postings by Bob Lawless

How Many People Have Filed Bankruptcy?

posted by Bob Lawless

The past few days I had been wondering exactly how many persons in the U.S. have filed bankruptcy. By that, I don't mean how many filed last week, last month, or last year. Rather, how many persons walking around the U.S. have ever filed a bankruptcy case? My estimate is around 10% or 33 million persons. Here is the math.

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Chapter 11 Filings in May Are Not Up as Much as Everybody Will Say There Are

posted by Bob Lawless

Prediction: you will begin to see stories about an explosion of chapter 11 filings in May 2020. Well, that is not much of a prediction because I already have seen two. Chapter 11 filings did not explode in May.

A few weeks ago, I posted about the huge drop in overall bankruptcy filings and what looks like a modest rise in chapter 11 filings. I did not want to venture more because chapter 11 filings are hard to count. Every petition filed by every subsidiary in a corporate group gets counted as a case, and the number of subsidiaries in a corporate group is arbitrary. Thus, one economic unit can generate what looks like many bankruptcy filings.

Continue reading "Chapter 11 Filings in May Are Not Up as Much as Everybody Will Say There Are " »

Total Bankruptcy Filings Remain Low, Chapter 11s Not So Much

posted by Bob Lawless

(Updated and corrected, 5/22). An earlier post noted that bankruptcy filings were down substantially over 50% the first two weeks of April. As the American Bankruptcy Institute reported, bankruptcy filings declined by 46% over the entire month and on a year-over-year basis. I wondered whether the expected increase in bankruptcy filings had begun, and the answer appears to be "not yet."

Using PACER docket searches, I get the following filing numbers for the past six weeks. The decline in filings for the first two weeks of May was roughly the same as the last two weeks of April. There were the same number of business days in all these time periods so the numbers should be comparable:

Total Bankruptcy Filings
  2019 2020 change
April 1 - April 15 33,017 16,097 -51.2%
April 16 - April 30 38,289 22,347 -41.6%
May 1 - May 15 31,958 18,578 -41.8%

Continue reading "Total Bankruptcy Filings Remain Low, Chapter 11s Not So Much" »

Letter from 163 Bankruptcy Judges Backs Venue Reform

posted by Bob Lawless

Support seems to keep building even more for changes to where large corporate debtors can file chapter 11. The latest is a letter from "163 sitting, recalled, or retired United States Bankruptcy Judges." From the letter:

The venue selection options for bankruptcy cases under current law have led to forum shopping abuses that have disenfranchised local employees, creditors, and parties in interest from participation in bankruptcy cases, undermined public confidence in the integrity of the United States Courts and the bankruptcy process, inhibited the development of uniform, national bankruptcy jurisprudence, and led to inefficient allocation of judicial resources. 

The judges join forty-two state attorneys general who signed a February letter supporting similar changes. The House bill (H.R. 4421) now has fifteen co-sponsors, which I believe is more than any venue reform bill has had. With all of that support, my views don't matter much, but I agree too

Like I wrote before, there have been lots of efforts at venue reform, but this time feels different.

A Coming Consumer Bankruptcy Tsunami, Wave, or Ripple?

posted by Bob Lawless

With the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about a coming surge of consumer bankruptcy filings. In the very short-term, however, bankruptcy filing numbers are down. According to data from Epiq Systems, daily bankruptcy filings declined 18.4% in March 2020 on a year-over-year basis. March 2020 filings were 62,847 as compared to 73,521 in March 2019 but were spread out over one more business day (and hence had an even lower daily filing rate).

The downward trend appears to have continued in April. I say "appear to" because the numbers are down so much that I wonder whether my computations are accurate. Immediate national bankruptcy filing numbers are hard to assemble. Using docket searches on Bloomberg Law that produced all of the bankruptcy cases filed on particular dates, I got the following national bankruptcy filing counts in 2020 as compared to 2019

  2019 2020 decline
last seven days of March 21,656 15,096 -30.3%
first seven days of April 14,886 7,432 -50.1%
second seven days of April 15,602 7,225 -53.7%

If anyone has better data or can confirm these numbers, please leave a comment. Even if these numbers are not spot on, I am confident enough to say there have been big drops in consumer bankruptcy filings the first two weeks in April.

Continue reading "A Coming Consumer Bankruptcy Tsunami, Wave, or Ripple?" »

Model Standstill/Tolling Agreement

posted by Bob Lawless

The Business Law Section of the American Bar Association has posted a model standstill/tolling agreement drafted by Jonathan Lipson and Norm Powell. Business relationships will undoubtedly strain as the crisis means more parties are not able to fulfill their side of a deal. Often, an aggrieved party will have to enforce their rights lest they lose these rights by not taking action. A "standstill/tolling agreement" removes that pressure and preserves the status quo. In Lipson and Powell's words, the goal is to allow parties "to produce an acceptable, temporary workout that obviates the need for litigation and, ideally, preserves a productive economic relationship."

They have made the model agreement publicly available, recognizing that not every business will be able to retain counsel. The agreement is available with annotations to explain its provisions as well as a clean version that parties can use by filling in the blanks. As Lipson and Powell also stress, the model agreement is not intended as a substitute for legal advice and parties should consider retaining legal counsel when possible.

The Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 and COVID-19

posted by Bob Lawless

Professor Ted Janger of Brooklyn Law School sent me a proposal for a small change to the Bankruptcy Code that might significantly help small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. His idea merits consideration. In Ted’s words:

Obviously, it is too early to tell how all of this will play out, but the U.S. bankruptcy system will inevitably play an important role in whether small businesses hurt by COVID-19 ultimately survive. Chapter 11 was built to help sound businesses that experience a sudden shock, but it is often too cumbersome for even medium-sized businesses. In a law that took effect in February, Congress made it easier for small businesses to benefit from chapter 11. That law is only available, however, to businesses with less than $2.7 million in debt. It will, therefore, apply to only 42% of the businesses that file. In the wake of COVID-19, Congress should raise the debt ceiling to $10 million to help more small businesses and soften the inevitable fallout that will come from COVID-19 related business disruptions.

