postings by Adam Levitin

3M's Aearo Technologies' Bankruptcy: the Hoosier Hop

posted by Adam Levitin

3M's earphone subsidiary, Aearo Technologies, filed for bankruptcy today in the Southern District of Indiana. This is looking like a really interesting case: it looks like a new generation of the Texas Two-Step strategy. Let's call it the Hoosier Hop. Here's the story.

Continue reading "3M's Aearo Technologies' Bankruptcy: the Hoosier Hop" »

Venmo's Unfair and Abusive Arbitration Opt-Out Provision

posted by Adam Levitin

Venmo's changing the terms of its arbitration agreement, and the manner in which it is doing so is unfair and abusive to consumers. The CFPB and state attorneys general need to take action here to protect consumers.

Here's the story.  Last night I got an email from Venmo entitled "Upcoming Changes to Venmo." Nothing in the email's title (which is all I see on my devices) signals that there is a change in contractual terms, and I would have just deleted it without reading but for seeing consumer finance list-serv traffic light up about it.  So I looked at the email, and in the body it does explain that there are changes to the Venmo arbitration clause. It also tells me that I can opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate "by following the directions in the Venmo User Agreement by June 22, 2022".  The Venmo User Agreement is hyperlinked.  It is a 95 page document. The hyperlink takes me to the very top of the agreement, but the arbitration agreement starts on page 70.  It takes a lot of scrolling to get there, and nothing is particularly prominent about the arbitration agreement's text.

The arbitration agreement itself has a summary at the top that includes a few bullet points, one of which is "Requires you to follow the Opt-Out Procedure to opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate by mailing us a written notice." The term Opt-Out Procedure is a hyperlink to a form that can be printed (but not completed on-line).

What's so ridiculous about requiring a hand-written form to be sent through the mail is that Venmo will surely digitize the form. That means someone's gotta open the mail and do the data entry. Why not have the customer do that himself? Or for that matter, just have a check box on my Venmo account for opting out of the arbitration agreement? The only reason to use the paper form and posts is to make it harder for consumers to opt-out of the arbitration provision.

What Venmo's doing is unfair and abusive and therefore illegal under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. It's perfectly legal for Venmo to have an arbitration clause, and there is no requirement that consumers have a right to opt-out of arbitration, although a change in terms on an existing contract is a bit more complicated. Be that as it may, Venmo is the master of its offer, and by giving consumers a right to opt-out, but raising barriers to the exercise of that right, Venmo is engaging in an unfair or abusive act or practice. Venmo is trying to have its cake and eat it too, but pretending that consumers have a choice about arbitration, but not actually giving them one.

That's "unfair" under the Consumer Financial Protection Act because the practice makes it likely that consumers will lose their right to proceed as part of a class action. That is a substantial injury to consumers in aggregate. The ridiculous opt-out procedure makes this injury "not reasonably avoidable by consumers." The consumer would have to click on no less than two hypertext links, starting with an email the title of which gives no indication what is at stake, and then navigating through a 95 page agreement to find the second link. After that, the consumer must print, fill out, and mail a form. Whatever one thinks of the benefits of arbitration, there's no benefit to consumers or competition from making the opt-out difficult. To my mind, this is a very clearly unfair act or practice. It's also an "abusive" act or practice under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Because the terms of the opt-out make it so difficult for a consumer to actually exercise the opt-out, the terms of the opt-out "take unreasonable advantage of —the inability of the consumer to protect the interests of the consumer in...using a consumer financial product or service."  (One might also even be able to argue that it is a deceptive practice--the opt-out right has been buried in fine print and hypertext links.) 

Both the CFPB and state attorneys general have the ability to enforce the UDAAP provisions of the CFPA against nonbanks like Venmo. I hope the CFPB and state AGs get on Venmo about this. It presents a good opportunity for the Bureau to make clear what it expects in terms of fairness for contract term modification and opt-out rights.

What Happens If a Cryptocurrency Exchange Files for Bankruptcy?

posted by Adam Levitin

Exchanges play a key role in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, but no one seems to have given any consideration to so far is what happens when a cryptocurrency exchange that provides custodial services for its customers ends up in bankruptcy. We’ve never had such a crypto-exchange bankruptcy in the US—Mt. Gox, for example, filed in Japan—but it’s certainly a possibility.  These exchanges are not banks, so they are eligible for Chapter 11 if they have any US assets or incorporation, and they face substantial risks from hacking and their own proprietary trading in extreme volatile assets.

