On Friday November 7, 2014, Judge Rhodes confirmed the City of Detroit's plan of adjustment. As previously noted, this judicial act permits the release of debt and clears the way for the City to forge ahead, but the future of Detroit is in the hands of many others. Although a fuller written decision is expected, the court's oral ruling already hints strongly at new bankruptcy doctrine. Two examples: unfair discrimination and professional fees.
The trial on the City of Detroit's restructuring takes a hiatus while insurer Syncora and others try to finalize a settlement. The deal seems to be a hybrid of enhanced treatment for Syncora's class of claims in Detroit's plan (class 9) and other value for Syncora alone, such as rights in Detroit property, and possibly a release from insurance obligations on interest rate swaps. The deal does not resolve class 9 objections as a whole. Indeed, it may give others in the class, e.g., insurer FGIC, more to grumble about. Signals are flashing that the judges (intentionally plural) overseeing Detroit's bankruptcy want a full class 9 settlement and want it now. At the end of Wednesday's bankruptcy court hearing, Judge Rhodes requested an off-the-record conference with representatives from FGIC and the City. Yesterday, the lead facilitative mediator entered a bring-your-toothbrush order; it requires mediation participation "continuing day-to-day thereafter as deemed necessary, until released by the mediators." (document 7419)
But what about plaintiffs alleging civil rights violations/constitutional torts who had section 1983 actions pending before the bankruptcy? Or plaintiffs holding state law tort claims, or rejected contract claims? In a municipal bankruptcy pitched as a battle between workers, Wall Street, and residents, it can be easy to overlook other kinds of unsecured creditors.
Let's get literal about the judicial role at this juncture. There's no way over the finish line without a determination by the bankruptcy court that the City has met its burden of showing its plan satisfies all legal requirements by a preponderance of the evidence.
This standard includes the City showing that the plan is not likely to fail. Back in January 2014, as the parties negotiated the plan's initial version, Judge Rhodes called for restraint in creditor demands, modesty in City promises:
Now is not the time for defiant swagger or for dismissive pound-the-table, take-it-or-leave-it proposals that are nothing but a one-way ticket to Chapter 18 ... . If the plan ... promises more to creditors than the city can reasonably be expected to pay, it will fail, and history will judge each and everyone of us accordingly.
--Jan 22, 2014, afternoon session
Detroit's plan includes revitalization investments, and does so not merely to show how it will service its debt. That scope takes the court into a farther-reaching review. And the judge appointed his own feasibility expert, and is planning to conduct the direct examination of the expert himself. Such factors further fuel the image of a judge as gatekeeper of Detroit's future.
Yet, no bankruptcy judge should be saddled with the full weight of longstanding socio-economic and geographic challenges. Historian Thomas Sugrue teaches us that the roots of Detroit's crisis run quite deep. Deeper than the recent past of corruption in the Kilpatrick administration, or dependence on casino revenues, interest rate swaps on certificates of participation, or questions about thirteenth checks. Even before the height of worries about auto industry competition abroad, or the enactment of Michigan constitution language on pensions. By Sugrue's account, Detroit's economic decline started in the 1940s and 1950s with hemorrhaging (his word) of good jobs and capital. For the spiral downward from there, the book is here, the speech, 19 minutes into the video, there. Repair depends on collaborative work: many tools, many hands. How to engage all communities in the effort to conquer longstanding racial tensions and segregation, achieve regional cooperation, expand jobs that offer more security and opportunity than downtown coffee shops and sports stadiums? ("Downtown does not trickle down," said Sugrue at a Wayne State conference earlier this year; explanation here). Again, many tools, many hands.
Although these challenges illustrate how the judge's plan confirmation role operates within a much broader framework of actors, judges also can shape a municipality's restructuring and future throughout the bankruptcy process, in more informal ways. In Detroit's case, Judge Rhodes planted the seeds of oversight and influence in the earliest days of the bankruptcy. He drew on tools and techniques used decades earlier in other kinds of complex litigation, including prison reform and school desegregation cases. See here, here, here, and here.
