By Mitchell Mengden (Law Clerk, Delaware Court of Chancery)
In the past decade, private equity sponsors have taken a more aggressive stance against creditors of their portfolio companies, the most recent iteration of which has come in the form of collateral stripping. Sponsors have been using creative lawyering to transfer valuable collateral out of the reach of creditors. This Article delves deeper into the issue by examining the contract terms and litigation claims raised by these transactions.
The lack of protective covenants and ease of manipulating EBITDA and asset valuations are key conditions that permit collateral stripping. Each of these conditions were present in the past decade, primarily due to the protracted expansionary stage of the credit cycle. Lenders, however, can protect themselves from collateral stripping by negotiating stricter covenants and tighter EBITDA definitions, as well as pursuing ex post litigation for fraudulent transfers, illegal distributions, and claims for breach of fiduciary duty.
Contractual opportunism and creative lawyering will almost certainly continue to pervade credit markets. This Article provides a roadmap of ways that lenders can protect themselves from opportunism during contracting and throughout the course of the loan. As this Article concludes, ex post litigation claims are often an inadequate remedy, so lenders should seek to tighten EBITDA definitions and broaden protective covenants—even if to do so requires other concessions—to avoid litigation.
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)
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.
By Vidhan K. Goyal (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), Joshua Madsen (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), and Wei Wang (Smith School of Business, Queen’s University)
Does having a lawyer who has previously interacted with the judge matter for bankruptcy outcomes? While knowledge obtained through past interactions about the judge’s views and preferences could improve the efficiency of court process, lawyer familiarity with the judge could also result in a capture of economic rents, leading to delays due to the difficulties in measuring lawyer efforts. Furthermore, connected lawyers could also exploit their connections to obtain biased outcomes in favor of their clients.
We examine these questions in the context of corporate bankruptcies by assembling a comprehensive dataset that contains detailed biographical information, professional experiences, and past in-court interactions of 162 bankruptcy judges overseeing 650 large Chapter 11 cases from 1996–2013, and 2,426 unique lawyers from 775 law firms representing those cases as debtor’s counsel. Our results show that cases with a lead counsel lawyer connected to the judge spend 16–21% less time in bankruptcy, a 2.6–3.5-month reduction in bankruptcy duration, translating into aggregated savings of $3.2–4.5 billion in professional fees for our sample firms.
Our empirical strategy exploits a setting where lead counsel lawyers are selected by the firm before the bankruptcy is filed and thus the assignment of a judge, minimizing concerns that connected lawyers are endogenously hired. The results are robust to the inclusion of controls for case complexity, industry effects, lawyer’s expertise, law firm quality, and judges’ fixed characteristics. Our specifications therefore ensure that any effect from having a connected lawyer is not due to unobserved heterogeneity that is specific to courts, judges, or lawyers.
We further document that the most effective lead counsel connections arise through previous clerkships and in-court interactions with the judge assigned to the case. The effects concentrate in cases with smaller legal teams where connected lawyers presumably have more influence. Having a connected non-lead counsel lawyers’ or connected lawyer representing the unsecured creditors committee only weakly affects case duration.
Lastly, we investigate other bankruptcy outcomes, including the probability of emergence, the bankruptcy refiling rate, operating performance post emergence, the likelihood of a Chapter 7 conversion, and the likelihood of loss of exclusivity extension. We find no evidence that the faster restructurings come at a cost of higher refiling rates or poorer operating performance after emergence. More importantly, there is no evidence that connections lead to judge favoritism or pro-debtor biases.
How do connected lawyers accelerate the bankruptcy process? The most likely explanation is connected lawyers’ knowledge of a judge’s preferences. Judges are extremely busy, and must devote enormous effort to keep straight all the facts and legal nuance under consideration. Connected lawyers are plausibly more familiar with the assigned judge’s preferences and expectations as well as the cases, legal precedents, and statutes that the judge will rely on. They can exploit this knowledge to help the “light shine through.” Idiosyncrasies across judges and their preferences imply that lawyers’ experience with other judges may not be as useful as a connection to the assigned judge and that there is likely no one “magic bullet” used by all connected lawyers. That is, lawyers’ knowledge of judges’ preferences are largely non-transferrable. These findings have implications for the design of bankruptcy institutions, where institutions that lead to lawyers’ increased awareness of a judge’s preferences could produce efficiency gains.
By Stacey L. Corr-Irvine and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)
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.”
