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Puerto Rican Debt and Force Majeure

posted by Mitu Gulati

Among other things, the Coronavirus and the near global shutdown, has gotten contracting parties scrambling to read their force majeure clauses.  But what about if the parties in question didn’t explicitly contract for an “act of god” clause that covered unexpected pandemics? The question, as we’ve discussed on this blog before, would become one of whether such a clause was implicit in the contract (here).  That, in turn, will in part be a function of the contract’s governing law (here).  Puerto Rico, already mired in a debt crisis, is going to need even more relief now.  Question is: Does the fact that its debt contracts are almost all governed by local Puerto Rican civil law embed a source of temporary relief for it?

My casual impression is that the leading common law jurisdictions for contract law, such as New York and England, would be reluctant to find an implied force majeure term in contracts among sophisticated parties.  By contrast, civil law jurisdictions such as France, the Netherlands and Spain, sometimes have such a clause baked into the civil law and also appear more willing to find such a provision implicit (for discussions of the common law v. civil law approaches, see these memos from White & Case and Cleary Gottlieb memos, here and here).

Particularly intriguing in the context of a sovereign or quasi sovereign debt, is the possibility that an implication of the civil law jurisdiction in question having force majeure as part of the civil code means that the relevant government can, through legislation, make it clear that a particular event (Coronavirus) satisfies the conditions for force majeure (here).  China has apparently done just that, even issuing force majeure certificates in some cases (here and here).

A reason I’ve been thinking about implied force majeure clauses is that my seminar with Guy Charles has been discussing Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.  (Two of our recent guests to the seminar were David Skeel and Sam Erman, both of whom had fascinating papers on the topic of Puerto Rico).  Puerto Rico is, unlike most of the US,  a civil law jurisdiction.  Better still, almost all of its debt is under local Puerto Rican law (now, in the case of anything redone under PROMESA, with an overlay of that federal law). 

One has to concede up front that the Puerto Rican debt crisis is not the product of some exogenous event such as a hurricane or the coronavirus.  But surely everyone would agree that the virus has the potential to push Puerto Rico (back) over the financial brink, just as its seems to be getting back its sea legs (see here). And, so the question is, does Puerto Rico, as part of the implicit terms of any debt contract made locally, have the right to temporary relief from having to perform as a result of the enormous economic slowdown that the virus is already causing.  I haven’t been able to track down anything specific in the Puerto Rican civil code, but the Puerto Rican code has its origins in the Spanish civil code. And the Spanish code has force majeure baked in (for discussions, see here and here).

Hmmm . . . Some years ago, a wonderful group of students did find some promising avenues for Puerto Rican debt relief buried deep in its civil code (here).

*Note (in response to the first few email comments - that I'm most grateful for):  The question of what precise law the new agreements are governed by is thorny.  Best I can tell, it seems to be PROMESA and, to the extent not inconsistent with PROMESA, Puerto Rican law. But what in the world does that mean with respect to what we care about: force majeure for pandemics such as coronavirus?  I don't think there is any federal contract law on that matter; and, if so, that strikes me as pointing to Puerto Rican local law, which in turn might point us to the Spanish civil code. But maybe there is an argument there about how federal law has something to say about force majeure in the context of a pandemic that is escaping me. The actual language of the new governing law clauses is fascinating if you are as obsessed with governing law provisions as Mark W and I have been as of late.  John Coyle of UNC is the leading scholar of governing law clauses in the whole wide world (see here). And he is a contracts guru as well.  Maybe I can get him to opine.  I will try to do so and report back.

Comments

Puerto Rico is reorganizing their debt under federal statute, as all US state and local entities must, so it is irrelevent what local PR law says. Congress expressly preempted it via Promesa.

Secondly PR has made a remarkable economic recovery and is likely in line to have additional substantial US pharma and medtech located there as President Trump and Congress force the supply chain back to America. Pharma and medtech have been a backbone of PR's economy for 60+ years.

Anyone interested in the PR bankruptcy can follow the case here: https://cases.primeclerk.com/puertorico/Home-DocketInfo

And here is the law Congress enacted to govern the process: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5278/text

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