Alex Jones, Chapter 7, and the Means Test

posted by Jason Kilborn

I'm embarrassed to have fallen into an analytical trap that yet again reveals the absurdity of the means test. When I saw that Alex Jones was converting his personal Chapter 11 case to Chapter 7 liquidation, I wondered, "how in the world could Alex Jones pass the means test?!" Well, a quick look at section 707(b) reminded me that some pigs are more equal than others: the means test applies only to debtors "whose debts are primarily consumer debts." The $1.5 billion defamation debt obliterates the means test ... because of course Alex Jones's personal bankruptcy case is not an abuse of the system (!). Further evidence in support of the thesis of Melissa's new book, it seems.

Long-run (positive) effects of personal debt relief

posted by Jason Kilborn

Empirical papers on the long-run effects of a personal bankruptcy relief system (i.e., discharge) are rare, so this fascinating new paper caught my eye. The first personal insolvency discharge system in continental Europe appeared in Denmark in 1984, and this paper takes advantage of that long lifespan to mine some rather unique data. The results are unsurprising but very useful in the ongoing debate about the salutary effects of such procedures: "debt relief leads to a large increase in earned income, employment, assets, real estate, secured debt, home ownership, and wealth that persists for more than 25 years after a court ruling." So the benefits of debt relief are not only substantial but robust, as debtors learn their lesson (if there was one to learn) about managing their finances, and they capitalize (literally) on their fresh start. Perhaps most important, the cause of these effects seems to be largely the desired result of any personal discharge system--getting debtors out from under the debilitating thumb of hopelessly unserviceable creditor demands and reactivating them as engaged workers and taxpayers: "The net transition of workers into employment accounts for two thirds of the increase in earned income." Great contribution to the literature on personal insolvency and well worth a read.

Second Time as Farce: the Absurdity of the New Anti-CFPB Arguments

posted by Adam Levitin

Karl Marx's famously quipped how historical figures appear twice, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." So too with the legal arguments about the constitutionality of the CFPB's funding: we are firmly in farce territory at this point. 

Nevertheless, over at Ballard Spahr's Consumer Finance Monitor blog my friend Alan Kaplinsky doesn't seem to get the joke and has earnestly taken issue with my criticisms of Hal Scott's claim that the CFPB's funding is unauthorized both by statute and under the Constitution. I find the legal arguments involved here so thin that I wouldn't bother with a second blog post about them, other than that they've found a welcoming audience from some members of Congress (yes, I can hear the remarks from the peanut gallery...).  So let's go through this again.

Continue reading "Second Time as Farce: the Absurdity of the New Anti-CFPB Arguments" »

Unjust Debts -- A New Book from Melissa Jacoby

posted by Bob Lawless

Today is the publication date for Unjust Debts: How Our Bankruptcy System Makes America More Unequal from University of North Carolina law professor and Slipster, Melissa Jacoby. This book will be the talk of the bankruptcy community. Be the first in your firm or organization to have a copy. The book is available on Amazon or (better yet) Bookshop.org. 

Bankruptcy touches most every aspect of modern-day financial life. Professor Jacoby questions whether bankruptcy works as an effective second chance for everyday Americans while documenting the many ways the system allows powerful individuals and corporations to escape commitments. As such, she shows how the bankruptcy system contributes to inequality. For those who work in the bankruptcy system, her thesis may be controversial. For those who are not immersed in that system, the book will be eye opening.

SCOTUS National Bank Act Preemption Ruling

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court issued an important ruling about the National Bank Act's preemption standard today that precludes broad, categorical preemption of state consumer financial laws, but instead requires a fact-specific analysis.This decision opens the way to more expansive state consumer financial regulation that affects banks.