Valuation is a critical and indispensable part of the bankruptcy process. How collateral and other estate assets (and even creditor claims) are valued will determine a wide range of issues, from a secured creditor’s right to adequate protection, postpetition interest, or relief from the automatic stay to a proposed chapter 11 plan’s satisfaction of the “best interests” test or whether a “cram-down” plan can be confirmed despite the objections of dissenting creditors. Depending on the context, bankruptcy courts rely on a wide variety of standards to value estate assets, including retail, wholesale, liquidation, forced sale, going-concern, or reorganization value. Certain assets, however, may be especially difficult to value because valuation depends on factors that may be difficult to quantify, such as the likelihood of success in litigating estate causes of action.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently addressed this issue in In re Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Ltd., 956 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2020) (“MMA Railway”). The First Circuit affirmed a ruling that a secured creditor failed to satisfy its burden of establishing that collateral in the form of indemnification claims settled by the estate had any value entitled to adequate protection. According to the court, with respect to a disputed claim, a showing of possible damages is not enough. Instead, the creditor must establish the likely validity of the claim and the likelihood of recovery.
MMA Railway is a cautionary tale for secured creditors. Creditors bear the ultimate burden of proof in establishing the value of their collateral under section 506(a) of the Bankruptcy Code—a determination that has important consequences in many contexts in a bankruptcy case. The First Circuit’s ruling highlights the importance of building a strong evidentiary record to support valuation. It also indicates that certain types of collateral (e.g., disputed litigation claims) are more difficult to value than others.
By Shana A. Elberg, Seth E. Jacobson, & George R. Howard (Skadden)
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.
By Professor Nancy Rapoport (William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
As someone who studies professional fees in large chapter 11 cases, I’ve thought a lot about how quickly those professional fees can escalate. Successful chapter 11 bankruptcies are expensive, though, in almost all cases, the end result—a successful reorganization—is a good result. But can the fees be controlled effectively?
I think that they can, although there are all sorts of reasons why, often, fees aren’t monitored very closely. There’s usually a disconnect between who’s paying those fees and who’s monitoring the work. In a non-bankruptcy context, a lawyer might bill a client on a monthly basis and get relatively fast feedback from the client regarding issues of reasonableness. The image that comes to mind is of a lawyer pushing a bill across a table and an experienced client pushing it back to request reductions for potentially unreasonable fees or expenses. But the process is different for fees paid to professionals in chapter 11 cases. Bankruptcy courts are charged with the responsibility of reviewing the fees and expenses for reasonableness, and the Office of the United States Trustee serves as another set of eyes, as would a fee examiner.
For estate-paid professionals, the bankruptcy court must first approve the fee applications, which then get paid either from a carveout of a secured creditor’s collateral or as administrative expenses. Imagine a typical list of estate-paid professionals: the debtor’s counsel (plus conflicts counsel and local counsel), the creditors’ committee counsel (plus conflicts counsel and local counsel), investment banks and financial advisors (often for both the debtor and the committee), along with other, more specialized counsel. All of those professionals are working at warp speed, because large chapter 11 cases are literally bet-the-company actions. The fee applications themselves can run into the thousands of pages, per professional, with the time entries showing who worked on what, and for how long, on a day-by-day basis. There’s also often a lag between the work done and the submission of the fee applications, and few actors—other than the professionals themselves and some large institutional creditors—are repeat players. If the client isn’t familiar with the rhythm of chapter 11 bankruptcies, then that client has to take the professionals’ word for whether the tasks were both reasonable and necessary. Parsing the fee applications is a complicated task.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that bankruptcy professionals try to gouge the estate by performing unnecessary tasks. Far from it. The professionals whose fees I’ve reviewed have genuinely been trying to work within the reasonableness guidelines. But the staffing choices that get made—which level of professional works on which tasks, how long it takes to do the work, how many people review that work, how often all of the professionals touch base on the case’s progress, and how a professional must react to actions taken by a different professional—often don’t have the luxury, on the front end, of data-driven planning to eke out the most efficient workflows. Add to that the fact that all of these professionals worry about missing something important, and it’s not hard to see how fees can mount up.
I’ve written a lot about how to think about fees in chapter 11 cases, including these articles (here, here, and here). Most recently, I’ve been working with a co-author, Joe Tiano of Legal Decoder, to imagine a world in which big data can help professionals perform more efficiently (here and here). (Full disclosure: Legal Decoder helped me review the fees and expenses in the Toys R Us cases.) In a recent piece for the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, I’ve taken what we know about how a company’s general counsel works with outside professionals outside bankruptcy and suggested that, in a chapter 11 context, many of those behaviors can help to control the size of the professional fees and expenses: by paying closer attention to staffing and monthly budget-to-actual reconciliations, by using legal analytics to measure efficiency, and by using artificial intelligence for certain types of tasks. The point is that paying attention to efficient behavior on the front end benefits everyone, including the professionals themselves, who won’t have to negotiate reductions of their already billed work. The ABI Law Review article is available here.
Although the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is headquartered in Texas, it filed for chapter 11 in Delaware in February. That was permissible under existing bankruptcy venue rules because the BSA had created an affiliate in Delaware seventh months earlier. Unsettled by this apparent forum shopping, the Attorneys General of 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico sent a letter to Congress expressing their support for H.R. 4421, the Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2019. It would have prevented the BSA’s conduct. Ten state Attorneys General did not sign the letter: New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Montana, Virginia, and Wyoming.
