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 Dan B. Prieto (Jones Day) and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)
In In re Fencepost Productions Inc., 629 B.R. 289 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2021), the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Kansas recently addressed the enforceability of a provision in a pre-bankruptcy subordination agreement under which a subordinated creditor assigned to a senior creditor its right to vote on any chapter 11 plan proposed for the borrower. The bankruptcy court ruled that such a provision is not enforceable because it conflicts with the Bankruptcy Code. In a twist, however, the court concluded that the subordinated creditor lacked “prudential standing” to participate in the confirmation process because it was extremely out-of-the-money and therefore had no stake in the outcome of the case, but was attempting to assert the rights of third parties.
Courts disagree over whether an assignment of plan voting rights in an intercreditor or subordination agreement is enforceable. Regardless of the particular approach adopted by a court on this issue, the growing consensus is that agreements that seek to limit or waive junior creditors’ voting rights must contain express language to that effect. The ruling in Fencepost adds yet another chapter to the ongoing debate on this issue.
The Fencepost court’s conclusion that the subordinated creditor lacked prudential standing would appear to be driven in part by the facts of the case, which involved a subordinated, clearly out-of-the-money creditor intent upon impeding an otherwise consensual reorganization.
The Bankruptcy Code, however, expressly provides to the contrary by, among other things, giving every “party in interest” (including creditors and interest holders, without making an exception in cases where there is no value available for distribution to them), the right to appear and be heard “on any issue” in a chapter 11 case, the right to vote on a chapter 11 plan, and the right to object to confirmation of a plan. These provisions arguably indicate that Congress intended to modify or abrogate prudential standing requirements when it enacted the Bankruptcy Code. Moreover, the “rights” any out-of-the-money creditor or shareholder would be seeking to enforce by participating in the confirmation process are arguably their own, rather than the rights of third parties.
A logical extension of the rationale articulated in Fencepost is that clearly out-of-the-money creditors or shareholders of an insolvent corporation would never have prudential standing to participate in the chapter 11 plan confirmation process. That approach would be contrary to court rulings and general practice in many chapter 11 cases.
By Axel Krohn (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany)
The European Directive on restructuring and insolvency (“Directive”), which came into force in July 2019, has triggered a series of interesting debates. The possibility for EU Member States to subject the cram-down from Article 11 to a “relative priority rule” (“EU RPR”) when implementing the Directive into national law has proven to be particularly controversial.
Despite a confusing conceptual overlap with approaches presented in the U.S., the European interpretation of “relative priority” breaks new ground. The rule stipulates that, under a restructuring plan, dissenting voting classes have to be treated merely more favorably than any junior class. Although the Directive allows national lawmakers to refrain from the EU RPR and introduce a familiar “absolute priority rule” (“APR”)—that is, that a dissenting class of creditors must be paid in full before junior parties may receive any distributions—the EU RPR has already found supporters in various jurisdictions and should therefore be thoroughly examined.
This article identifies one aspect of the cram-down that has received little attention to date. In addition to the EU RPR, the European legislature has introduced a new “best interest of creditors” test (“EU BIT”), which does not—as in 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(7)(ii)—use the value that a party could expect in a hypothetical liquidation as a comparator, but refers to the “next-best-alternative scenario.” Although the concept of combining the EU RPR and the EU BIT is coherent in theory and may even eliminate some misconceptions about the EU RPR, the interaction of the two cram-down elements is likely to raise problems in practice.
First, this article discusses the concepts of the two priority rules and traces the motives of the European legislature for introducing the EU RPR.
Three aspects in particular appear to have motivated the legislature in drawing up the rule. For one, the legislature wished to create more flexibility in plan negotiations and thus respond in particular to special needs in the restructuring of smaller businesses. The rule may bring advantages, especially when it is reasonable to enable existing shareholders to participate in the continued business by means of an equity interest. Second, with regard to some Member States, the desire has arisen to create an instrument to overcome structural blocking positions of certain preferential (priority) creditors, in particular tax authorities. Finally, there is a trend in Europe which sees in the Directive a procedure that enables a structured contractual renegotiation of debts and detaches itself from the “traditional laws of insolvency law,” including the APR.
This article then deals with the new EU BIT and examines its interaction with the EU RPR.
It is worth noting that the EU BIT plays a much more important role in an EU RPR cram-down than under an APR. By moving away from the traditional liquidation benchmark and instead linking to the “next-best-alternative scenario,” the test protects precisely the value that can be achieved from the perspective of a creditor outside insolvency without cooperating with other parties. The then remaining reorganization surplus, which is subject to the EU RPR, is that fraction of the going concern surplus which can only be achieved through the combined efforts of all parties involved, but which creditors cannot claim in an individual case of enforcement.