So what happens to a customer if an exchange files for bankruptcy?  I think it ends very badly for the customers, as explained below the break. I do not think customers understand the legal nature of the custodial relationships, and exchanges have no incentive to make the legal treatment clear to customers. In fact, the exchanges are lulling the consumers with language claiming that the consumer "owns" the coins, when in fact the legal treatment is quite likely to be different in bankruptcy. In bankruptcy, it is likely to be treated as a debtor-creditor relationship, not a custodial (bailment) relationship. That means that customers are taking on real credit risk with the exchanges, which is a particular problem because of the opacity of the exchanges and their lack of regulation.

Continue reading "What Happens If a Cryptocurrency Exchange Files for Bankruptcy?" »

The Miscalculations Underlying Miller & Zywicki's Payday Loan Paper

posted by Adam Levitin

Earlier this month Professors Todd Zywicki and Thomas Miller, Jr. wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing against payday loan regulation, based on their new empirical paper. Miller & Zywicki wrote:

Our findings will startle the rule writers at the CFPB. Contrary to the research cited in the CFPB’s 2017 rule, which claimed that “loans are almost always made at the maximum rate permitted,” we found that neither fees paid nor loan amounts inexorably rose to maximum allowable levels when those allowable levels were reasonable.

The implication is that there must be price competition among payday lenders with supply and demand setting prices, vitiating the need for regulation.

The problem is that Miller and Zywicki have incorrectly calculated the maximum fees permitted in numerous states. They wrongly assume that the effective rate charged for the first $100 of credit also applies to higher amounts. In fact, in many states, there is either a tiered, decreasing rate or a rate plus a flat fee included in any loan. As a result, Miller & Zywicki calculate the maximum permitted fees as being substantially higher than they in fact are in every state in which they find lenders are not pricing up to the legal limit.

Once this error is corrected, Miller and Zywicki’s figures actually confirm a truth that has long been obvious to anyone who has ever looked at payday loan pricing: there is no price competition, as lenders virtually always price up to the legal limit.

If my (lengthy) analysis below the break is correct, Professors Miller and Zywicki ought to retract both their op-ed and their paper. This is the sort of error for which op-eds and research papers are properly retracted. While Professors Miller and Zywicki might be opposed to payday regulation on ideological grounds, they surely do not want to base their claims on erroneous calculations of state fee caps.

Continue reading "The Miscalculations Underlying Miller & Zywicki's Payday Loan Paper" »

The Blurring of Tech and Finance

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an op-ed in ProMarkets about how Apple leverages control of the iPhone's NFC chip to push the dominance of its platform into new areas that let it hoover up more consumer data. The NFC (near field communication) chip is what lets the iPhone do contactless payments for ApplePay.  Apple strictly controls access to the NFC chip--it doesn't let AndroidPay use it, for example. But the NFC chip's uses extend beyond payments.  Apple is now using it to let the iPhone operate as a car key and a hotel room key. The catch? If you're a car manufacturer or hotel and you want this cool technology to work with your product, you're going to need to share some of the consumer data with Apple. 

What we're seeing here is an example of the increased blurring between tech companies and financial services companies, tied together by troves of consumer data.  This is a development that ultimately challenges the traditional regulatory boundaries of FTC and CFPB and is going to raise all sorts of issues for antitrust, consumer protection, and data privacy for years to come.

A Better Way to Deal with Student Loan Debt

posted by Adam Levitin

My Georgetown colleague Jake Brooks and I have an op-ed in Politico about the best way to address the student loan debt problem. We argue that existing proposals for outright student debt relief, whether $10k, $50k, or everything, are problematic, at least standing on their own, particularly because they fail to address the student loan problem going forward. Instead, we see income-driven repayment (IDR) plans as a key part of addressing the problem. 

Continue reading "A Better Way to Deal with Student Loan Debt" »

FDIC Power Struggle

posted by Adam Levitin

Remember when there were two dueling claimants for the title of CFPB Director? Well, we're now seeing a repeat of that conflict play out with the FDIC.

