Farewell to Signatures...

posted by Adam Levitin

Here's what all of the commentary I've read has overlooked.  Signatures are utterly irrelevant to consumers except to the extent that the slow down the transaction. (Ok, they also require those germaphobes among us to touch a shared pen when we were doing just great with a contactless NFC transaction). The signature requirement has ZERO effect on consumer liability.  Federal law already limits consumer liability on unauthorized credit card transactions to $50.  But that $50 liability only applies if (1) it is an "accepted card" and (2) the card issuer has provided a means to identify the cardholder, and those limitations mean that consumers are rarely, if ever, actually liable for unauthorized credit card transactions.  Put another way, the statute says $50, but it is basically saying $0.    

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Congressional Review Act Confusion: Indirect Auto Lending Guidance Edition (a/k/a The Fast & the Pointless)

posted by Adam Levitin

Part of the legacy of Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America (can I get damages for breach?) is the Congressional Review Act.  The CRA creates a mechanism whereby Congress can override an agency rulemaking on a simple majority vote in both houses, meaning that it is not subject to the filibuster in the Senate. Congress has only used this tool infrequently, most notably with the CRA resolution overriding the CFPB's arbitration rule. 

Some members of Congress have now turned their CRA sights on various regulatory "guidance" that they find objectionable. This guidance is not formally binding and enforceable law, but other sorts of communications from agencies that help regulated entities understand agency expectations, interpretations, and policies. Among this guidance is the CFPB's Indirect Auto Lending Guidance. I suspect that most of the folks who rail against it have never actually bothered to read it. It's a short document. Most of it is spent explaining what indirect auto lending is. In brief, you can get a car loan from a direct lender who makes the loan directly to you or you can get the loan from the dealer. If you get the loan from the dealer, the dealer will typically turn around and sell the loan to the real lender.  (The exception are buy-here-pay-here used car dealers who keep the loans.)  These indirect lenders include captive finance companies of auto manufacturers, but also banks (e.g., Santander has a large business in this space). The indirect lenders compete for dealer business, not for consumer business, and therein lies the problem. The indirect lenders set a "buy rate"--the minimum interest rate and other terms on the loan at which they will purchase it, but then allow dealers to markup the loan above the buy rate (this is the "dealer reserve," which looks an awful lot like the now-prohibited yield spread premiums on mortgages paid to mortgage brokers).  This sets up a situation in which dealers might engage in discriminatory markups in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The question is whether the indirect lenders face any liability for such discriminatory markups.  

The CFPB's Indirect Auto Lending Guidance notes that this is a possibility as indirect lenders can potentially qualify as "creditors" under ECOA. The guidance then goes on to say that because there are compliance risks, here are some things that indirect lenders should consider doing as part of their compliance programs.  Critically, the guidance doesn't actually say that the CFPB believes that dealers ar "creditors" under ECOA, only that it is possible that they could be, nor does it require that dealers do anything.

It's not clear if there are the votes in Congress to pass the CRA resolution, but even if there are, there are still a bunch of legal questions about whether such a resolution can validly be passed in regard to the Indirect Auto Lending Guidance and what its impact would be. These are discussed below the break. My short answer is that it is very questionable whether the CRA has any application of the Indirect Auto Lending Guidance and even if it does, it is unlikely to have much impact as it doesn't invalidate ECOA or ECOA enforcement actions against indirect lenders. This then raises the question of why the (GOP) wants to spend political capital pursuing a rather pointless resolution.  

Continue reading "Congressional Review Act Confusion: Indirect Auto Lending Guidance Edition (a/k/a The Fast & the Pointless)" »

Tax Reform and Nonprofit Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

It's Tax Day! When the new tax bill was debated late last year, a few reports noted an unintended consequence of the bill's expansion of the standard deduction might be decrease people's charitable contributions, in turn harming nonprofits. After the bill passed, I continued to hear comments about the increased standard deductions' potential to cause financial problems for nonprofits, and saw estimates of a loss of $2 billion to the sector. Financial problems, of course, make me think of bankruptcy. And nonprofits make me think about religious organizations, which are the nonprofits I've studied the most in the context of bankruptcy. Tax Day seems like an appropriate day for some thoughts about the tax reform's possible connection to nonprofits' chapter 11 filings, particularly churches' chapter 11 filings.

