postings by Jason Kilborn

What to Expect From Justice-To-Be Gorsuch on Bankruptcy

posted by Jason Kilborn

When I heard that the President had nominated 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, I wondered what his bankruptcy-related opinions might tell us about him. Bill Rochelle beat me to it, with his characteristically insightful analysis of a few salient Gorsuch opinions. But I found three more that I thought worth highlighting, as well. A simple takeaway from all of these cases is that Gorsuch is not at all what one might call “debtor-friendly.” In fact, I don’t think one of the dozen-or-so opinions I found ruled in favor of the debtor(s). But a more nuanced takeaway is that Gorsuch is a careful and serious jurist who will apply the letter of the law in tight and cleverly written opinions. At least he should be fairly predictable, a virtue that the person who nominated Judge Gorsuch does not share.

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What's Wrong with the Bankruptcy Courts?

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Judiciary Data and Analysis Office of the Administrative Office of the US Courts has launched a new feature called "Just the Facts," highlighting statistical trends in the US judiciary. Table 2 and Chart 3 of the inaugural report reflect a curious spike in the appellate reversal rate in bankruptcy cases in 2015. While the reversal rate for both ordinary civil cases and bankruptcy cases in the Courts of Appeals had hovered steadily around 10-12% from 2011 to 2014, the reversal rate in bankruptcy cases suddenly shot up to double that, 24% (!), in 2015. It is not entirely clear to me whether this is reversal of the Bankruptcy Courts' rulings or the District Courts' rulings (it may be a bit of both, taking into account direct appeals, etc.), but in either case, whoa! Anyone have any idea what happened here? Why did the appellate courts get so mad at the lower courts in bankruptcy cases all of a sudden the year before last? I wonder if this continued in 2016. Lots of Stern reversals? Something else? Curious.

UPDATE 1/31/17: Bankruptcy statistics guru, Ed Flynn (whose fabulous work you've probably seen in the ABI Journal), helped me to understand that (1) the statistics referenced here (from Tables B-1 and B-5)  are for appeals from District Courts to Courts of Appeals, as BAP cases and District Court bankruptcy appeals are reported elsewhere (Tables BAP-1 and -2 and C-7, none of which indicates the numbers of reversals at these intermediate appeal levels), (2) the 110 merits reversals in 2015 come predominantly from the 11th Circuit and involve mostly one appellant, (3) we can probably now guess who it was and therefore what happened: Bank of America's appeals of wholly underwater second mortgage stripdown in Ch. 7  had to be granted (lower courts reversed) after the Supreme Court reversed the aberrant 11th Circuit position on allowing such stripdowns in Caulkett in mid-2015. Mystery most likely solved. Thanks, Ed!

Marblegate and a Dose of Reality for the Trust Indenture Act

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Second Circuit on Tuesday released its long-awaited opinion on the Trust Indenture Act, Marblegate v. EDMC. Several of us Slipsters have been discussing the case behind the scenes, and others will have (more intelligent) things to say about the opinion than I, but I thought I'd introduce the blockbuster case to get us rolling.

Long story short, the TIA essentially prohibits out-of-court workouts over the objection of any noteholder whose notes (debt securities) are part of the issuance qualified under the TIA. Section 316(b) says "the right of any holder of an indenture security to receive payment ... or to institute suit for the enforcement of any such payment ... shall not be impaired or affected without the consent of such holder." (emphasis added). The case was about what it means to "impair or affect" the "right" to get paid under indentured notes. The creative argument advanced by Marblegate was that lots of activities having nothing to do with changing the notes or their terms can "impair or affect" its right to get paid, and EDMC crossed the line. EDMC had done a creative end-run around the TIA by suffering its secured creditors to foreclose their (undisputed) security interests in all of its assets and then resell those assets to a newly created subsidiary of EDMC, scrubbing the former unsecured claims from those assets and leaving Marblegate and other noteholders with a claim against an empty shell. This was the second option in a Hobson's choice presented to noteholders; the first was to accept a 67% haircut and participate in a global workout with the secured creditors. Nearly 100% of the noteholders chose this option; Marblegate chose to play chicken and see if the courts would allow EDMC and its secured creditors to wipe out Marblegate's practical ability to enforce its claim by leaving an empty shell as the only obligor on Marblegate's unsecured debt after senior secured claimants exercised their superior rights in every scrap of available value. The contractual terms of Marblegate's right to collect were unchanged, but the practical ability of Marblegate to make anything of this right was clearly "impaired and affected," Marblegate argued.