Among the most consequential moves was delegating to Chief District Judge Rosen the authority to mediate nearly every substantive issue in the case. Detroit heads into the confirmation hearing with many settlements in its pocket - with financial creditors as well as workers and retirees. Most discussed is the pension/art settlement (a.k.a. Grand Bargain) that looks the least like a conventional mediated settlement. Chief Judge Rosen has suggested the deal could be a model for other distressed cities. On harnessing the power of the non-profit sector, maybe so. On a sitting life-tenured judge being the designer, broker, and closer of this type of deal, not so much. However socially desirable the content of the Grand Bargain may be (and that debate will rage on), the costs and risks of this procedural model are simply too great.
So, as the last phase of the historic Detroit bankruptcy commences, the question of judicial responsibility and influence must be put in context. The role of federal judges in shaping Detroit's future has been overstated in some ways, understated in others. Trials matter. But if they capture too much of our attention, we will miss other important things.
Puzzle picture courtesy of Shutterstock
Former Virginia Congressman M. Caldwell Butler died last week. He is widely known for his role in the Nixon impeachment proceedings, his efforts to limit extensions of the Voting Rights Act, and his support for ensuring legal representation for low-income individuals. But Congressman Butler is also a major figure in the history of bankruptcy law. He was a principal co-sponsor of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 that serves as the foundation of the modern bankruptcy system. Professor and lawyer Kenneth N. Klee worked closely with Congressman Butler on the House Judiciary Committee in the 1970s. I asked Professor Klee to share a few words of remembrance with us, which I repeat in their entirety here:
I first met M. Caldwell Butler in 1975 when he became the Ranking Minority Member of the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Judiciary Committee. Caldwell was most interested in the Voting Rights Act legislation and finding a way for the South to get out from under the Act. In his view, Washington was improperly interfering with the sovereignty of the southern states based on predicate acts that had long since ceased to serve as a basis for federal control. He asked me to draft a series of amendments that would permit the South to extricate itself from the Voting Rights Act. The requirements to regain sovereignty were quite demanding, to the point that the amendments became known as the "impossible bailout." Nevertheless, the amendments did not come close to passing. It was evident that there were no circumstances under which the majority in Congress wanted to let the southern states out from the Voting Rights Act.
Caldwell assumed his responsibilities over bankruptcy legislation with diligence and good cheer. His fabulous sense of humor carried us through many long markup sessions during which the members of the Subcommittee read the bankruptcy legislation line by line. He had a sharp legal mind and deep curiosity. He also was very practical and to the point. He was fond of telling me "don't give me so much that you've given me nothing."
It was a privilege and honor to work with him. The bankruptcy community should join in paying him tribute.
-- Ken Klee
Congressman Butler made another round of contributions to bankruptcy reform in the 1990s. The fact that they are not all reflected in today's Bankruptcy Code makes this story more pressing, not less. Well over a decade after he had returned to the practice of law in Virginia, Congressman Butler was appointed to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, for which I was a staff attorney. Expressing satisfaction with the 1978 Code, the House Judiciary Committee directed this Bankruptcy Commission to focus, for two years, on "reviewing, improving, and updating the Code in ways which do not disturb the fundamental tenets of current law." Not one to leave the heavy lifting to others, even in a pro bono post, Congressman Butler stepped up to the challenge of forging a compromise, among those with diverging politics and views, to improve the consumer bankruptcy system.
To what extent does secured credit law protect creditors from the consequences of mistaken actions made on their behalf? I wrote about this issue in March 2013. As discussed in that post, the bankruptcy court issued both a decision on the merits and a certification for a direct appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
The 2nd Circuit has now certified the following question to the Delaware Supreme Court:
Under UCC Article 9, as adopted into Delaware law by Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, art. 9, for a UCC-3 termination statement to effectively extinguish the perfected nature of a UCC-1 financing statement, is it enough that the secured lender review and knowingly approve for filing a UCC-3 purporting to extinguish the perfected security interest, or must the secured lender intend to terminate the particular security interest that is listed on the UCC-3?