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A Series of Proposals to Restructure Venezuelan Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

About two weeks ago, we held a small conference at the University of North Carolina School of Law: How Best to Restructure the Venezuelan Debt. The conference focused on proposals developed this semester by students in our joint UNC-Duke class on international debt finance. Some proposals started fresh; others took an existing idea and built on it. Four student groups presented their work and got feedback from a group of about twenty experienced lawyers, bankers and policy-makers. This was—to our minds—an exceptional group, extraordinarily knowledgeable about sovereign debt markets and with particular insight into Venezuela. Included were Lee Buchheit, Chanda DeLong, Brett House, Fulvio Italiani, Hongtao Jiang, Ruth Krivoy, Trevor Messenger, Siobhan Morden, Katia Porzecanski, and a list of others who we will leave unnamed for confidentiality reasons. We are immensely grateful to all of them for their generosity to us and our students.

After the student presentations, our visiting guests offered their perspectives about the Venezuelan debt crisis. It was a treat for us and our students to hear such experts—all of whom have given a great deal of thought to the crisis—discuss solutions to one of the most complicated restructuring problems in recent history. Not all of the discussion was intended for public consumption, but we have permission to post this video of a terrific conversation between Lee Buchheit and Brett House.

After incorporating feedback from the conference, our students have posted their proposals on SSRN. We are really proud of their work. We pushed them hard, at least as hard as we have pushed any prior class, and they responded in spades. Like every proposal, these have flaws (and some are more plausible than others on the risk-reward continuum). But with that caveat, each represents an immense amount of work and contains new ideas:

PDVSA’s Hail Mary: A Chapter 15 Bankruptcy Solution (Samantha Hovaniec, Ryan Nichols, Matthew Taylor, Heather Werner & Rich Gittings)

Lien-ing on PDVSA: The Positive Side of Negative Pledge (Matt Cramer, Kelsey Moore, Andrea Kropp & Charlie Saad)

The Enduring Legality of Exit Consents: A Realist’s Guide (Steven Diaz, Stephanie Funk, Isabelle Sawhney, Gavin Kim & Austin Rogers)

Oil For Debt: A Unique Proposal For the Unique Problem that is Restructuring Venezuela’s Debt (Aditya Mitra, Andres Ortiz, Bernard Botchway, Evaristo Pereira, Shane O’Neil & Will Curtis)

These papers build on a long line of students papers on topics related to sovereign debt restructuring, some of which have made it to publication. Last year, Dimitrios Lyratzakis and Khaled Fayyad got their proposal, Restructuring Venezuela’s Debt Using Pari Passu, published in the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law. And sometimes, when the proposals are especially creative or insightful, they manage to get the attention of reporters at the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, and elsewhere.

"Drinking water from a fire hose:" The Weinstein Company Chapter 11 Hearing #2

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Sale AdNestled in a review of an album by Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls (a/k/a Harry Shearer), the April 10 edition of Variety magazine published a notice of sale of The Weinstein Company. The notice includes a bid deadline of April 30, a sale hearing on May 8, and the soothing assurance to bidders that a buyer would incur "NO SUCCESSOR LIABILITY" (bolded and all-caps) for the heinous acts TWC apparently tolerated and facilitated over many years. The notice anticipates that a buyer might agree to remain liable for some TWC obligations, however, perhaps contemplating valuable licensing contracts.

The Variety notice is a consequence of the second TWC hearing on April 6 (for the first hearing, see here). By the end, objections to the bidding procedures order had been resolved, resulting in docket #190, the order approving the procedures, including a $9.3 million breakup fee and escalating expense reimbursement for the stalking horse bidder if the sale is delayed. The number of times sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape were mentioned at the hearing: zero.

Counsel to the newly-appointed five-member creditors' committee told the court that getting up to speed in this case (no pun intended) was "drinking water from a fire hose." And a battle is brewing over whether bids should be allocated among the various asset categories (again, given the stated complexity) - something the stalking horse bidder seems to resist. Meanwhile, at least one counterparty to a licensing agreement asserts that its contract was rescinded prior to the filing. Assuming it loses that fight, the party worries it will have insufficient time to consider whether the asset buyer is providing adequate assurance of future performance.

This case invites the caustic lament, "if only the Bankruptcy Code drafters had established a fair and transparent process to deal with all of these issues!" When Harry Shearer decides to send his imaginary-band bassist into a quiet retirement, maybe he will make a film about chapter 11. After all, fairness rocks.