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Recommended Reading: Empire of the Fund

posted by Jason Kilborn

EmpireofthefundimageIt's that time of year again! Time to revisit and perhaps rebalance the investments in your retirement portfolio. While it is a sad fact that many people lack significant retirement savings, it is nonetheless useful for those interested in consumer finance (and investment companies, pensions, etc.) to think about how retirement savings plans work and to be able to offer some advice, for example, to debtors emerging from bankruptcy with their clean slate. William Birdthistle, of Chicago-Kent law school, has recently released Empire of the Fund, a magnificent new work on the most common vehicle that carries individuals' retirement savings in the US: mutual funds.

I have heard that Birdthistle, who teaches across town from me, is legendary in the classroom. Having read his new book, I'm not at all surprised. While his fairly esoteric subject matter made me hesitate to nominate his book in response to Katie's post, Birdthistle has really pulled one off here by managing to make a book about the structure and pitfalls of mutual funds and retirement savings ... extremely entertaining! It is masterfully written, with both erudite references to relevant comments by literary and historical figures, along with laugh-out-loud allusions to modern culture ("OMG! Friends, right! Mutual funds are lame!"). This book is an absolutely brilliant example of how to make a work on an otherwise dry financial subject not only accessible to the general public, but a real pleasure to read. It is no wonder the New York Times calls this "a lively new book."

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Proposed New EU Insolvency Directive

posted by Jason Kilborn

The European Commission has just released its proposal for another Insolvency Directive, finally tackling the very sticky issue of substantive harmonization. I had hoped the Directive would push Member States toward greater harmonization of their consumer insolvency regimes, and I even made some proposals for principles and rules for such a move, but because cross-border lending to individuals for personal consumption remains quite limited in Europe (only about 5% of total household lending), the Commission concluded that "the problem of consumers' over-indebtedness should be tackled first at national level." (p. 15)  Nonetheless, the Commission's explanatory memo heartily endorses applying the principles on discharge in this new Directive (principally, providing a full and automatic discharge after a maximum 3-year process) to all natural persons, both entrepreneurs and consumers.

As to the former, though, the proposed Directive virtually shoves European national insolvency law in the direction of US law--for better or worse. The primary thrust is to encourage a rescue climate through more robust "preventive restructuring frameworks." Read: Chapter 11. The characteristics of such frameworks include leaving the debtor in possession of its assets and affairs, staying enforcement proceedings that might interfere with restructuring negotiations, mandating disclosures for proposed restructuring plans, facilitating plan adoption by creditors in classes, including a cram-down option and an explicit absolute priority rule (pp. 30, 38, not mentioning a new value corollary ... though not using the troublesome phrase "on account of its claim" in the definition of the absolute priority rule), and protecting new (DIP) financing. The importance of institutions is highlighted, with mandates concerning the expertise and training of judges, administrators, and practitioners. A few Credit Slips contributors in particular might be interested in the Commission's comment that "It is important to gather reliable data on the performance of restructuring, insolvency and discharge procedures in order to monitor the implementation and application of this Directive." The proposal thus includes detailed rules on data to be collected using standardized templates for easy comparison of empirical results across countries.

My sense is that this proposal will face some substantial political opposition, but the Commission has an impressive track record on getting its proposals adopted by the Parliament and Council. If and when this thing is adopted, I'm sure European authorities will have no trouble finding US restructuring professionals eager to volunteer to visit Europe to provide the type of training to judges, administrators, and practitioners mandated by this Directive. Put my name on the list!

