Puerto Rico: PROMESA and Presiding Judges

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Shutterstock_419380498H.R. 5278, containing debt restructuring authority and an oversight board for Puerto Rico, inched closer to passage after yesterday's approval by the House Natural Resources Committee. A combination of Rs and Ds rejected amendments that would have unraveled the compromise (scroll here for the amendments and their fates). They indicated an appreciation for the automatic stay, for the downsides of exempting classes of debt from impairment, and even for the assumption of risk taken by recent bond purchasers (bond disclosures quoted!). The discussion reflected the creditor-versus-creditor elements of the problem and the need for a legal mechanism to discourage holdouts and encourage compromise. Even though they have been asked not to call it "bankruptcy" (or to say "control board"), it was clear they know the restructuring provisions come from Title 11 of the U.S. Code.   

Given that derivation, many judges on the merit-selected bankruptcy bench could admirably handle the first-ever PROMESAnkruptcy, drawing on their directly-relevant experiences with large chapter 11s, if not chapter 9s.  

But section 308 of H.R. 5278 prevents that, and the Natural Resources Committee, in light of its jurisdiction, may not have been in the best position to appreciate the resulting risks. 

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Jevic CVSG Recommends Granting Cert

posted by John Pottow

The brief is not up on the SG's webpage yet, but they are recommending granting the petition and reversing the Third Circuit.  Hat tip to Professor Lipson or Attorneys Goldblatt et al.?  I think this now places granting odds at "moderately decent."

(Those less in the weeds: CVSG is Calls for Views of the Solicitor General.  When the Supreme Court's thinking of granting cert, it sometimes asks the Solicitor General for its views before making the decision.  The SG's brief filed this week says, "Yes, important, grant cert."  Of course, it's not dispositive, but as my old Latin Master used to say, it's better than a slap in the face with a wet haddock.  (Shout out to TPO'DB.))

Nortel Avoids (First) Appeal -- U.S. Edition

posted by John Pottow

After extensive briefing and hearings, the U.S. District Court presiding over the appeal (foreign readers: general trial judges in the U.S. federal court system sit in an appellate capacity over the specialized bankruptcy courts) from the U.S. Nortel proceedings punted this week.  More precisely, the judge, almost resignedly, acknowledged that the appellate appetite of the parties showed little sign of abatement and so has recommended that the appeal go straight to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (which would hear any appeal from the District Court).  If the appellate court takes this direct appeal, which it almost certainly will, this could very well be the final stage.  Stay tuned!

PROMESA and the Recovery Act

posted by Stephen Lubben

It has become something like conventional wisdom that the pending SCOTUS case involving the Recovery Act is no longer relevant. After all, the giant interest payment due July 1 is largely attributable to GO bonds, and the Commonwealth itself is not even subject to the Recovery Act. And the pending PROMESA bill would expressly override the Recovery Act.

Taking the last point first, we should not assume that PROMESA will be enacted before the Supreme Court rules. Indeed, there are many political reasons why Congress – the Senate in particular – might want to wait until the Supreme Court acts before advancing PROMESA. 

Moreover, what the Supreme Court says with regard to the Recovery Act matters. For example, what if they rule that the 1984 addition of section 101's definition of "State" was impermissible, in the way that it treated the Commonwealth? That might render the Recovery Act subject to section 903 preemption, while at the same time allowing Puerto Rico the ability to authorize its municipal entities to file under chapter 9.

That could possibly force some rethinking of PROMESA, although I think we will still see some legislation. The details might change, however, if SCOTUS effectively amends the current Bankruptcy Code.

On the other hand, if the Recovery Act is upheld, what would stop Puerto Rico from expanding it to cover much more of the overall capital structure at issue? And the Recovery Act might serve as a model for a statue that could apply to the Commonwealth itself.

That, of course, might provide further incentives to pass PROMESA.  Quickly.

In short, the Recovery Act is still important, just not in its present form. The current Recovery Act is too narrow to solve very much of the Commonwealth's problems. But what the Supreme Court has to say with regard to the Recovery Act might be very important.

To mention one final point in this regard, what if SCOTUS says that the Commonwealth is unlike other territories? PROMESA purports to be grounded in Congress' power over territories under Article IV, section 3 ...

PROMESA Observations

posted by Stephen Lubben

After taking a look at titles III and VI of the new draft, some quick observations:

  • After some waffling between drafts, it is now clear that title III cases will be heard by district court judges. The judge for a case involving a territory (as opposed to a sub-entity) will be chosen by the Chief Justice. Venue will either be in the territory, or in another place where the oversight board has an office. As I've previously noted, that clearly opens up the possibility of New York.
  • One draft of the bill had incorporated sections 327 et al. regarding professional retention and compensation. I noted that was inconsistent with chapter 9, and incorporation of those sections disappeared in the next draft. Now the new draft has its own professional compensation provision in proposed section 316 (see also section 317).
  • Title VI continues to be a provision that is rather obviously stapled onto the larger bill:  see, for example, section 601, which redefines "Oversight Board" as "Administrative Supervisor" for purposes of Title VI alone.  I have a suggestion:  there is a "find and replace" function in Word ...
  • I continue to worry that title VI's process for splitting bondholders up into various "pools" is a morass waiting to happen, especially given the possibility of competing workout proposals under title VI.
  • That said, much of the "gating" features of the previous versions of title VI are now gone (i.e., it seems it would now be possible to go directly to title III, subject to the oversight board's 5 out of 7 vote).
  • The composition of the oversight board gets more convoluted with each iteration of the bill.