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NIL and Bankruptcy

posted by Adam Levitin

Bankruptcy lawyers are familiar enough with issues presented but NOLs. And NILs (name, image, likeness rights) have existed for as long as the modern Bankruptcy Code. But those rights have usually come up in the context of debtors with established, valuable brands (e.g., Mike Tyson). Now college atheletes can enter into NIL deals, and for many of them the value isn't yet established and there might not even be licensing deals yet. That situation poses the question of to what extent unlicensed NIL rights are property of the bankruptcy estate, and not of the debtor?

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CFPB Bitter-Enderism

posted by Adam Levitin

Retired Harvard Law Professor Hal Scott has a curious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that despite (or because) of the Supreme Court's recent ruling in CFPB v. CFSA that the CFPB's funding is both unauthorized by statute and unconstitutional on account of the Federal Reserve System running a deficit currently (and projected through 2027).

It's a bizarre and incorrect argument, and were it coming from anyone other than Scott it could be dismissed as harmless and uninformed flibflab, but Scott is a personage with serious financial regulatory credentials, who is very tied in to the upper crust of anti-financial regulatory circles, such that one has to wonder if this is a trial balloon for a U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Bank Policy Institute-supported challenge. 

In any event, let me quickly explain why Scott is wrong on both the statutory and constitutional arguments.

Continue reading "CFPB Bitter-Enderism" »

Further Thoughts on CFPB v. CFSA

posted by Adam Levitin

I have some further thoughts on the CFPB v. CFSA decision on Bloomberg Law: decision not only benefits consumers but ultimately benefits many financial services businesses by ensuring both a level of stability in regulation and the preservation of the "legal infrastructure" that the CFPB has created over the past 13 years, such as safe harbors, inflation adjustments, and advisory opinions. 

 

Not All Third-Party Releases Are the Same

posted by Adam Levitin

My friend Professor Tony Casey has been the most vocal academic defender of non-consensual non-debtor releases in bankruptcy. I obviously disagree with Tony on both the legality and policy substance, but Tony's repeatedly taken me to task in scholarship (here and here) and various social media platforms (here and here) for having supposedly changed my view of the issue.

Tony's charge that I've flip-flopped is based on a 2019 blog post in which I defended then presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren's work in Dow Corning, which Tony thinks is a non-consensual non-debtor release case. 

Unfortunately, Tony's misread Dow Corning and therefore sees a contradiction where none exists.  I have never taken issue with consensual releases of creditors' claims against non-debtors as part of a global settlement (although what constitutes adequate consent is a separate issue). Instead, my concern has always been with mandatory, non-consensual release of claims against non-debtors. Dow Corning released third-parties, but it was not a non-consensual release case. Unlike in, say, Purdue Pharma, where the non-debtor releases purport to bind all creditors irrespective of consent, the dissenters in Dow Corning were allowed to opt-out and pursue their remedies.

Continue reading "Not All Third-Party Releases Are the Same" »

CFPB v. CFSA Analysis

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the CFPB's funding mechanism in its 7-2 decision in CFPB v. CFSA. Although I can't say I love the opinion's reasoning, the Court got to the right result, as Patricia McCoy and I urged in an amicus brief. The ruling does have some interesting omissions and politics, but its ultimately impact will be the normalization of the CFPB, something that's good for consumers and businesses alike.

Continue reading "CFPB v. CFSA Analysis" »

FTX Bankruptcy Plan: What's with the "Consensus" Interest Rate?

posted by Adam Levitin

The FTX bankruptcy plan proposed today has gotten a lot of attention for the fact that it is promising to pay (over time) 118% of allowed customer claims. That's not quite as great as it sounds given that customer claims were locked in at their November 2022 values. Getting 118% isn't nearly as good as getting 300% (roughly the appreciation of Bitcoin since November 2022), but it's a heckuva lot better than getting the typical "cents on the dollar" bankruptcy treatment.

But there is something here that could be controversial:  the payment of post-petition interest on customer claims at a 9% "Consensus Rate." (The 118% is with two years of 9% interest.)

