10 posts from June 2018

Access to Justice, Consumer Bankruptcy Edition

posted by Pamela Foohey

The Great Recession, the CFPB's creation, the rise of debt buying, changes in the debt collection industry, and advances in data collection have encouraged more research recently into issues of access to justice in the context of consumer law and consumer bankruptcy. This spring, the consumer bankruptcy portion of the Emory Bankruptcy Development Journal's annual symposium focused on access to justice and "vindicating the rights of all consumers." Professors Susan Block-Lieb, Kara Bruce, Alexander Sickler, and I spoke at the symposium about how a range of consumer law, finance, and bankruptcy topics converge as issues of access to justice.

We recently posted our accompanying papers (detailed further below) to SSRN. My essay overviews what we know about the barriers people face entering the consumer bankruptcy system, identifies areas for further research, and proposes a couple ideas for improving access to bankruptcy. Susan Block-Lieb’s essay focuses on how cities can assist people dealing with financial troubles. And Kara Bruce’s and Alex Sickler’s co-authored essay reviews the state of FDCPA litigation in chapter 13 cases in light of Midland Funding v. Johnson and explores alternatives to combat the filing of proofs of claim for stale debts.

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Hurry Up and Wait: The Weinstein Co. Chapter 11 Hearing #6

posted by Melissa Jacoby

All Credit Slips readers are old enough to remember when a quick going-concern sale of The Weinstein Company was said to be imperative. So much so that even the seemingly skeptical creditors' committee ultimately went along, thus making the request to sell the company to Lantern Capital uncontested.

On June 22, at its 6th hearing, and about 6 weeks after the court's sale approval, TWC essentially acknowledged it cannot close the sale to its stalking horse bidder on the terms requested and approved by the court, and certainly not by the end of June as represented at hearing #5. TWC therefore will be seeking court approval for Lantern to acquire the company for less money than the agreement and court order specified. By the creditors' committee's calculation, TWC is seeking a 11% reduction in the cash price, but that estimate is one of several points of contention between it and TWC. Given the dates and deadlines in various financing orders and deals, TWC said the issue absolutely positively must be resolved in early July - while the presiding judge is out of the country. The parties did not embrace the presiding judge's suggestion of a popular federal court tool: mediation by a fellow sitting judge. So a key outcome of the June 22 hearing is that a different Delaware bankruptcy judge will preside over a July 11 hearing on changing the TWC/Lantern deal. That judge already has held a quickly-scheduled telephonic status conference today, June 25 (see dockets ##1106, 1107).

As an outside observer not privy to the negotiations, I have no idea whether this deal will close. Perhaps due to lack of imagination, I have never understood how a potential purchaser could be deemed the highest and best bid for a company without a basic understanding what contracts and licenses were included. Meanwhile, especially if it was true that some competing bidders could not meet the deadline due to inability to get information from TWC in a timely fashion, significantly changing the deal without resuming some competitive process seems troubling.

No one at the June 22 hearing disputed that general unsecured creditors would be directly affected by TWC's request to change the terms of the sale. But the judge implied some skepticism by asking whether, say, "very secured" creditors have reason to care. The answer depends, it seems to me, on how  "very secured" is determined, due to allocation issues among entities in the TWC corporate family. If there was ever a case to highlight why one should resist the assertion of a single waterfall, it is this one.

 

 

Ohio v. American Express

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court handed down a disastrous antitrust opinion in Ohio v. American Express.  In a 5-4 opinion the Court's conservative majority held that the district court failed to properly define the relevant market because it looked only at the merchant-side of Amex's business, not the also the consumer side.  The case has far-reaching implications for any so-called "two-sided" markets--basically platform markets that connect buyers and sellers.  Justice Breyer wrote a lengthy and very lucid dissent that tries furiously to cabin the scope of the majority's opinion (explicitly arguing that most of it is dicta).

I'm not going to try to parse through the analysis in the case here, but suffice it to say Justice Thomas's opinion reads like the sort of just-so arm-chair law-and-economic analysis that the academy has largely moved beyond. Justice Breyer scores a lot of points in his dissent.  Damningly, he points out some findings of fact by the District Court that the majority simply wouldn't address, most notably that Amex was able to raise prices 20 times over 5 years without losing appreciable market share and that most of the price increases were retained by Amex, not passed through to its cardholders.  Under any market definition, that should be pretty convincing evidence of an exercise of market power. 

There is also a pretty embarrassing factual mistake in Justice Thomas's opinion.  He writes "Visa and MasterCard earn half of their revenue by collecting interest from their cardholders, Amex does not.”  Visa and MasterCard don’t make ANY money from interest. Their issuer banks do, but their issuer banks are not the networks. If the Court can't get this level of factual description right, it doesn't leave me with much confidence in its ability to parse the economics.