The 2nd Circuit decision is here. (The date of oral argument on the cover page should say March 2014, not March 2013).
File folder photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Until a few days ago, it looked like Detroit's chapter 9 plan confirmation would come and go untouched by appellate process. In February 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted seven petitions for direct appeal of the bankruptcy court's eligibility decision, which included the finding that public pension claims could be impaired in chapter 9 bankruptcy. But the Sixth Circuit did not act on the request for expedited consideration. Somewhat remarkably, it agreed to do what the bankruptcy court had requested in its certification memo: consult with the bankruptcy court's lead mediator to consider the impact of the appeal's timing on negotiations. According to the bankruptcy court, "the interests of the City, its residents and its creditors are better served by adjusting the pace of the legal process, including the appeals, to meet the needs of the mediation process." (p. 14) Don't know for sure, but it seems plausible that the lead mediator preferred deferral of the appeal until after plan confirmation; doing otherwise might throw a wrench in implementation of plan settlements he oversaw - especially the Grand Bargain, for which he has pressed for many months. Because the eligibility decision included the finding that public pensions could be impaired in bankruptcy, the Sixth Circuit docket has swelled in the meantime to include many amici appearances and briefs, including from CalPERS, the Illinois Public Pension Fund Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and AARP.
A host of appeals from other bankruptcy court orders in Detroit's bankruptcy also are pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In at least several - and possibly all, as I haven't yet checked each and every one - the district judge sua sponte stayed the matter until the Sixth Circuit decided the eligibility appeal.
This week, the Sixth Circuit shattered the blockade on appeals from Detroit's bankruptcy.
6/30 UPDATE: here's the amended complaint.
The fast-moving legislation's title does not include the word bankruptcy. Materials distributed by the Puerto Rico government explain, though, that the bill is meant to provide chapter 9-like relief to Puerto Rico public corporations through one of two paths - one more prepack-like than the other. Calling the effort "dazzling," Cate Long notes, "[s]eldom have financial markets seen such an elegantly choreographed approach to haircutting sovereign debt."
However elegant, investors say the bill violates multiple provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Quiz yourself, or directly check out the action just filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico seeking a declaratory judgment. H/T Cate Long.
Puerto Rico flag courtesy of Shutterstock
Senator Harkin's discussion draft of the Higher Education Affordability Act (described here) is expected to include a provision restoring bankruptcy relief from private for-profit student loans. A few years ago, I offered justifications for that move here. Prof. Scott Pryor agrees.
But wait, there's more. S.2471, The Medical Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2014, introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, co-sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren. Section 6 would offer relief from student loans for some bankruptcy filers. Take a look.
Abstract image courtesy of Shutterstock
A little like the ship that Fitzcarraldo (and Werner Herzog) pushed, hoisted, and willed up up up and over a mountain, Detroit's Grand Bargain continues to defy expectations and make forward progress. A significant step today: A big press conference as Governor Snyder signed the necessary bills. Watch here.
The Detroit Retired City Employees Association produced the button in the picture (photo courtesy of Matt Helms of the Detroit Free Press). Shirley Lightsey, President of the association, produced the slogans: You Can't Eat Principles, and Uncertainty Doesn't Pay the Bills. Of the speakers at the press conference today who advocated for the Grand Bargain, Ms Lightsey was the most persuasive.
And practical too. Some retirees are skeptical, but it is hard to imagine retirees will do financially better by voting no or abstaining and hoping for an appellate court victory on the Michigan Constitution questions.
Voting is not, though, the last hurdle for the Grand Bargain - a point lost in the shuffle of the bill-signing press conference.
The City of Detroit has proposed a three-hour bus tour of the City to start its chapter 9 plan confirmation hearing. Some creditors object. The City's motion says "[i]f any case ever warranted a Site Visit, this one does." I don't agree, for reasons explored below, but in any event, the eligibility trial would have been a more logical place for it. And even Gilligan and the Skipper too couldn't cover 139 square miles in three hours. So what is going on here?