The FDIC is governed by a five member board, consisting of the FDIC Chair, a Vice-Chair, the CFPB Director, the Comptroller of the Currency, and at-large director. By statute, no more than three of the board members may be from the same political party. The Chair, Jelena McWilliams, is a Trump appointee. The vice-chair position is vacant. The other three directors are all Democratic appointees. That means that three of the four directors on the board are Democrats, but the chair is a Republican. So who is calling the shots at the FDIC?

The issue just came up because the three Democratic appointees voted to direct the FDIC's Executive Secretary to transmit a Request for Information for publication in the Federal Register (which provides the notice required under administrative law of a proposed action). That vote and instruction only appear in a statement released on the CFPB's website. The FDIC's website (presumably controlled by Chair McWilliams) states that no such action was approved by the FDIC.

What's going on here?

Continue reading "FDIC Power Struggle" »

Non-Debtor Releases

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an op-ed in Bloomberg Law about the abuse of non-debtor releases. Many chapter 11 attorneys argue that non-debtor releases are an essential all-purpose deal lubricant and that the excesses of a few cases—Purdue Pharma, Boy Scouts—shouldn't result in throwing out the baby with the bath water. I disagree. There's no question that non-debtor releases can grease a deal (and let's put aside the questionable practice of attorneys negotiating plans that give them releases as well). But so what? There's also a little thing called due process. It's only within the tunnel vision of chapter 11 that reorganization trumps all. Hopefully the Nondebtor Release Prohibition Act, which passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last month will become law and clarify the matter. 

Indeed, are non-debtor releases actually so important for practice? Chapter 11 lived with them for years before Mansville and even after Mansville it was years before they started being used in non-asbestos cases. Indeed, can anyone actually point to a case where a debtor would have had to liquidate and jobs would have been lost but for non-debtor releases? Perhaps there is such a case, but if so, it's the exception.

Take Purdue Pharma. What would have been the alternative to boughten releases for the Sacklers?  Perhaps a liquidating plan, but I'm not sure that it would have resulted in any job loss, just a going-concern sale. And the estate could have sold its own litigation claims against the Sacklers or put them into a litigation trust. To be sure, one might argue that the boughten releases for the Sacklers are a better deal economically for the estate, and that's the proper measure when considering a settlement of estate claims, but I do not see how the estate—or any bankruptcy judge—can constitutionally impose a settlement of creditors' direct claims against non-debtors. It doesn't comport with due process and it's pretty clearly an uncompensated taking.

I'm sure some readers will disagree, and comments are welcome. Further affiant sayeth not. 

Scholars' Letter in Support of Saule Omarova

posted by Adam Levitin

President Biden has nominated Cornell Law Professor Saule Omarova to be the next Comptroller of the Currency. While the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is not a well-known government agency outside of bank regulation circles, it is among the most important in financial regulation because it is the prudential regulator of national banks—the largest banks in the United States. The OCC is also the primary consumer protection regulator of all national banks with less than $10 billion in net assets, and the Comptroller is a member of the FDIC board. In short, this is a position with substantial influence over the banking industry. 

This week, numerous scholars of financial regulation (including me) sent a letter in support of the nomination to the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Banking Committee. We believe that Professor Omarova would make an outstanding Comptroller, and we hope that she will receive a fair hearing even from those who might disagree with her on policy questions. Professor Omarova is a lawyer's lawyer with impeccable credentials for the job. After completing a PhD and JD, she worked at the leading banking law firm and then in the GWBush Treasury Special Advisor to then Under Secretary Randal Quarles, now the Fed's Vice-Chair for Supervision. Her scholarship is careful, restrained, and masterful, and her co-authors include the top banking attorney in the US.  Not only is Professor Omarova's knowledge of banking regulation unsurpassed within the academy, but she would bring a welcome change to the OCC as the first Comptroller who wasn't a either a banker, bank lawyer, or bank lobbyist when nominated. Her independence is much needed at an agency that has often seen banks as its customers, rather than as its regulatory charges. 

Unfortunately, some of the financial services industry opposition to Professor Omarova has veered into xenophobic and McCarthyite dog whistling based on Professor Omarova having grown up in the former Soviet Union. The hypocrisy in this anti-immigrant prejudice is astounding given the way that the same folks who are claiming that Professor Omarova is suspect because of her childhood in the Soviet Union have celebrated another former Soviet bloc immigrant-turned-bank regulator. The dog-whistling has gotten so bad that in a remarkable press release Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Oh) threw down the gauntlet at the "Red Scare" character assassination coming not just from bank lobbyists, but from the Committee's Ranking Member, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa). 