I don't think this ruling completely shuts the door on credit card antitrust litigation, but it makes it harder--plaintiffs will have to plead facts about the consumer half of the card market.  Given that only a fraction of interchange fees actually get passed through to consumers in the form of rewards, I think it's still possible for plaintiffs challenging anti-steering rules to make a case—indeed, I don't see what prevents the state plaintiffs in the case from simply repleading their case, as the decision that now stands is simply that they did not prove their case because they didn't prove market power.  There's no double-jeopardy issue in civil suits, and res judicata here only covers the question of market definition. 

File This Under Calling BS on Bankruptcy Fearmongering

posted by Jason Kilborn

As anyone familiar with bankruptcy would have predicted, the dire predictions of disaster for municipalities seeking bankruptcy protection have proven to be ... let's just say exaggerated. Bloomberg is out with a notable story this morning on Jefferson County's healthy return to the bond market, carrying an investment-grade rating of AA-  within five years of emerging from municipal bankruptcy. This squares with similar accounts of consumers rehabilitating their credit within two to four years of a chapter 7 liquidation-and-discharge (see, for example, here and here). Let's all file this in our "lying liars and their bankruptcy impact lies" file and be prepared to continue to counter this, among the many, many other, bankruptcy scare myths to be debunked.

Combatting Fear of Abuse--A Sisyphean Task?

posted by Jason Kilborn

Over the past few weeks, at conferences with judges and policymakers in Varna (Bulgaria), Seoul, and Beijing, I've been confronted with a surprising degree of skepticism about personal insolvency systems and fear of opportunistic individuals abusing the ability to evade their debts (especially while hiding assets). I've pointed out the interesting progression identifiable in Europe in recent years of a marked relaxation of such fear of abuse, especially in places like France and most recently Slovakia, which have gone all the way to adopting a very US-like open-access system to immediate discharge. For the real skeptics--and they are numerous in Bulgaria and China, both of whom are considering adopting their first personal insolvency laws--these arguments seem to fall on more or less deaf ears. Detractors put me in a no-win situation by offering one of two rejoinders: (1) the incidence of discovered abuse is low in these systems because debtors are crafty or anti-abuse institutions are weak, or (2) anti-abuse institutions like the means test and restrictive access hurdles are successfully dissuading abusers from seeking access, so we need more--not less--of this kind of effort (which I've criticized as wasteful, unnecessary, and counterproductive). A common third response is the classic "we're different" position--that is, any comparative empirical evidence from elsewhere is irrelevant to the new, entirely unique context of [insert skeptical country's name here].

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CFPB Enforcement Paralyzed

posted by Patricia A. McCoy

Normally we say that a law is as strong as its enforcement. On February 7, however, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau raised questions about the enduring strength of the consumer financial laws in its third Request for Information under Acting Director Mick Mulvaney. This time, the topic is CFPB enforcement. It is not hard to guess where this third "RFI" is headed, insofar as only two new enforcement orders have been entered under Mr. Mulvaney to date. In contrast, from the CFPB's inception through November 2017 (when Mr. Mulvaney took office), the Bureau brought a total of 200 public enforcement actions.

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Savings Plans and Chapter 13

posted by Mitu Gulati

David Jones, Chief US Bankruptcy Judge of the Southern District of Texas, has just posted a nifty empirical study of the effects of savings plans on the success of Chapter 13 filings. And, yes, part of the cool study is figuring out how to measure what counts as success in a bankruptcy filing.  The study takes advantage of a natural experiment in the Texas courts and has a bunch of fascinating findings, including about the impact of lawyers and legal culture on the choices that end up being made by the subjects of the bankruptcy proceedings.

Part of the reason I know about this study is that David was doing a graduate degree at Duke (in the judicial masters program) and I got to see the project at its inception stage in the thesis workshop that I run with Jack Knight. All of the credit goes to David though (and his wonderful advisor, John de Figueiredo) -- a fact that will be obvious to my fellow slipsters who know that I don't know squat about Chapter 13. But this is a fun study in terms of the design and findings regardless of whether you love Chapter 13 (okay, I realize that everyone else who reads this blog probably does in fact like or love Chapter 13).  It takes a basic fact about the inevitable fluctuations in expenses that almost everyone has to deal with, and tests what happens when these provision is made for these fluctuations ahead of time (versus when it is not).  Savings plans do indeed seem to make a difference; but a bunch of other factors also appear to matter - some of them quite surprising.  Clearly, as David emphasizes at the end of the paper, there is a lot here that is worthy of further investigation (and maybe legislative change).

The abstract for the draft on ssrn (that is forthcoming in the American Bankruptcy Institute's journal) reads:

This paper examines the effects of debtor savings on the viability of chapter 13 bankruptcy plans. The paper further examines the impact of lawyer culture, debtor participation in the bankruptcy process, and judicial activism in the use of the savings program by chapter 13 debtors. Using a data set of randomly selected chapter 13 bankruptcy cases filed in the Southern District of Texas, the analysis demonstrates that while savings has a direct positive impact on the success of chapter 13 plans, the degree of that success is significantly influenced by the views held by debtors' lawyers, chapter 13 trustees, and judges.