 

Trump’s Bank Regulators

posted by Alan White

ProPublica’s new web site “Trump Town” tracks political appointees across federal agencies. In light of the president’s promises to “drain the swamp”, it is interesting to peruse some of the Treasury Department appointees responsible for bank regulation. I previously wrote about Secretary Mnuchin and Comptroller Joseph Otting and their connections to subprime mortgage foreclosure profiteers. Lower-level political appointees at Treasury seem to come mostly from one of three backgrounds – lawyers and lobbyists for banks, real estate investors (and sometimes Trump campaign officials), or former staffers for Republican members of Congress. Here are some examples:

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Junk Cities: Insolvency Crises in Overlapping Municipalities

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new paper out on municipal insolvency. It's called "Junk Cities:  Resolving Insolvency Crises in Overlapping Municipalities," 107 Cal. L. Rev (forthcoming 2019).  The paper is co-authored with Aurelia Chaudhury and David Schleicher. The launching point for the paper is the observation that there are frequently overlapping local government jurisdictions--cities, counties, school districts, water districts, park districts, hospital districts, sewer and sanitary districts, forest preserves, etc. These overlapping jurisdictions share a common revenue source--the same set of taxpayers. This means that they have correlated exposure to economic downturns or population declines. It also means that they face a common pool problem in terms of revenue generation, and they frequently lack coordination mechanisms whether formal or informal (such as political "machines").

The correlated economic exposure plus the common pool problem for revenues increases the likelihood of simultaneous financial crises for these overlapping jurisdictions. Chapter 9 bankruptcy, unfortunately lacks the tools to deal with the inter-governmental coordination problem. The techniques used for handling multi-entity debtors in Chapter 11--joint administration, deemed consolidation for voting and distribution purposes, and (in the extreme) full substantive consolidation do not work for municipalities that lack common corporate control and have much clearer separation of assets and liabilities.  Chapter 9 does not currently have the capacity for considering a shared revenue source that is not an asset per se.  Our paper identifies the nature of the overlapping municipal financial crisis problem, discusses why Chapter 9 is inadequate, and proposes a number of solutions ranging from incremental doctrinal improvements in Chapter 9 to the adoption of a "Big MAC Combo" (or perhaps a "supersize Big MAC") mechanism for coordinating the finances of overlapping municipalities. The abstract is below the break. 

Continue reading "Junk Cities: Insolvency Crises in Overlapping Municipalities" »

Counting the millions of evictions

posted by Alan White

The Eviction Lab, a project led by sociologist Matthew Desmond (author of Evicted), have performed the invaluable and impressive task of gathering landlord-tenant eviction records from every county in the nation for the past 16 years. The sobering results, released today (NY Times story) paint a picture of widespread housing insecurity in the wealthiest nation in the world. Each year nearly a million renter households are evicted by court order, and more than twice that number are summoned to court to face eviction. 

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 8.47.01 AM
© evictionlab.org

The project's web page offers a variety of data reports at the state level, and the promise of many more critical analyses to come. Among the questions that researchers may explore using these data include the rate of housing loss for African-American and Latino families, the impact of the 2008 mortgage foreclosure crisis, and foreclosures generally, on renter households, the efficacy of state and local rental housing subsidy programs, whether gentrification results in displacement, and the location of neighborhoods facing high concentrations of evictions and housing abandonment.

 Security of housing tenure is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary condition for the protection of other political and socio-economic rights. Millions of evictions are the sad and now visible legacy of decades of cuts to public and subsidized housing and basic income support for the poor.

Was Charleston Gazette-Mail a good case for an Ice Cube Bond?

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Based only this news report, the answer appears to be yes - an Ice Cube Bond would have honored the claimants' need for speed without allowing them to shift all the risk to the bankruptcy estate. The news article indicates that sale proponents referred to the holdback request as a "Hail Mary." In the foundational Lionel case, the dissenting Second Circuit judge used that characterization for a request to reverse the sale order, not to hold back proceeds. An Ice Cube Bond arguably reduces the possibility of Hail Mary arguments because it allows analysis of entitlements to be determined at a less pressured pace.

 

H/T Ted Janger

 

Coming Soonish to a Bookstore Near You

posted by Stephen Lubben

Assuming you still have those in your town. If not, also available for preorder now is my forthcoming book, entitled The Law of Failure.  It is my attempt to consider all of American business insolvency law as a whole. Not just bankruptcy but also assignments, receiverships, and even oddball things like Nevada's campground receivership provisions.

Orwellian Debt Collection in China

posted by Jason Kilborn

Trying to get a handle on the potential for a workable personal bankruptcy procedure in China, I've repeatedly encountered evidence that the most important element might be lacking: attitude. Successful personal insolvency systems around the world differ in design and operation, but the system architects and operators generally share a sense that default is an inevitable aspect of consumer/entrepreneurial risk, and mitigating the long-term effects of such defaults is good for debtors, creditors, and society. I don't get the sense, based on my admittedly superficial outsider perspective, that this foundation is ready in China. Indeed, quite the opposite. 