A step back. In the earliest days of my bankruptcy court clerkship, the United States Trustee sought to dismiss or convert the chapter 11 of a small nonprofit on the south side of Chicago. The debtor and the U.S. Trustee parties presented starkly contrasting depictions of this debtor - I remember the dueling photographs - with neither more obviously credible than the other. The case, like most in the bankruptcy court, had a starkly human element: the debtor was a rehabilitation center of sorts. The U.S. Trustee essentially was alleging that the residents lived in deplorable conditions, and the debtor strongly disagreed. To resolve the discrete factual dispute between two parties about the property's condition, Judge Ginsberg decided to schedule a time to leave the modernist skysraping box that was the Dirksen Federal Courthouse and visit the premises, in a van, with law clerk, court reporter, and others in tow. No easy way to verify - the name of the case is lost to me now - but my strong recollection is that the site visit idea prompted no objections. The case cratered for an unrelated reason, mooting the trip. No other case during my clerkship prompted Judge Ginsberg to make a similar proposal.
Over the years, I have learned of other judges' experiences with site visits, revealing similar characteristics: cases with limited parties in interest, specific factual disagreement, the resolution of which could be accomplished efficiently by visiting circumscribed sites.
Yesterday's Is. It. Legal. provoked some comments and questions. Some quick replies above the line, so to speak.
Q: Is it clear that this is going to be a cramdown plan?
Multiple groups of creditors have not settled with the City (e.g., those with financial interests in certificates of participation, water and sewer bonds, LTGO, a few police and fire groups). Non-settling claimants are actively challenging plan confirmation from top to bottom, including whether Detroit's current plan passes muster under the standards applicable to nonconsensual plans. Those who hold or insure COPs are most relevant to yesterday's comments on unfair discrimination. In addition to offering little payment, the City has challenged the COPs' validity altogether. Will all of that get settled? Stranger things have happened in the history of bankruptcy and municipal finance law. But I would guess that result would necessitate some sharing in the Grand Bargain premium.
Q: If it is not a cramdown, then all of the unfair discrimination and absolute priority issues are moot.
I disagree. The strength of the cramdown-related arguments contribute to the leverage of the parties to compromise and settle.
In a week bustling with municipal finance activity (e.g., conclusion of the Stockton confirmation hearing), the Michigan Senate rather easily passed legislation to contribute money to Detroit's restructuring, earmarked for pension claims and permanent insulation of the City-owned art museum against the City's creditors. The bankruptcy is not fully resolved yet, of course. For one thing, creditor voting is not complete, and some pension claimants must be resolicited because of errors in ballots. Assuming that the requisite votes materialize, the City has the burden to prove that its plan of adjustment meets all requirements of the Bankruptcy Code by a preponderance of the evidence. Due to a series of document production delays on the City side, the trial will likely be postponed by at least a few weeks.
Since I last wrote about Detroit, the City filed an omnibus reply to plan objections (doc #5034). Exceeding 250 pages, brief it is not. But the City had much ground to cover, and the end pages are a very useful chart breaking down who made which objections. Several assertions I found troubling relate to whether the plan unfairly discriminates in favor of pension claimants who benefit from the Grand Bargain premium and against dissenting classes of creditors who do not.
Credit Slips readers, please note the publication of a new book edited by Marion Crain and Michael Sherraden. The New America Foundation is hosting an event on the book tomorrow, Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at 12:15 EST. Not in Washington, D.C.? The event will be webcast live.