 

Dunning at the Drive-Thru

posted by Adam Levitin

The CFPB announced the first new enforcement action since Mulvaneyshchina.  It's a settlement with an installment lender, Security Group, Inc. (d/b/a under a lot of different names) over unfair debt collection practices.  We now know just how badly a firm has to behave to get in trouble with the Mulvaney CFPB:  

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 12.11.41 PM

If I'm reading this correctly, it sounds as if the debt collectors drove up to drive-thru windows at a fast food restaurants where the consumers worked and dunned them through the drive-thru window.  I imagine it went something like this:  "Where my money, ya lousy deadbeat? Oh, and can I have an Extra Value Meal #2 with a large Coke, please?"  

So now we know:  under the Mulvaney CFPB, there's no dunning at the drive-thru.  And debtor's kids seem to be off-limits too, at least the young ones.  It's good to know that there are still some lines that can't be crossed.    

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The Weinstein Co. Chapter 11 Hearing #5

posted by Melissa Jacoby

The fifth hearing in The Weinstein Co. chapter 11 occurred on June 5, 2018. The hearing included discussion about when the sale to Lantern Capital, approved by the court in early May, will actually close. Among other regulatory and transactional hurdles, TWC's lawyers mentioned that it still is not resolved which contracts will be included in the sale, but they hoped the sale would close within the month.

As for matters that resulted in a ruling, I'll briefly mention two.

  1. Sustaining a United States Trustee objection, the court denied the motion for Harvey Weinstein's October 15, 2015 employment contract to be filed under seal, as the standards of 11 U.S.C. § 107 were not satisfied. That contract is now available on the bankruptcy court docket. The document was filed by the Geiss plaintiffs (stemming from alleged sexual misconduct, discussed below) but TWC was the party advocating for sealing.
  2. The court approved the Geiss parties' motion to lift the automatic stay to permit the Geiss action to go forward against TWC, alongside other defendants, in the Southern District of New York, allowing liquidation of those claims. The SDNY district judge presiding over the Geiss action directed the plaintiffs to file the lift-stay motion; hearing transcripts illustrate his aim to minimize duplication of efforts. Part of TWC's argument against lifting the stay was the classic matter of distraction. Applying the relevant case law to the facts, the court observed that while closing the sale was a complicated matter, TWC was neither reorganizing in a traditional sense or seeking to stabilize its operations at this time. And, as in other cases, the distraction argument may be weakened when separate lawyers are handling the non-bankruptcy litigation. Seyfarth Shaw was representing TWC in the Geiss litigation, at least prior to the bankruptcy (leading the firm to successfully seek payment of its prepetition claim out of an insurance policy, over the creditor committee's objection - seek dkt #1000).

Speaking of professionals, initial interim fee applications for TWC's professionals for March 19-April 30, 2018 were not on the June 5 agenda, but are on the court docket. TWC has NY counsel and local counsel. Just to give you a sense, Cravath's fee application includes over 3,200 hours billed by 27 attorneys (dkt #929). Richards, Layton & Finger's fee application includes over 1,200 hours billed by 16 attorneys (dkt #932). Plus paraprofessionals at these two firms. Billing separately, of course, are FTI Consulting (dkt #870) and Moelis, the investment banker (dkt #946).

The next hearing in TWC's bankruptcy is scheduled for June 22, 2018. The SDNY Geiss action, in the motion to dismiss phase, is also very much worth watching.

The Government-by-Grift Mentality

posted by Adam Levitin

Mick Mulvaney's entirely classless and petty firing of the CFPB's Consumer Advisory Board (CAB) has been amply covered elsewhere. Having served on the CAB from 2012-2015, however, I've got to comment on the statement by Mulvaney's henchman that “The outspoken members of the Consumer Advisory Board seem more concerned about protecting their taxpayer funded junkets to Washington, D.C., and being wined and dined by the Bureau than protecting consumers.”

Put aside that this statement is gratuitously offensive to a bunch of hard working folks who volunteer their time and expertise. The "junkets" I enjoyed from my CAB service involved flying coach with numerous connecting flights, staying at the Days Inn, being transported around in busses, attending full-day working meetings held in windowless rooms at community college campuses in small cities around the US, and then paying for my own dinner. But I sure made out with the free coffee, pastry, and box lunch. 

What's remarkable here is that Mulvaney's flunky believes that people serve in government or on advisory boards for the perks and self-enrichment.  In a world of Pruitt's first class flights, mattress, and security detail, Carson's dining room set, and Mnuchin and his Marie Antoinette jaunting off to see the eclipse on a military flight, not to mention the President and his emoluments plus tax-payer-funded vacations at his Mar-a-Lago timeshare, well, it's just natural to assume that's how everyone operates.  It's a new twist on "government for the people."  It's really sad that it doesn't enter the Mulvaney's dude's head that maybe some of us actually act out of true volunteerism and a desire to make the country a better place. 

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