Under the Act, a corporation could only establish venue in three places. First, the district where its “principal assets” were located for the 180 days before filing. Second, the district where it maintains its “Principal Place of Business.” Third, and only for controlled subsidiaries, any district where a case concerning an entity controlling 50 percent or more of its voting stock is pending. Changes of control or in the Principal Place of Business in the year before filing or conducted “for the purpose of establishing venue” would be disregarded. Corporations could thus no longer manufacture venue in a preferred jurisdiction by simply creating an affiliate there.
H.R. 4421 would also require the Supreme Court to promulgate rules allowing “any attorney representing a governmental unit” to appear in any chapter 11 proceeding without paying a fee or hiring local counsel. This provision likely factored heavily into the Attorneys General’s support for the Act. Their support letter emphasizes that the resulting rule would help them enforcers consumer protection and environmental laws by reducing the costs of defending their states’ interests in chapter 11 cases filed in distant jurisdictions.
The letter offered two reasons why corporations should not be able to manufacture venue in districts with seemingly favorable judges just by creating an affiliate there. First, it is costly for creditors (particularly small creditors) because they must either travel long distances or forgo face-to-face participation as well as hire local counsel in expensive legal markets. Second, it may cause the public to perceive the bankruptcy system as unfairly advantaging large corporations. H.R. 4421 would solve these problems by “ensur[ing] that bankruptcies are filed in jurisdictions where debtors have the closest connections and filings will have the largest impacts.” The letter notes the Southern District of New York and the District of Delaware as two currently attractive districts. But the Attorneys General argue that other district and bankruptcy judges have similar expertise.
Academics largely agree that 28 U.S.C. § 1408’s permissive venue rules encourage competition among bankruptcy courts to attract high profile cases, but opinion is split on whether this competition improves or degrades bankruptcy law.
Lynn LoPucki and William Whitford argue that venue choice degrades bankruptcy law by pressuring judges to exercise their discretion to favor debtors and their attorneys because these are the actors who usually choose where to file. They suggest, for example, that bankruptcy judges of the Southern District of New York misuse discretion by freely granting extensions of the 120-day exclusivity period during which only the debtor may propose a reorganization plan. Debtors can then agree to move toward confirmation of a plan in exchange for concessions from creditors.
David Skeel, on the other hand, argues that at least one of the venue choices that the proposed Bankruptcy Reform Act would eliminate—the district where the entity is incorporated—improves bankruptcy law by encouraging states to compete for incorporation fees by offering increasingly efficient bankruptcy rules in the multiple areas where federal bankruptcy law defers to state law.
On April 29, 163 current and retired bankruptcy judges sent a letter to members of the House Committee on the Judiciary expressing support for H.R. 4421’s proposed reforms. The letter stresses the preference for eliminating state of incorporation as a basis for venue.
By Andrew N. Goldman, George W. Shuster Jr., Benjamin W. Loveland, Lauren R. Lifland (Wilmerhale LLP)
Valuation is a critical and indispensable element of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process. It drives many aspects of a Chapter 11 case, from petition to plan confirmation, in all circumstances. It may be obvious that the COVID-19 crisis has added a layer of complexity—and volatility—to bankruptcy valuation issues with respect to valuing assets, liabilities, and claims, both in and outside the Chapter 11 context. But the crisis may also change the way that courts look at valuation determinations in Chapter 11—both value itself, and the way that value is measured, may be transformed by the COVID-19 crisis. While the full extent of the pandemic’s effect on valuation issues in bankruptcy has yet to be seen, one certainty is that debtors and creditors with a nuanced and flexible approach to these issues will fare better than those who rigidly hold on to pre-crisis precedent.
By Franklin H. Top III, Stephen R. Tetro, Richard F. Klein, James M. Heiser (Chapman and Cutler LLP)
Hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in aircraft equipment in the United States. With the airline industry suffering devastating losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Chapman and Cutler LLP recently released its Bankruptcy and Aircraft Finance Handbook. The handbook aims to help aircraft investors navigate the numerous challenges typically faced in airline bankruptcies. The handbook seeks to provide an understanding of the unique aspects of § 1110 of the Bankruptcy Code and other related provisions that govern the treatment of claims in bankruptcy involving aircraft. It also outlines the state law remedies available to aircraft investors outside of bankruptcy.
In addition, the handbook seeks to demystify the complex structures behind these investments, including secured loans, sale/leasebacks, operating leases, pass-through certificates, leveraged leases and public debt, including equipment trust certificates or enhanced equipment trust certificates. Each structure can present its own unique challenges in bankruptcy.
We also provide a checklist of considerations for aircraft investors drawn from over 30 years of experience, and identify some of the common challenges that investors face in airline bankruptcies. We provide investors with an understanding of the legal protections available in the event an aircraft investment heads south, as well as share lessons learned from prior airline bankruptcies from the 1990s to the present