Slow start for personal bankruptcy in Russia

posted by Jason Kilborn

After focusing on the substance of personal bankruptcy laws around the world for years, I'm now convinced that I should instead have been focusing on institutions and procedure. Reports of the first year of the Russian personal bankruptcy process convince me further. In a paper anticipating the new law, I predicted potential process hangups, but I badly underestimated the degree to which procedural complications would waste time and resources and undermine the system's new effectiveness. I plan to look more closely at this in the future, but for now, one statistic reported in the press tells it all: In the first full year of the new Russian law's effectiveness, of the 33,000 individual bankruptcy petitions filed, only about 15,000 have been admitted into the procedure, and of these, only about 500 have been fully processed. Debtors' errors in filling out the new paperwork doubtless contributed to this slow start, but I suspect the courts are just not embracing the new process yet, and admitted cases are being drowned in a swamp of pointless procedural formalities. A simplified procedure for these individual cases is being discussed already, but why couldn't this lesson have been learned at the outset? There is simply no need in the personal bankruptcy context for complex procedures designed for high-asset business cases. Decades of experience elsewhere have proven this time and again. And once again we see, as Margaret Howard observed in one of my favorite articles years ago, lighthouse still no good.

New Emirates Personal Bankruptcy Law to Exclude Consumers

posted by Jason Kilborn

The government of the United Arab Emirates has announced that it is working on a personal insolvency law (to accompany an imminently forthcoming business restructuring law). That's the good news. The bad news is that the personal insolvency law is to be designed exclusively for the benefit of small business people and others (shareholders, directors, employees?) with debt distress related to business. As a news report incisively observes: "So while an owner of a small business whose company cheque bounces because of lost business will receive protection under the new law, an individual whose rent cheque bounced because of short-term cash flow problems, will not."

This is a disappointing and short-sighted approach. While small business absolutely contributes to the economy and warrants insolvency relief legislation, so do consumers with non-business debt. I am afraid this discrimination between business and non-business debt in insolvency legislation will be a trend in the developing world. This will set back efforts to revitalize non-fossil fuel sectors of the economy, and it will entrench great human suffering. Sad.

Harmonizing Consumer Insolvency Law

posted by Jason Kilborn

HarmonyIn contrast to the cacophony created by Brexit, EU authorities have been working for several years on a project to move toward greater harmony among the discordant insolvency laws of the Member States. Though the project is focused on business rescue and restructuring, the Commission Recommendation "on a new approach to business failure and insolvency" makes specific reference to non-business cases, as well, as "Member States are invited to explore the possibility of applying these recommendations also to consumers" (para. 15).

A fantastic conference at Brunel University London this May explored the question whether there was a need for comprehensive EU intervention in the historically national-law arena of consumer debt relief. The conference presented several instructional vignettes on the varying situations in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Greece, as well as some reflections on the very limited degree of EU involvement in ensuring "fair" consumer credit markets as a supposed bulwark against overindebtedness. The presentations at the conference vividly illustrated the weakness of this supply-side-only approach, as well as the extreme divergence among exisiting European personal insolvency relief regimes. A fascinating book published in connection with this conference's greater project nicely illustrates the messy state of overindebtedness regulation in the EU today.

All of which has me thinking about a topic that recurs in the academic debate in the US from time to time:

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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

Further Debate About Debt Collection Reform and Credit Availability

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Center for Responsible Lending has produced a nice, new empirical paper reflecting on and refuting the notion that certain debt collection reforms restrict the flow of consumer credit. The analysis is careful and impressive, and the natural laboratory experiment they found is fun and intriguing. In a nutshell, North Carolina in 2009 and Maryland in 2012 imposed new restrictions on debt buyers suing consumer debtors on purchased accounts (both states now require actual documentation of the debts and their ownership to support such suits). On cue, in the period leading to these reforms, the credit lobby predicted gloom and doom in terms of restricted access to credit, especially to sub-prime borrowers, if such liberal nanny-laws were adopted. Several years later, the CRL decided to look back and test this. Comparing the change in the number and dollar volume of new credit lines in North Carolina and Maryland in the two years before and after each of the reforms (coincidentally, periods of general economic contraction and recovery, respectively), and comparing these differences with comparable data for selected peer states and the nation as a whole, did the reforms seem to have a noticeable effect of reduced access to credit in these states?  The simple answer, of course, is no (i.e., less contraction in North Carolina than elsewhere during a recession, and more expansion in Maryland than elsewhere during recovery). The more nuanced answer means the debate will rage on.