Continue reading "FTX Bankruptcy Plan: What's with the "Consensus" Interest Rate? " »

The Judgment Holder Problem in Sovereign Debt Workouts

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Some time ago, Mitu and I had an exchange (here are parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) about judgments and collective action clauses (CACs). The question was this: Assume that a bondholder “rushes in” to court (in Steven Bodzin’s apt phrase) and gets a judgment before its fellow bondholders can vote, pursuant to the CAC, to restructure the debt. Does the “rush in” creditor escape the restructuring? The subtext was and remains Venezuela, where a number of bondholders already have obtained judgments. As Mitu put it:

For the better part of two decades the hopes and dreams of the official sector for an orderly sovereign debt workout mechanism … have resided, pretty much exclusively, in the widespread use of collective action clauses (CACs) … A concern, all through this period, however, has been that clever holdouts will figure out some loophole to bypass the CACs.

In theory, rushing in to court could be that loophole. I doubt it is a big loophole, or one that is likely to be used with any frequency. But the possibility has concerned official sector actors. And in fact, several bondholders have proceeded to judgment against Venezuela, and one has tried to do the same against Sri Lanka. This worried the U.S. government enough to submit a fairly extraordinary brief asking the court to stay the lawsuit in deference to Sri Lanka’s restructuring negotiations.

My colleague Andy Hessick and I just posted a new paper, The Judgment-Holder Problem in Sovereign Debt Workouts, which uses a Venezuelan debt restructuring as an example in thinking through this topic. The abstract is below the jump, but our primary argument goes something like this:

  • Existing analyses focus on the legal doctrine of merger and bar. They ask whether the bond “merges into” a court’s judgment and posit that, if it does, bondholders are not bound by a restructuring concluded through the CAC.
  • This is not a helpful way to think about the problem. The doctrine of merger and bar (better understood as claim preclusion) is largely irrelevant. Instead, one needs to ask two separate questions, both of which have clear answers.
  • First, does a modification vote conducted pursuant to the CAC also modify a previously-entered judgment of a federal court? The answer is clear: No. A judgment creditor may enforce the judgment even if this allows it to recover more than the issuer is obliged to pay restructuring participants.
  • However, question one isn’t as important as it seems. Question two is more important: Can restructuring participants modify the bond to impair a judgment creditor’s ability to enforce a judgment? Despite some legal uncertainties, which we discuss in the paper, we think they can, and we explain why.

tl;dr – A bondholder who cannot block a restructuring vote and races to obtain a court judgment can rest assured that the judgment will remain intact despite the restructuring vote. Whether it will be able to enforce the judgment is another matter entirely.

Abstract below:

Continue reading "The Judgment Holder Problem in Sovereign Debt Workouts" »

The Texas Three-Step

posted by Adam Levitin

Johnson & Johnson is preparing to take a third crack at addressing its toxic talc liabilities through bankruptcy in what we might call a "Texas Three-Step". And as with J&J's previous attempts, this one has some pretty glaring issues.Yet because of J&J's ability to forum shop and even picks its judge, it will likely be able to sidestep adjudication of many of the issues and avoid appellate review entirely. Instead, J&J's strategy is going to be to ram a seriously deficient plan through with the assistance of its hand-picked judge and then avoid appellate review through the equitable mootness doctrine. It's a strategy that might work. And if it does, it is a sign that the bankruptcy system is seriously broken.

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The New Usury: The Ability-to-Repay Revolution in Consumer Finance

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new article out in the George Washington Law Review, entitled The New Usury: The Ability-to-Repay Revolution in Consumer Finance. The abstract is below:

American consumer credit regulation is in the midst of a doctrinal revolution. Usury laws, for centuries the mainstay of consumer credit regulation, have been repealed, preempted, or otherwise undermined. At the same time, changes in the structure of the consumer credit marketplace have weakened the traditional alignment of lender and borrower interests. As a result, lenders cannot be relied upon to avoid making excessively risky loans out of their own self-interest.