Overall, although the bill is not necessarily "ideal" or "optimal," it seems to at least be making forward progress.  Of course, the Senate has not weighed in at all on this ... at least not publicly. And we should probably expect that even when enacted the bill is apt to be hit with a Recovery Act style Constitutional challenge.

PROMESA Amusement

posted by Stephen Lubben

I'm still working through the new draft of the PROMESA bill, which readers will recall provides new restructuring options for US territories (including Puerto Rico, of course). But I have to say I got a chuckle out of proposed section 303(3), which provides:

unlawful executive orders that alter, amend, or modify rights of holders of any debt of the territory or territorial instrumentality, or that divert funds from one territorial instrumentality to another or to the territory, shall be preempted by this Act.

If the orders are unlawful, do we really need a federal statute to preempt them?

Auto Title Lending: Exploding Toasters

posted by Adam Levitin

The CFPB has a new report out on auto title lending, and the findings are jaw-dropping. If ever there was a consumer financial product that looks like an exploding toaster, it is an auto title loan.  Default rates on auto title loans are one in three, with one in five resulting in a repossession. Is there any consumer product that is tolerated when one out of three products blows up? Even one in five? 

There's a lot of good data in the report (which assiduously avoids any interpretation, but just presents the facts), but beyond the default rates, here's what really jumps out at me: over 80% of the loans roll over and around half result in sequences of 10 or more loans.  That means that rather than viewing auto title loans as short term products with an extension option, they are really used more like longer-term products with a prepayment option. But more importantly, it tells us something about how to interpret default rates.  

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The CFPB's Proposed Rules on Consumer Financial Arbitration

posted by Mark Weidemaier

As has been expected for some time, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued a proposed rule that would prohibit companies providing consumer financial services from pairing arbitration clauses with clauses that prohibit consumers from bringing or participating in class actions. The rule also imposes disclosure requirements on companies that use arbitration. The CFPB's announcement is here; the proposed rule is here. There are two main components.

First, covered providers of consumer financial products can still include pre-dispute arbitration clauses in their contracts, but those who do must explicitly state that the consumer retains the right to bring or participate in a judicial class action. The rule requires that the following language be included in the contract: "We agree that neither we nor anyone else will use this agreement to stop you from being part of a class action case in court. You may file a class action in court or you may be a member of a class action even if you do not file it." (As an aside, the CFPB rule only applies to class actions brought in court. Companies may forbid class action proceedings in arbitration, and I imagine that careful drafters will want to do so expressly.) Second, the Bureau proposes to require covered providers to submit information about claims filed by or against them in arbitration, including copies of the arbitration demand, any response, and the arbitrator's award (see p. 362-363 of the proposal). The Bureau apparently hasn't made up its mind about whether it will make this information public or will merely use it to monitor arbitration proceedings. 

 

Nortel Survives (First?) Appeal -- Canadian Edition

posted by John Pottow

Unlike the bankruptcy judges in Nortel, who synchronized their trials in a landmark case of cross-border insolvency cooperation, the appellate judges run at their own speed, so results will trickle in here and there.

The Canadians got through their appeal first, and the 3-0 ruling from the panel of the Ontario Court of Appeal was rightly withering of the losing appellants.  In response to the argument accusing the trial judge of applying -- instead of the correct law of property entitlements -- his own "commercial judicial moralism," the panel had this to say on his analysis:

"Based on those facts, he concluded that a pro rata order constituted the answer to the allocation issue. The fact that the answer is also fair should not detract from the force of his conclusion."

Who said Canadians can't be snarky, or at the very least passive-aggressive?

The next stage in Canada would be the Supreme Court, which requires leave to appeal, although its grant rate is higher than the U.S. Supreme Court's cert rate.  Stay tuned!

The New Reality of Small Debt Collection

posted by Jason Kilborn

Debt collectorsAbout 10 years ago, Rich Hynes wrote an intriguing paper on consumer debt collection, asking "where are all the garnishments?"  Today, Pro Publica's Paul Kiel is out with an answer: Nebraska and Missouri ... and in the future. Kiel's story challenges the longstanding conventional wisdom that debtors are unlikely to face lawsuits and collection action for small debts. That might have been true before the mid-2000s, when Hynes wrote his paper, and in Virginia and Illinois, which Hynes studied, but it's certainly not true after the financial crisis, Kiel reports, especially in certain high-volume-low-dollar-collection-heavy states. I can hardly do justice to Kiel's revealing data collection and analysis, but here are a few highlights to whet your appetite: (1) debt buyers are among the primary drivers of this trend, not collection agencies, and their industry has consolidated and matured recently, (2) the number of lawsuits against consumers on small debts has absolutely exploded starting in about 2006, the year Hynes's article was published (again, thanks almost entirely to debt buyers, "In 1996, there were around 500 court judgments in New Jersey from suits filed by debt buyers. By 2008, that number had reached 140,000."), (3) these buyers repeatedly clean out consumer bank accounts with garnishments seizing an average of only $350, "Plaintiffs in Missouri tried to garnish debtors’ bank accounts at least 59,000 times in 2012." There's more of interest in Kiel's report--a must-read for those (like myself) who have for years downplayed the threat of enforcement of small debts. It really depends where the debtor lives and whether the debt is acquired by a buyer. 

Debt collector image courtesy of Shutterstock

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