“A Bitter Result”: Purdue Pharma, a Sackler Bankruptcy Filing, and Improving Monetary and Nonmonetary Recoveries in Mass Tort Bankruptcies

By William Organek (Harvard Law School)

William Organek

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 to resolve thousands of opioid-related lawsuits.  Two years after filing, a reorganization plan was confirmed: in exchange for a financial contribution of several billion dollars by the Sackler family and relinquishment of their ownership in Purdue, the family would be released from all civil liability associated with their ownership and control of Purdue.  Individual claimants, state attorneys general, the United States Trustee, the Department of Justice, Congress, academics, and others criticized the settlement as an abuse of the bankruptcy system.  These parties contended that granting this immunity over their objections–known as a third-party release–was an unfair remedy.  They stated that such a plan would reduce creditors’ financial recoveries and make it more difficult to achieve their goals of learning about Purdue’s role in the opioid crisis and preventing future corporate malfeasance.  Instead, if the Sacklers were to receive immunity, critics suggested that the Sacklers should be required to file for bankruptcy.  A Sackler bankruptcy filing, they claimed, would increase creditor recoveries and ensure that creditors’ nonmonetary goals would be met.

This Article argues that these criticisms rely on a deeply problematic assumption: on closer inspection, it is not at all clear that a Sackler bankruptcy filing would result in better monetary or nonmonetary outcomes for creditors, and could actually detract from these goals.

From a monetary perspective, demands for a Sackler bankruptcy filing overlook the factual complexity that this would entail, and the corresponding weaknesses in remedies available to creditors under bankruptcy law.  The Sacklers engaged in sophisticated asset protection strategies that limited creditors’ financial recoveries by spreading ownership and control of Purdue, as well as their other holdings, across dozens of domestic and international spendthrift trusts to benefit scores of family members.  Demands for a Sackler bankruptcy filing ignore collections issues, the illiquidity of their holdings, the discounts that might be applied to recoveries of minority interests, and the limitations on creditors’ fraudulent transfer remedies.  To overcome these problems and maximize financial recoveries, the parties agreed to a “de facto substantive consolidation”: a consensual dissolution of the legal barriers separating the assets of individual members of the Sackler family, their trusts, and Purdue.  This ad hoc solution, while effective, depended on Sackler acquiescence.

Achieving creditors’ nonmonetary goals, such as broader disclosure, restrictions on the opioid businesses of Purdue and the Sacklers, and limitations on Sackler charitable donations, would probably have been made more difficult by a Sackler bankruptcy filing.  A bankruptcy filing likely would have pitted family members against one another, making disclosure or other consensual resolutions more difficult.  Courts also have limited ability to force debtors to divest assets or refrain from participating in business or charitable endeavors.  Instead, the Sacklers agreed to these undertakings because it was clear from the commencement of the case that the availability of a third-party release was contingent upon their cooperation.  Only by being able to offer what the Sacklers wanted–civil immunity–could creditors and the court cajole the Sacklers into agreement.

This Article demonstrates the institutional limits faced by the bankruptcy system in addressing certain kinds of monetary harms and nonmonetary objectives.  It ends by proposing reforms to fraudulent transfer law that would close the international spendthrift trust loophole that was so critical to the strategy pursued by the Sacklers to limit creditors’ monetary recoveries.  It also argues that the price of achieving creditors’ nonmonetary goals can be reduced in future mass tort bankruptcy cases by mandating expanded disclosure by parties seeking third-party releases, more consistent appointment of trustees to manage the debtor in mass tort bankruptcies, and appointment of examiners to uncover information about the causes of a mass tort.

The full article is available here.  Comments to the author are welcomed: worganek [at] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Is the Texas Two-Step a Proper Chapter 11 Dance?

By David Skeel (University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School)

Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies.  Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.

Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), here (by Jared A. Ellias), and here (by Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey).

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David Skeel

Are Texas Two-Steps ever a proper use of Chapter 11?  The argument that they aren’t—a view held by some scholars and reflected in proposed legislation in Washington—isn’t silly. Most current bankruptcy scholars grew up with Thomas Jackson’s creditors’ bargain theory of bankruptcy, which explains bankruptcy as a solution to creditor coordination problems that threaten to jeopardize the going concern value of an otherwise viable firm. The BadCo that files for bankruptcy in a Texas two-step does not have any going concern value. It’s just trying to manage massive liabilities. Why should this be allowed?

In rejecting a challenge to Johnson & Johnson’s recent two-step, the bankruptcy court supplied a forceful rejoinder to the view that preserving going concern value (or otherwise efficiently deploying a distressed company’s assets) is the only proper purpose for Chapter 11. Judge Kaplan points out that bankruptcy is often a superior mechanism for resolving tort liability as compared to the Multidistrict Litigation process or piecemeal litigation outside of bankruptcy. It is more orderly and can give more equitable and consistent treatment to victims. Judge Kaplan’s conclusion that LTL (the BadCo created by the J&J two-step) belongs in bankruptcy, and that a bankruptcy that involves mass tort liabilities but not the ongoing business that caused them is proper, is fully defensible in my view.

Where Judge Kaplan’s opinion goes off the rails is in too cavalierly dismissing the possibility that two-steps will be abused, as when he muses that “open[ing] the floodgates” to two-steps might not be such a bad thing. Those crafting future two-steps will be tempted to leave BadCo with inadequate ability to pay its victims, since nothing in the Texas divisional merger statute prevents this. Bankruptcy supplies two tools for policing these abuses, the good faith requirement [BRTsee this earlier Roundtable post on good faith and Texas Two-Steps] and fraudulent conveyance law. If courts are vigilant, these tools should be sufficient to discourage abusive two-steps. But if courts are cavalier about the potential abuses, the legislation pending in Washington will begin to seem a lot less ill-advised.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen for Texas two-steps would be for courts to bar the use of non-debtor releases outside of the asbestos context, where they are explicitly authorized by section 524(g) of the Bankruptcy Code. The Second Circuit may be poised to take this step in the Purdue Pharma opioid case, if it upholds the District Court’s conclusion that the releases of nondebtors in that case—most notably, the Sackler family—are not authorized by the Bankruptcy Code. If non-debtor releases were disallowed except where explicitly authorized, Texas two-steps would remain viable in asbestos cases such as J&J, but the floodgates would not open in other contexts, since the maneuver only works if the eventual reorganization includes a non-debtor release for GoodCo.

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

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

Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies.  Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.

Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts) and here (by Jonathan C. Lipson).

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

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

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

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

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