Two new doctrinal approaches have emerged piecemeal to fill the regulatory gap created by the erosion of usury laws and lenders’ self-interested restraint: a revived unconscionability doctrine and ability-to-repay requirements. Some courts have held loan contracts unconscionable based on excessive price terms, even if the loan does not violate the applicable usury law. Separately, for many types of credit products, lenders are now required to evaluate the borrower’s repayment capacity and to lend only within such capacity. The nature of these ability-to-repay requirements varies considerably, however, by product and jurisdiction. This Article terms these doctrinal developments collectively as the “New Usury.”

The New Usury represents a shift from traditional usury law’s bright-line rules to fuzzier standards like unconscionability and ability-to-repay. Although there are benefits to this approach, it has developed in a fragmented and haphazard manner. Drawing on the lessons from the New Usury, this Article calls for a more comprehensive and coherent approach to consumer credit price regulation through a federal ability-to-repay requirement for all consumer credit products coupled with product-specific regulatory safe harbors, a combination that offers the best balance of functional consumer protection and business certainty.

 

Stuffing the Chapter 11 Ballot Box with "Junk" Claims

posted by Adam Levitin

A recent, disturbing, and truly scandalous development in Chapter 11 mass tort cases is the phenomenon of debtors trying to stuff the ballot box with "junk" claims, that is claims that should by all lights be disallowed as unenforceable and therefore ineligible to vote on a plan. Debtors have recognized that they can strategically co-opt part of the mass tort bar to push through plans:  debtors offer small payments to claims that ought to be disallowed (and thus to the attorneys representing those claims on contingency fee) in order to get those claimants to vote in favor of a plan that forces a low-ball payment on the legitimate tort claimants. While debtors have to pay a bit for the "junk" claims' votes, they come out ahead in the end because by flooding the electorate with the junk claims, they can overwhelm the voting power of the legitimate claims and stick the legitimate claimants with a much lower payment than otherwise.  

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Student Loan Forgiveness

posted by Adam Levitin
Sometimes it’s helpful to read media stories on separate topics against each other because of the disconnects they underscore. That’s been on my mind today with federal student loan debt.

Continue reading "Student Loan Forgiveness" »

Predictably Reliable

posted by Adam Levitin

Law360 has a nice Q&A with Chief Judge Michael Kaplan of the New Jersey bankruptcy court. The interviewer rightly asked Judge Kaplan why New Jersey has recently become a Chapter 11 filing destination. Judge Kaplan's answer is telling:  

What do filers look for? They look for predictability, and we have a body of work that you can look at to get a sense, whether it be third-party releases, whether it be bidding procedures, whether it be outlook on examiners or mediation. I believe we have really gained exposure, probably initially with the LTL Management case. Not my work on that case as much as our clerk's office, our chambers, how we can handle a deluge of filings and the multiple committees and the scheduling.

Judge Kaplan is partially right here. Filers are absolutely looking for predictability. But that's only half of the story. They are looking for a venue that is predictably favorable. If you're shopping around for third-party releases, you aren't going to file in the 5th Circuit, where you can predictably not get one. As I've explained at length, the predictability trope that is sometimes used to defend venue shopping is really about predictability giving the debtor the outcomes it wants on major issues: appointment of an examiner, third-party releases, retention of right to investigate avoidance actions, etc.  And with LTL Management, particularly with his denial of the motion to dismiss in LTL 1.0 and then reluctant granting of the motion to dismiss in LTL 2.0, Judge Kaplan made clear the sort of reception large debtor firms could expect in Trenton.  One might even say it's predictable. 

Securitization Trusts Are Subject to the Consumer Financial Protection Act

posted by Adam Levitin

The CFPB won a significant case this week that could shake things up in the securitization world. In CFPB v. National Collegiate Master Student Loan Trust, the 3d Circuit held that a securitization trust is a "covered person," for the purposes of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, putting it within the enforcement ambit of the CFPB.  While securitization trusts themselves are basically passive holding entities for loans, they contract with third-parties (servicers) to manage the loans. That contracting was enough for the Third Circuit to find that the trusts are "engaged" in "extending credit or servicing loans," and language in the opinion suggests that merely holding the loans would be sufficient. The opinion means that securitization trusts—and therefore securitization investors—face the possibility of liability for servicer wrong-doing.