For example, for the past few years, the Supreme People's Court has run a "judgment defaulter's list" of individuals who have failed (been unable?) to satisfy judgments against them. More than 3 million names were on this list already by the end of 2015, and getting on this list means more than just public shaming; it's also a "no-fly" list, preventing defaulters from buying airplane tickets, in addition to a "no-high-speed-train" and "no-hotel-stay" list, and also a "no-sending-your-kids-to-paid-schools" list. By mid-2016, about 5 million people had been preventing from buying these services in China as a result of being on the list. This initiative is just the start of a planned "Social Credit System," which will aggregate electronic data (including not only payment history, but also buying habits, treatment of one's parents, and who one's associates are) to produce a "social credit score" for all individuals. This score will affect all manner of life events, such as access not only to loans, but also to housing access, work promotions, honors, and other social benefits. The potential problems with data integrity (including inaccurate data), among many other challenges, are discussed in this fascinating paper by Yongxi Chen and Anne Sy Cheung of the Univ. of Hong Kong

Continue reading "Orwellian Debt Collection in China" »

The underutilized student loan bankruptcy discharge

posted by Alan White

A common misconception is that student loans are never dischargeable in bankruptcy. There is a bankruptcy discharge exception for some qualified student loans and educational benefit repayment obligations. The discharge exception does not, however, apply to all loans made to students. Jason Iuliano argues in a new paper that bankruptcy courts have interpreted the discharge exception too broadly, applying it to loans for unaccredited schools, loans for tutoring services, and loans beyond the cost of attendance for college. His paper presents a compelling argument based on the plain language of the statute, the legislative history and policy in support of a narrow reading of 11 USC §523(a)(8).

The Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas recently adopted the narrow reading of §523(a)(8)(A)(ii) in Crocker v. Navient Solutions, LLC , Adv. 16-3175 (Bankr. S.D. Tx Mar. 26, 2018). The court denied Navient's motion for summary judgment, finding that the bar exam study loan from SLMA at issue was not within the discharge exception for qualified student loans or educational benefit repayments.

In another class action complaint filed last year against Sallie Mae and Navient, plaintiffs claim that servicers are systematically defrauding student loan debtors about their bankruptcy discharge rights. According to the complaint in Homaidan v. Sallie Mae, Inc. (17-ap-01085 Bankr. EDNY), servicers illegally continued collecting private student loans that were fully discharged in debtor bankruptcies because they were not qualified educational loans. The servicers exploited the common misconception that "student loans" writ large are excluded from bankruptcy discharge. The defendants' motion to dismiss or compel arbitration is pending.

Professor Iuliano has also demonstrated in a prior paper that even student loans covered by the bankruptcy discharge exception can still be discharged based on showing "undue hardship," and that courts are far more likely to approve undue hardship discharges than many debtors (and lawyers) may realize.

Summer Associate Arbitration Clauses: Why Disclosure Isn't Enough

posted by Adam Levitin

This weekend a mini-scandal erupted over the law firm Munger, Tolles requiring its summer associates to sign pre-dispute arbitration clauses. Munger, Tolles was rightly shamed into rescinding the practice, but one suspects that Munger, Tolles isn't the only firm doing or contemplating doing this. 

I believe law schools have a particular duty to stand up here and protect their students. Law students seeking firm jobs are at an incredibly disadvantage in terms of both market power and knowledge. The students are often heavily leveraged and desperate to land a high-paying job with a large law firm in order to service their educational debt, and even when debt doesn't drive them, a summer associate position at a large firm is often seen as a stepping stone to career success. Law students really have no bargaining power in terms of their contractual relationship with summer employers.  It's take-it-or-leave-it, and leave-it isn't an option for law students.  Law students also lack knowledge about the importance of an arbitration clause in terms of the procedural and substantive rights they will surrender and knowledge about the firm culture they are stepping into and the likelihood it will result in a dispute of some sort (e.g., sexual harassment).  Whatever one thinks of the virtues of arbitration generally, this strikes me as a very clear cut case of pre-dispute arbitration agreements  being inappropriate.  I don't think it's a stretch to call such arbitration provisions unfair and unconscionable both procedurally and substantively.  (Does anyone think the firms are doing this for the summer associates' benefit?) 

I believe that the appropriate response for law schools in light of the situation is to refuse access to on-campus interviewing to any firm that requires its summer associates to sign an arbitration clause. Schools have done this when their students civil rights were being threatened both under don't-ask-don't-tell and in the era when firms would often refuse interviews to women and people of color. The right to have one's grievances heard before a court (including for race and gender discrimination!) is also a civil right.  It is a civil right that is fundamental to the whole endeavor of law schools, and schools should be just as vigilant to protecting their students civil rights in this instance as they have in the face of discrimination. 