The book project developed out of a stimulating multi-disciplinary conference at Washington University in St. Louis. Participants had great interest in considering how bankruptcy scholarship fits within the larger universe of research on financial insecurity and inequality. My chapter with Mirya Holman synthesizes the literature on medical problems among bankruptcy filers and presents new results from the 2007 Consumer Bankruptcy Project on coping mechanisms for medical bills, looking more closely at the one in four respondents who reported accepting a payment plan from a medical provider. Not surprisingly, these filers are far more likely than most others to bring identifiable medical debt, and therefore their medical providers, into their bankruptcy cases. We examine how payment plan users employ strategies - including but not limited to fringe and informal borrowing - to manage financial distress before resorting to bankruptcy, and (quite briefly) speculate on the future of medical-related financial distress in an Affordable Care Act world.
...but first, a new (and short!) article: Please download here a just-published piece on the first months of Detroit's bankruptcy, resulting from a fall 2013 Fordham symposium. It reflects efforts to follow public parts of Detroit's chapter 9 through recordings of court hearings and monitoring the docket. And although largely descriptive, the piece sets the stage for unpacking the institutional and functional roles played by the federal court in municipal bankruptcies and beyond. The court's early management and oversight choices (discussed on Credit Slips here & here & here & here) can be tied quite directly to this bankruptcy's development - most notably through the appointment of Chief District Judge Rosen as lead mediator. Without Chief Judge Rosen, would the Grand Bargain exist?
As family, friends, and colleagues mourn the passing of the Leonard Rosen, the fitting tribute by Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz allows a glimpse into his exceptional contributions:
But above all, Leonard was a good man. A generous man. A kind man. A man you could trust with your most difficult problems and deepest concerns, a superb partner who represented, and will always represent, all we strive to be as lawyers, citizens, and human beings. He was much sought after for his judgment, as well as for his marvelous ability to resolve disputes and reconcile disparate views. He shaped the culture of our Firm. He was the glue that cemented a group of hard-working and talented attorneys into a leading law firm that has served as a model for other firms. He was not only admired and respected by his colleagues; he was beloved.
When the American College of Bankruptcy named Leonard Rosen as its Distinguished Service Award recipient in 2003, Harvey Miller's remarks included these words:
Throughout his professional career and his personal life, Len has exhibited enormous talent, intellectual honesty, intelligence, objectivity, personal dignity and an infectious good will – qualities that have enabled him to calm stormy waters and allow competing parties to reconcile their differences and resolve their disputes. His ability to diffuse conflict is legendary. . . . During the 43 years that I have known Len, I have never heard anyone utter a bad word about him. . . . Len truly is a man for all seasons.
Leonard Rosen's speech that weekend in 2003 concluded with a call to duty:
Justice Earl Warren has been quoted as saying, “Law floats in a sea of ethics.” We all have social and ethical responsibilities as professionals to help protect important economic and social interests in our society, including the public trust that is essential to the functioning of our capital markets. We need to be a part of the debate that shapes the necessary solutions — leaving our clients and our own self-interest at the door — so that we can play a most persuasive and important role in the battle to restore confidence in our economic system.
Deepest condolences to the Rosen family. And may we all strive harder to live up to Leonard Rosen's example.
The paper was just posted here. Its authors are Elizabeth Gibson and Jonathan Landers, and it was written for the National Bankruptcy Conference. A key sentence from the abstract: "The paper contends that the Court’s analysis in [Commodity Futures Trading Commission v.] Schor supports the constitutionality of bankruptcy court adjudication of private rights with the parties’ consent, notwithstanding the decision of three federal circuits to the contrary." The paper also discusses consequences for the bankruptcy system, magistrate system, and the workload of district courts in the event that the Supreme Court rejects the consent route. All in an efficient seventeen-page package.
Paper image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Credit Slips is pleased to have had the following persons join us as continuing blog authors in the past or as guest bloggers for a week. Their contributions have added new perspectives and ideas to this site, and we thank them for their participation.
PAST REGULAR CONTRIBUTORS
GUEST & OCCASIONAL CONTRIBUTORS
By "Liking" us on Facebook, you will receive excerpts of our posts in your Facebook news feed. (If you change your mind, you can undo it later.) Note that this is different than "Liking" our Facebook page, although a "Like" in either place will get you Credit Slips post on your Facebook news feed.