aggregate settlements of the mass tort liability of both bankruptcy debtors and nondebtor codefendants. The bankruptcy jurisdiction, removal, and venue provisions of the Judicial Code already contain the essential architecture for mandatory, universal consolidation of tort victims’ claims against both bankruptcy debtors and nondebtor codefendants. Bankruptcy can be an extremely powerful aggregation process that facilitates efficient (and fair) settlements of the mass tort liability of nondebtors, even (and especially) without nonconsensual nondebtor releases, particularly if the Supreme Court elucidates the full expanse of federal bankruptcy jurisdiction. Nondebtor releases are an illicit and unconstitutional means of forcing mandatory settlement of unconsenting tort victims’ claims against solvent nondebtors, and the Supreme Court should finally resolve the longstanding circuit split over the permissibility of nonconsensual nondebtor releases by categorically renouncing them.
The full article is available here and is forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal Forum.