Continue reading "Summer Associate Arbitration Clauses: Why Disclosure Isn't Enough" »

Notes on Complexity: The Weinstein Company Chapter 11 Hearing #1

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Some rarely-heard terms at The Weinstein Company's March 20 chapter 11 first-day hearing: sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape.

A more common utterance among TWC representatives: complex. The industry, the capital structure, the lending arrangements. All complex. Complex complex complex complex complex.

Part of the complexity, TWC said, comes from the fact that some collateral is governed by the Uniform Commercial Code while other collateral (certain intellectual property) is governed by other law. Yes - secured transactions professors keep saying this mixture is difficult to handle especially at the remedial/recovery stage. Another part of the complexity, according to TWC, is that the property interests have been sliced and diced into... hold on, this sounds familiar. 

What if anything is hiding behind this complexity? If TWC and the sale proponents get their way, the mystery likely will be buried.  The company and other proponent of a quick sale (which includes the sale of avoidance actions) says this sale needs to be done ASAP. 

TWC does not look like a melting ice cube now. It melted in the fall of 2017. Claimants need as much, if not more, protection in manufactured ice cube cases as in real ones, especially if the capital structure is so, well, complex. Complexity and speed are not the best of friends. If claimants are going to be denied full process, quick sale proponents need to post an Ice Cube Bond. Otherwise, a sale of TWC should happen through a plan, with all of the constitutional and statutory hurdles that were supposed to be necessary for the extraordinary exercise of federal court power that TWC seeks.

TWC's representatives also emphasized how business judgment should be respected. From the outside, it looks like TWC terminated Harvey Weinstein only when the news media blew their cover on the track record of heinous allegations. Sure, there is a new CRO, but are all who were complicit in the cover up really out of the picture now? 

A lawyer for the motion picture guilds said at the hearing that the guilds have had "difficulty" with the debtor pre-bankruptcy, and that the case calls for "adult supervision."  Another objector (docket #68)  said at the hearing that it heard from third parties that TWC had been "flagrantly" breaching agreements and misdirecting payment - a state of affairs feared to be the tip of the iceberg, but there had not yet been time to do a full investigation. 

A particularly interesting portion of the hearing involved debtor-in-possession financing. Among other reasons, TWC said it preferred to allow an existing lender to offer the DIP financing because that lender understood the complexity of the business and collateral package. Is chapter 11 practice now at a place where a DIP argues with a straight face that, for continuity purposes, it is better off borrowing money at higher interest rates and higher fees, from an existing lender with incentives that unlikely to align with the best interests of the estate overall? That did not go unchallenged, however. In addition to allowing another potential lender to be heard, the court asked a series of reasonable questions that indicated concerns about the cost of the proposed deal for the bankruptcy estate, and then took a brief recess. Then the proposed lender reported to the court the fees would be reduced.  The court approved the financing on an interim basis to avoid irreparable harm but will be looking at this issue fresh when TWC seeks the final order for financing.

The U.S. Trustee is having a creditors committee formation meeting this week. That committee has a lot to investigate.

The TWC enterprise might be complex. But that's not what this case is about.

 

 

 

 

 

Stormy Daniel's Three-Way (Contract) & Donald Trump's Performance Problem

posted by Adam Levitin
I want to return to the Stormy Daniels-Donald Trump-Michael Cohen Three-Way Contract.  It's actually really interesting from a contract doctrine perspective (besides being of prurient interest). The continued media coverage and scholarly commentary seems to be missing a key point, namely that this is a contractual ménage à trois, not a typical pairing. The fact that there are three parties, not two to the contract actually matters quite a bit doctrinally.
 
Let’s start with a point on which I think everyone agrees.  For there to be a contract, there needs to be mutual assent. This assent may be manifested in different ways—it may be manifested expressly, say through a signature, or implicitly, say through performance or, in rare cases, through silence. 
 
The complication we have in this contract is that it is a 3-party contract, not the standard 2-party contract.  That’s a problem because basically everything in contract doctrine is built around 2-party contracts.  Traditional contract doctrine is monogamous and doesn't really know what to do with three-ways, especially when one party has a performance problem.  It's not, for what it's worth, that multi-party contracts are rare--they're not. In fact, they're the common arrangement in corporate finance where a contract will involve numerous affiliates. But traditional contract doctrine developed in an era in which these multi-party contracts were rarer (indeed, look at how the Bankruptcy Code is not drafted with the contemplation of multi-entity debtors!) and there's always been a wink-wink, nod-nod about the separateness of corporate affiliates. 
 

Continue reading "Stormy Daniel's Three-Way (Contract) & Donald Trump's Performance Problem" »

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