Despite this harmonious interaction in theory, doubts may be expressed as to whether the combination of the EU RPR and the EU BIT would work in practice. The new focus on the hypothetical next-best-alternative scenario value will likely lead to an additional stress point in plan negotiations. The EU RPR, which does not itself contain a clear guideline for the distribution of the remaining surplus, is then to be applied between two unclear values, namely the hypothetical next-best-alternative value and the presumed reorganization value. It is reasonable to assume that the resulting distributional uncertainty will cause new hold-up potential and render it difficult to realize consensual plans, especially in larger restructuring cases. Also, it seems likely that unsophisticated junior creditors will face difficulties in defending their rights adequately in view of the potentially unclear next-best-alternative scenario value, and that others will try to use this to their advantage in complex negotiations.
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.
In In re Houston Regional Sports Network, L.P., 886 F.3d 523 (5th Cir. 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that bankruptcy courts have flexibility in selecting the date on which to value collateral, “so long as the bankruptcy court takes into account the purpose of the valuation and the proposed use or disposition of the collateral at issue.” In so holding, the Fifth Circuit rejected the proposition that a bankruptcy court must value collateral as of either the bankruptcy petition date or the effective date of a cramdown chapter 11 plan. However, because the bankruptcy court failed to consider the proposed use of the collateral in assigning it a value, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case below for additional findings.
In declining to establish a bright-line rule mandating the valuation date for a creditor’s collateral in cramdown chapter 11 cases, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, informed by section 506(a), gives bankruptcy courts the flexibility to consider an appropriate valuation date based on the actual use or disposition of a creditor’s collateral and the purpose of the valuation. The principal benefit of this approach is that it recognizes that any valuation in this context should consider developments in a chapter 11 case which may have an impact on value. Even so, secured creditors should be aware that consideration of the proposed or actual use of collateral under a plan may in some cases mean that collateral may be assigned a lower value as of plan confirmation or effectiveness than as of the bankruptcy petition date.
By George P. Angelich and Annie Y. Stoops (Arent Fox).
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the creditor’s ability to block “cramdown” by purchasing junior debt for the purpose of protecting its own existing claim. In re Fagerdala USA-Lompoc, Inc., 891 F.3d 848 (9th Cir. 2018). In reversing the bankruptcy court’s decision to designate claims for bad faith under 11 U.S.C. § 1126(e), the Ninth Circuit held that the creditor acting in its self-interest by purchasing unsecured claims to block “cramdown” did not constitute bad faith unless evidence showed the creditor acted with a motive ulterior to the purpose of protecting its economic interest in a bankruptcy proceeding. Examples of “ulterior motive” included a creditor purchasing claims for the purpose of blocking litigation against it or a debtor arranging to have an insider purchase claims.
Fagerdala clarifies that creditors may purchase claims in defense of their economic interests in bankruptcy proceedings. In holding that the bad faith inquiry under 11 U.S.C. § 1126(e) requires evidence of an “ulterior motive,” the Ninth Circuit sets the stage for designation where a non-creditor or strategic investor purchases claims as an offensive move to gain an advantage over the Chapter 11 debtor.
By James L. Bromley, Lisa M. Schweitzer, Sean A. O’Neal, Luka A. Barefoot, and Daniel K. Soltman (Cleary Gottlieb).
On January 25, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit held that section 1129(a)(10) of the Bankruptcy Code, which requires cramdown plans to have at least one impaired accepting class, applies on a “per-plan” basis, rather than a “per-debtor” basis. In re Transwest Resort Properties Inc., Case No. 16-16221 (9th Cir. Jan. 25, 2018). Under the “per-plan” rule, multiple debtors with a single plan of reorganization may cram down a plan on any creditor class with the support of only one impaired accepting class, even where the impaired accepting class has claims against a different debtor than the crammed down class that has rejected the plan. The Ninth Circuit is the first circuit court to address the “per-debtor” versus “per-plan” issue, and previous decisions were split between the Southern District of New York (adopting the “per-plan” approach) and the District of Delaware (adopting the “per-debtor” approach). Transwest will likely have a significant impact on how debtors and creditors within the Ninth Circuit and elsewhere consider their relative options prior to and during bankruptcy.
The remainder of this article will discuss the Transwest case background and the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and the expected impact of the decision, both inside and outside of the Ninth Circuit. The article is available here.
For earlier Roundtable coverage of 1129(a)(10), please see our recent post on strategic impairment in cramdowns.