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Tribune Co. Creditors' Fraudulent Conveyance Claims Preempted by 546(e) ... or Not Reverted?

posted by Jason Kilborn

After a delay of nearly 15 months, the Second Circuit this past Friday finally released its opinion in the Tribune Co. Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation. Briefly, the case concerned attempts by creditors to claw back payments to former shareholders in the Tribune Company's ill-fated LBO, which led to its 2008 bankruptcy. The theory of recovery was that buyout payments to former shareholders were made for less than reasonably equivalent value (to the company) while the company was insolvent (or thus rendered insolvent), so contemporaneous creditors could sue the former shareholders for return of the value they received as constructively fraudulent transfers. While the bankruptcy trustee (in this case, the Creditors Committee, by delegation) had the power to pursue these claims (under section 544(b)), it chose not to, most likely because section 546(e) prohibited it from doing so. But when the two-year statute of limitations for pursuing those actions passed, the claims supposedly reverted to the individual creditors (more on this below), who took up those claims with the explicit permission of the bankruptcy court. Fast-forward to last week ... I am not surprised that the Second Circuit stuck to its historically broad construction of the "settlement payment" safe harbor in section 546(e) and held that state law fraudulent conveyance actions by creditors are barred by that provision just as a similar action by a "trustee" would be. More interesting, in my view, is the "why are we even talking about this" discussion of whether those creditors had any right to be pursuing those claims in the first place.

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Lessons for Puerto Rico from ... Arkansas?

posted by Jason Kilborn

I did not realize that a US state had defaulted on its bonds, offering a historical comparative example of the difficulties facing Puerto Rico, its creditors, and mostly its citizens if the mess there is not subjected to an orderly, judicially supervised debt cleanup process of some kind. In a new working paper from the Cleveland Fed, O. Emre Ergungor tells the interesting story of the Depression-era default by Arkansas on various road construction bonds and its messy and politically charged path to a workout. A couple of apparent lessons are troubling. First, reaffirming the aphorism that $#!@ rolls downhill, most of the pain was suffered by Arkansas citizens and ordinary creditors, with bondholders pulling every available lever to ensure a soft landing for themselves. Ergungor sums up this lesson nicely: "in the absence of a dedicated judicial process for preserving the governmental functions of a state in debt renegotiations, sovereignty offers meager protections for the interests of the general public." Second, in a prophetic warning about bailouts, Ergungor describes the intervention of the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide liquidity for a refinancing of the workout bonds years later. As one would expect, a Chicago Tribune article took the feds to task for helping Arkansas in this way, insisting that the RFC chief "ought to be willing to to do as much for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and all the rest of the states." I know Illinois would surely appreciate some federal support for its current behemoth pension burden. If the Executive intervenes in the Puerto Rico situation today, will we see another Tribune article like the one that criticized selective federal intervention for Arkansas? Does it matter that, technically, it is Puerto Rico's sub-units that are in distress, not the Territory itself? I struggle to understand even what all the issues are in the Puerto Rico debate, but Ergungor's paper helps me to put at least the financial problems in some useful context.

Truthiness, Or the Shenanigans of Executoriness

posted by Jason Kilborn

For the first time in nearly two decades of wrestling with section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code, I feel like I really understand the practical problems with the notion of "executoriness," as well as a constructive way forward. This enlightenment arrived via a great new paper by Jay Westbrook and his former student, Kelsi Stayart (who passed the July bar and was admitted in November--yay!), entitled "The Abolition of Dysfunctional Contracts in Bankruptcy Reorganizations." This paper lays out with razor sharpness the problems that courts have encountered with using "executoriness" as a gateway to applying section 365 to important contracts like options, IP licenses, LLC operating agreements, and non-compete covenants. The ABI's Chapter 11 Reform Commission does not come out of this looking very good, at least in its appraisal of the case law on executory contracts. The only well-settled rule, as Westbrook and Stayart reveal, is that "executoriness functions only as a saboteur." The argument is persuasive, the analysis of the current (sad, chaotic, and frequently contradictory) state of affairs is lucid and entertaining, and the proposed solution (refocusing on state law and hard policy compromises) is compelling. This paper is a must-read for professors preparing to teach a class on section 365 in the coming weeks, as well as for the ABI Commission members, who seem to have really dropped the ball on this one.

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