The banking industry's decision to proceed through dog whistling suggests that it is reluctant to have it out over the substantive policy positions supported by Professor Omarova. But if you want to see a more sober and measured take on Professor Omarova from a law firm with numerous financial services industry clients, see Gibson Dunn's take here. What the law firm's take for its clients—rather than for political theater—suggests is that the sky won't fall with Comptroller Omarova, but that she will take a more skeptical view of bank activities outside of traditional core activity areas. In other words, it won't be business as usual. And that's the banking industry's real concern here. 

Further Thoughts on Coinbase: Two Mysteries

posted by Adam Levitin

I've been puzzling over two mysteries in the Coinbase saga:  first, why does Coinbase care so much if Lend is deemed a security, and second, why did the SEC want the list of Coinbase customers who had signed up in advance for Lend. I don't know that I've got all of this sussed out, but I figure I'll put my thinking out into the Internets and see if others have thoughts.

Continue reading "Further Thoughts on Coinbase: Two Mysteries" »

Coinbase and the SEC

posted by Adam Levitin

"All fintech is regulatory arbitrage, to some degree," Felix Salmon writes at Axios. And he's right. In the last couple of days we've seen two striking examples. First, the CFPB entered into a consent order with the provider of Income Share Agreements, a type of education financing. The consent order makes clear that the CFPB will be treating ISAs as student loans--that is credit--and therefore subject to the Truth in Lending Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

And then we saw crypto-Twitter blow up over Coinbase's spat with the SEC regarding what is a security. Coinbase is the largest crypto exchange in the United States. It wants to offer a cryptocurrency lending product called Lend. According to Coinbase, the SEC told Coinbase that it thinks the product is a security and that it will sue if Coinbase offers the product without first registering it. After Coinbase got a Wells Notice from the SEC, Coinbase got huffy and decided to take its case to Twitter with a thread by it's CEO calling the SEC's behavior "sketchy".

There's a lot of confusion about the Coinbase matter, so I'm going to spell out what the stakes are, how I think the product works, and then why (assuming that I have the product's operation correct) Lend is obviously a security.

Continue reading "Coinbase and the SEC " »

Massachusetts Throws in the Towel with Credit Acceptance Corporation

posted by Adam Levitin

In 2020 the Massachusetts Attorney General brought one of the most significant consumer finance cases in years, a suit against subprime auto lender Credit Acceptance Corporation.  If you haven’t heard of CAC, it’s a one of the largest subprime auto lenders, and its stock has been one of the hottest growth stocks in recent years.  CAC is an indirect lender, meaning that it doesn't make the loan directly to the consumer, but instead purchases the loan from the dealer (who will not make the loan until the purchase is lined up).  

The suit contained a couple of really revolutionary claims, and Massachusetts was initially successfully, winning summary judgment on one count this spring and defeating the motion to dismiss on all challenged counts. The suit recently settled and for a surprisingly low amount and with virtually no meaningful prospective relief. CAC certainly had some possible defenses, but Massachusetts really seemed to be in a strong position, so it's a bit of a head scratcher what happened. 

Continue reading "Massachusetts Throws in the Towel with Credit Acceptance Corporation" »

Now Is the Time for Bankruptcy Venue Reform

posted by Adam Levitin

Judges Joan Feeney and Steven Rhodes and Professor Jay Westbrook and I have an op-ed supporting bankruptcy venue reform running in The Hill. Forum shopping has long been a problem in chapter 11, but with mass tort cases like Purdue and Boy Scouts of America, we're seeing it have effects on an previously unprecedented scale. It's time to do something about for the good of the system. 

Does Purdue Have a 203 N. LaSalle Problem?

posted by Adam Levitin

I was really struck by a line in the Purdue Pharma plan objection of the Distributors, Manufacturers and Pharmacies (DMP). They called the Sacklers mere "out-of-the-money shareholders."  That's 100% accurate. And it has important implications, one of which is in their objection, and one of which is not.  The point the DMP were making is that the release of the Sacklers has no reorganizational benefit to Purdue—it does nothing for Purdue's business.  This isn't like a release of litigation against folks who will remain officers and directors of a reorganized company and will be distracted by on-going litigation.  It's a good point.  But I think there's actually a stronger one. 