Continue reading "The Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 and COVID-19" »

David Lander Is Back!

posted by Bob Lawless

Welcome to occasional guest blogger, David Lander, currently a professor of practice at Saint Louis University School of Law. In addition to his current and past academic postings, David has practiced consumer bankruptcy law with legal services organizations as well as business bankruptcy law at the Greensfelder Law Firm. Long-time readers will know that this mix of experience gives David a perspective that few others have. Welcome back, David!

Bankruptcy Filing Rate Remains Flat

posted by Bob Lawless

Annual Filings Oct 2019Every month I see stories about the bankruptcy rate moving up and down. The truth is that the U.S. bankruptcy filing rate has remained flat over about the past four years.

The table to the right shows the total number of bankruptcy filings, consumer and business, using data from Epiq. For 2019, the figure is an estimate. For each of the past two years, 85.3% of the yearly bankruptcy filings had occurred by October 31. Extrapolating from the 648,000 bankruptcy filings through October 31 of this year, the total number of bankruptcy filings by year end will be about 760,000. That is not much different than the 767,000 in 2017 or the 755,000 in 2018.

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Call for Papers -- 2020 Boulder Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making

posted by Bob Lawless

The inimitable John Lynch emailed to let me know that the call for papers is open for the 2020 Boulder Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making, to be held from May 17-19, 2020. Much more information, including how to submit an abstract for consideration, appears on their web site.

If you are interested in the sort of content we have at Credit Slips, this conference is for you. Several of the Credit Slips bloggers, including myself, have presented at the conference. The papers and discussions are high quality. The setting at the St. Julien Hotel is fantastic. And, after a day of conference discussions or when the conference is over, you are in Boulder, Colorado, in the spring. If you have a paper that fits, I highly recommend submitting.

A Drafting Error in Small Business Reorganization Act?

posted by Bob Lawless

Is there a drafting error in the Small Business Reorganization Act? The other day I posted my estimate that 42% of chapter 11's would qualify, but my sharp-eyed colleague, Ralph Brubaker, noticed something wonky (in all senses of the word) in the new definition of a "small business debtor." (He also tells me that the next issue of the always-excellent Bankruptcy Law Letter will provide an in-depth look at the new law.)

Specifically, the problem is in the exclusionary clause. After defining a small-business debtor as a debtor with less than $2,725,625 in debts, at least 50% of which arose from business activities, the definition then excludes (among other things):

(ii) any debtor that is a corporation subject to the reporting requirements under section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (15 U.S.C. 78m, 78o(d)); or
(iii) any corporation that—

(I) is subject to the reporting requirements under section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (15 U.S.C. 78m, 78o(d)); and
(II) is an affiliate of a debtor.

Clause (iii)(I) excludes the same thing as subparagraph (ii) with only slightly different words. Obviously, an extra condition in clause (iii)(II) does not make paragraph (iii) exclude anything that clause (ii) does not already exclude.

Read literally, the definition would allow a small subsidiary of a public-traded company to take advantage of the new small-business debtor rules. The ABI Commission to Study the Reform of Chapter 11 recommended they be excluded. My guess is that the drafters of the new law intended to exclude them, but the language used did not quite get the job done. Is there a reason for this language that I have missed? If not, it would seem to be a prime candidate for a technical correction fix.

How Many New Small Business Chapter 11s?

posted by Bob Lawless

The Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 adds a new subchapter V to chapter 11 for small businesses. The new subchapter gives small businesses the option of choosing a more streamlined -- and hence cheaper and quicker -- procedure than they would find in a regular chapter 11. Perhaps most significantly, the absolute priority rule, which requires creditors to be paid in full before owners retain their interests, does not apply. For those interested in more detail, the Bradley law firm has a good blog post summarizing the key points of the new law, which takes effect in February 2020 (and if I have the math correct -- February 19 to be exact).

A point of discussion has been how many cases will qualify to be a small-business chapter 11. Using the Federal Judicial Center's Integrated Bankruptcy Petition Database, my calculation is that around 42% of cases filed since October 1, 2007, would have qualified. The rest of this post will explain how I came to that estimate as well as discuss year-to-year variations and chapter 11 filings by individuals.

Continue reading "How Many New Small Business Chapter 11s?" »

The Fifth Circuit Finds a Way to Make It Even Harder to Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy

posted by Bob Lawless

On Tuesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released an opinion that, if anything, makes it even more difficult to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. Writing for a three-judge panel in a case called In re Thomas, Judge Edith Jones reaffirmed the court's commitment to the existing case law and added yet another judicial gloss to the words of the statute. The opinion was a missed opportunity to return to a reasonable standard that allows debtors to discharge student debt in appropriate cases while still protecting the public fisc.

The debtor was over 60 years old, part of the trend of older filers in bankruptcy court. She had taken out $7,000 in student loans for two semesters of community college. Within a year after leaving community college, the debtor developed diabetic neuropathy, which left her unable to work at any job that required standing for any period of time. The debtor had to leave a retail job, a restaurant job, and a job at UPS. She lost a previous job at a call center after it was acquired by another company who then fired her within three months for wearing headphone and listening to music during her lunch break, a determination that probably not so coincidentally meant the debt was ineligible for unemployment insurance.

Continue reading "The Fifth Circuit Finds a Way to Make It Even Harder to Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy" »

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