postings by Adam Levitin

Mick Mulvaney's South Carolina Land Shenanigans All Under Seal

posted by Adam Levitin

Last year the Washington Post covered Mick Mulvaney's South Carolina land deal gone sour. It was a pretty amazing case that is fantastic for teaching purposes. Mick's moves would have made some of the most sophisticated distressed debt funds (not to mention a real estate developer president) blush with shame (or green with envy).

I've got an update on the case that appears quite troubling: it seems that the South Carolina court has put everything except the docket entry list under seal, including previously public available documents. If I am correct, this is really disturbing because would indicate a willingness by the South Carolina court system to accommodate Mick's desire to shield keep his business dealings from any public scrutiny, even though there is no legitimate reason that I can see for the court to turn seal all the documents in a public judicial proceeding about a commercial real estate foreclosure action. 

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"Middle Class Faux"?

posted by Adam Levitin

I did some digging into Joe Biden's previously unexplored roll call vote on floor amendments to BAPCPA. They were ugly then and have not improved with age. My full take is in The American Prospect

Elizabeth Warren's Work in the CMC Heartland Case

posted by Adam Levitin

Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy work continues to be in the news, now with a Washington Post article on her work in the CMC Heartland case. Unfortunately, the Washington Post completely misses the point about why Elizabeth decided to work on this case. Let me correct the record about Elizabeth’s (very limited) role in the CMC Heartland case.

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Trump Administration Declares Open Season on Consumers for Subprime Lenders

posted by Adam Levitin
The Trump administration has just proposed a rule that declares open season on consumers for subprime lenders. The Office of Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (on whose board the CFPB Director serves) have released parallel proposed rulemakings that will effectively allowing subprime consumer lending that is not subject to any interest rate regulation, including by unlicensed lenders.

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The Rigged Game of Private Equity

posted by Adam Levitin
The Stop Wall Street Looting Act introduced by Senator Warren has the private equity industry's hackles up. They're going to get a chance to say their piece at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. The bill is a well-developed, major piece of legislation that takes a comprehensive belt-suspenders-and-elastic waist band to limit private equity abuses: it's got provisions on private equity firm liability for their portfolio company obligations, limitations on immediate looting capital distributions, protections for workers and consumers in bankruptcy, protections for investors in private equity funds, and of course a reform of private equity's favorable tax treatment. The bill shows that Senator Warren truly has the number of the private equity industry.
 
In this post I want to address the provision in the bill that seems to truly scare parts of the private equity industry: a targeted curtailment of limited liability for the general partners of private equity funds and their control persons. This provision terrifies some private equity firms because it requires private equity to put its money where its mouth is. The provision is essentially a challenge to private equity firms to show that they can make money off of the management expertise they claim, rather than by playing rigged game with loaded dice. 
 
Private equity claims to make money by buying bloated public companies, putting them on diets to make them lean and mean, and then selling the spiffed up company back to the public. The whole conceit is that private equity can recognize bloated firms and then has the management expertise to make them trim and competitive. If true, that's great. But as things currently stand, it's near impossible for a private equity general partner—that is the private equity firms themselves like Bain and KKR—to lose money, even if they have zero management expertise. That's because they're playing a rigged game. The game is rigged because there is a structural risk-reward imbalance in private equity investment. That's what the limited liability curtailment in the Stop Wall Street Looting Act corrects. Here's how the private equity game is rigged:  

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Private Equity’s Chicken Little Dance

posted by Adam Levitin
The private equity industry is lashing out at Senator Warren’s Stop Wall Street Looting Act with some pretty outlandish claims that rise to Chicken Little level. According to an analysis by the US Chamber of Commerce's Center for Capital Market Competitiveness, the bill will result in the $3.4 trillion of investment provided through private equity over the past five years entirely disappearing from the economy, along with as much as 15% of the jobs in the US economy disappearing.    
 
I cannot sufficiently underscore how laughably amateurish this claim is. I’ve seen some risible financial services industry anti-regulatory claims before, but this one really takes the cake for extreme hand-waving. I expected better from the Masters-of-the-Universe.
 
Here’s why the private equity industry’s claims are utter bunkum.

Continue reading "Private Equity’s Chicken Little Dance" »

What a Local Traffic Snafu Teaches About Artificial Intelligence in Underwriting

posted by Adam Levitin

The DC suburbs are a case study in NIMBYism. Lots of communities try to limit through-traffic via all sorts of means:  speed bumps, one-way streets, speed cameras, red-light cameras, etc.  The interaction of one of these NIMBYist devices with GPS systems is a great lesson about the perils of artificial intelligence and machine learning in all sorts of contexts.  Bear with the local details because I think there's a really valuable lesson here.

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Coercive "Consent" to Paperless Statements

posted by Adam Levitin

If you've logged on to any sort of on-line financial account in the past few years, there's a very good chance that you've been asked to consent to receive your periodic statements electronically, rather than on paper. Financial institutions often pitch this to consumers as a matter of being eco-friendly (less paper, less transportation) or of convenience (for what Millennial wants to deal with paper other than hipsters with their Moleskines). While there is something to this, what's really motivating financial institutions first and foremost is of course the cost-savings of electronic statements. Electronic statements avoid the cost of paper, printing, and postage. If we figure a cost of $1 per statement and 12 statements per year, that's a lot of expense for an account that might only have a balance of $3,500—roughly 34 basis points annually.