The Proposed Credit Card Interchange Settlement

posted by Adam Levitin

The Bleak House of Cards Litigation over credit card interchange fees still isn't ending, but it's hit an interesting inflection point. We're nearly two decades into the case and over a decade from the original proposed settlement. Now there's a proposed injunctive relief class settlement. The settlement's headline figure is $30 billion in savings, but on closer inspection, it's a farcically weak settlement. Credit card interchange fees after the settlement will be 25% higher than when the litigation began. That sort of result is what's called litigation failure.

Continue reading "The Proposed Credit Card Interchange Settlement" »

About 44% of Chapter 11s are Subchapter V Cases

posted by Bob Lawless

As many readers will know, Congress created subchapter V to streamline the chapter 11 process and to make it work better for small businesses. It became effective in March 2020, just as the pandemic hit, and was available to businesses with less than $2,500,000 in debts. Congress raised the debt limit to $7,500,000 to make it available to more businesses, and that higher debt limit will sunset on June 21, 2024, unless Congress acts. By all accounts, subchapter V is working as designed, helping small-business owners to continue their businesses. Both the National Bankruptcy Conference and the American Bankruptcy Institute's Task Force on Subchapter V have recommended that Congress make the $7,500,000 debt cap permanent. 

How much does it matter? How many chapter 11 filers use subchapter V? The answer to those questions is more difficult than it should be.  The readily available bankruptcy statistics from the U.S. Courts do not report subchapter V cases, although they should. To answer those questions, I downloaded the integrated bankruptcy petition database from the Federal Judicial Center, which contains every bankruptcy petition filed.

And the answer is . . . in 2023, forty-five percent of chapter 11 debtors used subchapter V. That was 1,854 of the 4,121 chapter 11 cases in 2023. Unfortunately, the database does not have the subchapter V variable for years before 2023. Well it does, but the variable is not reliable for years before 2023. The rest of the post, "below the fold," explains the rest of my math.

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A Trump Bankruptcy:  Further Thoughts

posted by Adam Levitin

A lot of the debtor-creditor relationship can be characterized by creditors threatening to push debtors out the window and debtors threatening to jump.  Ted Janger reminded me of this defenestration dynamic today regarding the Trump civil fraud judgment.  In my previous post, my assumption had been that the New York Attorney General’s goal was to foreclose on some of Trump’s marquee properties, but Ted suggested that the goal might simply be to trigger cross-default clauses, compounding Trump’s liquidity problems and forcing him into bankruptcy. In other words, bankruptcy might be the goal of the New York Attorney General, rather than a defensive strategy for Trump.  “I’ll jump,” “No, I’ll push.” 

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A Trump Bankruptcy?

posted by Adam Levitin

Will Donald Trump file for bankruptcy? It's certainly a possibility as Trump struggles to come up with a supersedeas bond for staying the NY Attorney General's civil fraud judgment against him while he takes an appeal.

I don’t know the strength of Trump’s possible arguments for an appeal, but the legal arguments might be beside the point. If Trump wins the election, the entire dynamic of the litigation changes. Is the New York Attorney General really going to enforce a judgment against the President-elect, particularly one who is likely to be vengeful once in office? Maybe, given that we will likely be facing an period of extended lawfare, but the calculus for enforcement or settlement shifts in Trump’s favor if he wins election. That means that Trump’s best move might be trying to run the clock until Election Day:  7 months and 17 days.  And maybe not even that long. The optics of pursuing the collection on the eve of the bankruptcy will make it look very political and might generate sympathy for Trump. So Trump might only need to run the clock, say, 6 months. That’s where bankruptcy comes in.

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