The bankruptcy courts and their appellate courts continue to explore issues of interest to practitioners and academics. This quarterly summary of recent developments in bankruptcy law covers cases reported during the third quarter of 2017.
The Second Circuit adopted the use of a market rate to determine cram-down interest rates in a chapter 11 case. It also disallowed a secured lender’s make-whole, although without deciding whether a make-whole should be generally disallowed as unmatured post-petition interest. (Inre MPM Silicones (Momentive)) In contrast, the Houston bankruptcy court allowed a make-whole in a solvent case, but also without reaching the post-petition interest issue. (In re Ultra Petroleum)
The Delaware bankruptcy court clarified its jurisdiction to approve a third-party release in a settlement implemented through a confirmed chapter 11 plan, holding that plan confirmation is a core proceeding, so Article III limits do not apply. (In re Millennium Lab Holdings II, LLC) The Delaware bankruptcy court also reconsidered, and disallowed, a merger agreement termination fee after termination of the agreement. (In re Energy Future Holdings, Inc.)
Bankruptcy courts increasingly approve of the idea that under section 544(b), the trustee may use the longer reachback periods of the Internal Revenue Code and the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act (In re CVAH,In re Alpha Protective Services). And the Ninth Circuit has ruled that for the trustee to pursue an avoidance claim against the United States, section 544(b) does not require a separate sovereign immunity waiver. (In re DBSI, Inc.)
Finally, the courts have been sympathetic to attorneys in allowing their fees. (In re Stanton;In re Hungry Horse, LLC;In re CWS Enterps., Inc.) Less so for investment bankers. (Roth Capital Partners)
The full memo, discussing these and other cases, is available here, and the full (900-page) compilation of all prior editions is availablehere.
On October 28, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit handed down its decision in In re MPM Silicones, L.L.C., holding that where an efficient market exists, the appropriate cram-down interest rate in Chapter 11 cases is the market rate, distinguishing the formula rate applied by the Supreme Court in Till v. SCS Credit Corp.in Chapter 13 cases. The Second Circuit wrote that “the market rate should be applied in Chapter 11 cases where there exists an efficient market. But where no efficient market exists for a Chapter 11 debtor, then the bankruptcy court should employ the formula approach endorsed by the Till plurality.” The Second Circuit also disallowed the senior creditors’ claim for a make-whole payment, although the Third Circuit had allowed such a claim in In re Energy Future Holdings Corp.
Law firms have so far reacted unanimously that this decision is a win for secured creditors as it ameliorates the risk that unsecured creditors could extract value from the debtor at the secured creditors’ expense. Weil writes that “it seems like the Bankruptcy Court, now freed from Till, will find that an efficient market exists, and will adjust the interest rate on the replacement notes accordingly.”
Nevertheless, some firms predict that there may still be areas future controversy. Davis Polk warns that this decision “could result in expensive litigations between debtors and secured creditors as to whether there exists an efficient market and, if so, what the efficient market rate should be.” Norton Rose Fulbright also emphasizes that the next step for secured creditors is to focus on when an efficient market exists.
Firms have also noticed the decision’s implication for debtor-side strategy. Baker McKenzie suggests the possibility that “a debtor may engage in forum shopping to file its case in a jurisdiction that applies the formula approach,” or “be even more sensitive to the potential for exit financing quotes to be used as evidence against [debtors] in establishing a market rate.”
On the issue of the make-whole premium, Davis Polk highlights that the circuit split may increase forum shopping for distressed issuers with potentially significant make-whole obligations. It expects future issuers to draft clearly around the issue of make-whole obligation to provide for future Chapter 11 cases.
By Bruce A. Markell (Northwestern University Law School)
Cramdown is the confirmation of a plan of reorganization over the dissent of an entire class of creditors. Bankruptcy’s absolute priority rule permits such confirmation only if the dissenting class is paid in full, or if no junior class receives anything. “Paid in full,” however, does not require payment in cash. It can consist of intangible promises to pay money that banks, investors, and markets regularly value.
Whether this market value can precisely be transferred to cramdown has vexed many. This Article, “Fair Equivalents and Market Prices,” surveys the doctrinal background of such valuations and devises three short apothegms that can synthesize the history and doctrine under these phrases: “don’t pay too little”; “don’t pay too much”; and “don’t expect precision.”
Against this background, debates arose recently when a New York bankruptcy court applied a chapter 13 case, Till v. SCS Credit Corp., to a large corporate cramdown in In re MPM Silicones, LLC (“Momentive”). Given the legislative history and precedents in the cramdown area, the Article takes the position that Momentive was correct, that it is compatible with the doctrinal roots of cramdown, and that in the future, courts should resist using pure market-based valuations in cramdown calculations.