If one thinks of the Sacklers as out-of-the-money shareholders, then their release creates a 203 N. LaSalle Street P'Ship problem. 

Continue reading "Does Purdue Have a 203 N. LaSalle Problem? " »

Purdue Continues to Peddle Malarkey About Why It's in White Plains

posted by Adam Levitin

Purdue Pharma continues to peddle some malarkey about why it filed for bankruptcy in White Plains, New York.  In response to my House Judiciary testimony yesterday, Purdue told the Stamford Advocate:

Purdue Pharma Inc., the general partner of Purdue Pharma LP, has been a N.Y. corporation since its incorporation on Oct. 1, 1990. White Plains is about 15 miles from our corporate headquarters and is the closest federal bankruptcy courthouse. Thus it was the most appropriate place for us to file.

Let’s get real. Purdue—and that really means the Sacklers, who were still in control when Purdue's bankruptcy filing strategy was worked out—filed in White Plains because it wanted its case to be heard by Judge Robert Drain. If Judge Michael Wiles—who has held that bankruptcy courts do not have the power to issue third-party releases—had been the judge sitting in White Plains, there’s no chance Purdue would have gone anywhere near White Plains. On top of that, Purdue’s claim about convenience doesn’t pass the smell test. Convenience to corporate headquarters is never a real consideration in bankruptcy filings. If it were, would GM and Chrysler have filed in NY? Would Nieman Marcus or Belk have filed in Houston? Would anybody ever file in Delaware?

Continue reading "Purdue Continues to Peddle Malarkey About Why It's in White Plains" »

Nondischargeability and the Sacklers

posted by Adam Levitin

In the wake of today's House Judiciary Committee hearing, I got a text from an attorney who pointed out that if the Sacklers themselves filed for bankruptcy, creditors could raise non-dischargeability challenges under section 523, including for "willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity" or, or under section 1141(d)(6) for false claims acts violations. But with a non-debtor release, there's no opportunity or process to raise non-dischargeability challenges.

In other words, the Sacklers will be able to get greater a type of relief by piggybacking on Purdue's case that they could if they were debtors themselves.  Bruh. 

If that isn't a strong indication that the Bankruptcy Code does not contemplate non-debtor releases outside of the asbestos context, I'm not sure what is.

Is DOJ Supporting the Purdue Pharma Plan? Or Not?

posted by Adam Levitin

The Department of Justice appears to be mumbling out of both sides of its mouth in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy.  On July 19, DOJ filed a "statement" regarding the release of the Sacklers. Not an "objection," but a statement that sure reads a lot like an objection.  Then today we learn that DOJ did not bother to vote its multi-billion dollar claim. The plan deems a vote not cast to be an acceptance. 

So which one is it?  Is DOJ for the plan or against it?  Or trying to keep its head down and avoid political heat while not really derailing anything?  Whatever position DOJ wants to take, this approach is not exactly a profile in courage.  (And failing to vote is not exactly in keeping with DOJ's brand... And failing to exercise governance rights on a multi-billion dollar asset? Bruh.)

I'll be very curious to see if DOJ actually argues anything at the confirmation hearing or joins in any appeal. The appellate point is key--there's a long-shot chance that the district court or 2nd Circuit might stay the effective date of the plan--but I think the odds of that are close to zero unless DOJ is among the parties making such a motion. If DOJ fails to seek a stay of the plan going into effect, it will be hard to see DOJ's "statement" as anything more than political posturing.

House Judiciary Testimony on Chapter 11 Abuses

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday at a hearing entitled "Confronting Abuses of the Chapter 11 System."  My written testimony can be found here. It touches on six topics:

  1. Non-debtor releases
  2. Judge-picking
  3. Lack of appellate review (especially equitable mootness)
  4. Increased use of sub rosa plans
  5. Increasingly brazen fraudulent transfers
  6. Payday before mayday executive bonuses

By the way, since my draft article on Purdue has been public, I've heard from a number of attorneys, including folks I had not previously known, confirming various insights in the paper and wanting to tell me their own stories.  I have really appreciated that and learned a lot from it.  I have not seen this scale of a reaction to a paper previously. So if you've got your own tale of aggressive restructuring transactions being blessed by a hand-picked judge and then evading appellate review, I'm eager to hear them (and won't attribute them to you). 

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