I'm personally not comfortable with electronic statements for two reasons. First, I worry about the integrity of electronic records. I have no way of verifying the strength of a bank's data security, and I assume that no institution is hack proof. Indeed, messing around with our financial ownership record system would arguably be more disruptive to the United States than interference with our elections. FDIC insurance isn't very useful if there aren't records on which to base an insurance claim. Of course, the usefulness of a bank statement from two weeks ago for determining the balance in my account today is limited too, but if I can prove a balance at time X, perhaps the burden of proof is on the bank (or FDIC) to prove that it has changed subsequently. 

Now, I recognize that not everyone is this paranoid about data integrity. Even if you aren't, however, paper can play an important role in forcing one to pay attention to one's financial accounts, and I think that's valuable.  I am much more likely to ignore an email than I am a paper letter in part because I know that the chance the paper letter is junk is lower because it costs more to send than the spam.  As a result, I look at my snail mail, but often let my e-mail pile up unread. And even when I read, I don't always click on the link, which is what would be in an electronic bank statement.  Getting the paper bank statement effectively forces me to look at my accounts periodically, whereas an emailed link to a statement wouldn't. And monitoring one's accounts is just generally a good thing--it helps with fraud detection and helps one know one's financial status.  

So here's where this is going:  I've got no issue if a consumer wants to freely opt-in to electronic statements.  But the way my financial institutions communicate with me when I go on-line involves really coercive choice architecture. One bank presents me with a pre-checked list of accounts to be taken paperless, such that to not go paperless I have to uncheck several boxes.  I am essentially opted-in to paperless. Another bank has a prominent "I agree" button without an equivalent "I decline" button-the only way to decline paperless is to find the small link labeled "close" to close the pop-up window. "Consent" in this circumstances strikes me as iffy. This strikes me as an area in which regulators (I'm looking at you CFPB) really ought to exercise some supervisory muscle and tell banks to cut it out. If folks want to go paperless, that's fine, but don't try and coerce them. Doing so is contrary to the spirit of the E-SIGN Act at the very least and might enter into UDAAP territory.

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Bankruptcy Future Claims—Elizabeth Warren Edition

posted by Adam Levitin

Welcome to Credit Slips, the rarified world of “self-described bankruptcy nerds.” Today we’re looking at Future Claims—Elizabeth Warren Edition.

Now, it’s not every day that our humble group blog gets discussed in the New York Times. But as our former-co-blogger Elizabeth Warren continues to rise in the polls, the media and her opponents are taking a renewed interest in the bankruptcy consulting work she did when she was a law professor. Just recently, the New York Times ran a lengthy article on her past consulting workthat even referred our little “bankruptcy nerd” blog. (You might note that we now also offer sovereign debt, financial regulation, and side salads. Come for the bankruptcy, stay for the pie.)

The NY Times piece discussed several cases that Elizabeth worked on, but it failed to clearly articulate the core bankruptcy principle that Elizabeth was fighting for that runs throughout most of the cases highlighted in the article and how Elizabeth’s work was consistently about making the economy and the bankruptcy system work for employees of companies in distress, retirees, and folks injured by a company’s product. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous and fundamentally misunderstands how the bankruptcy system is supposed to work.  

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Purdue Pharma Examiner?

posted by Adam Levitin

The US Trustee should move for the appointment of an examiner in Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy. That's what Jonathan Lipson, Stephen Lubben, and I wrote in a letter to the US Trustee for Region 2 this week.

Purdue is a case that seems to cry out for an examiner.  There is unique public interest in the case because it is so central to the story of the opioid crisis—the major domestic public health challenge of the last decade. In particular, there are real questions about exactly what Purdue and its owners knew about the problems with opioids and when.  Was Purdue was deliberately pushing a product it knew to be harmful? Did its owners, the Sackler family, siphon off substantial funds that could go to remediate opioid harms through fraudulent transfers, as alleged? And can Purdue's current management or the Official Creditors Committee be relied upon to get to the bottom of these questions?  

An examiner--particularly one wielding subpoena power and the power to administer oaths--could go a long way to establishing just what went on at Purdue, and that will help set the stage for a resolution that will be more broadly accepted as legitimate because everyone will be operating on a common factual basis from the examiner's findings. Moreover, an examiner's report is in effect a public accounting of what happened at Purdue. Absent such a public accounting, bankruptcy can become a whitewash:  no trial, no public introduction of evidence, no finding of guilty or not guilty, just claims estimation, a plan and a vote, and then some cash being paid out. That's fine for your run-of-the-mill bankruptcy case. There's really no public interest in why Shloyme's 7th Avenue Garmento Emporium ended up in the chapter. But when a case involves a major public health issue like Purdue, it's reasonable to demand more from the bankruptcy system. Purdue (and possibly other constituencies) will surely object to an examiner motion, be it from the Trustee or from other parties in interest, but I have trouble thinking of a case for which an examiner would be more appropriate.  

 

How to Deal with a $3 Trillion Bully

posted by Adam Levitin

I don't like bullies.  And I just ran into a $3 trillion one.  JPMorgan Chase Bank, armed with six partners at two AmLaw 100 firms (Wilmer Hale and McGuire Woods) took the truly unusual step of filing an objection to an amicus curiae brief I filed in a 9th Circuit case called McShannock v. JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A. in support of neither partyChase objects because the brief is late (which it is) and supposedly irrelevant to the disposition of the case. So why is Chase spending thousands of dollars on attorneys fees to object to an irrelevant brief, particularly when it claims no prejudice from the late filing?

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Congratulations to Pamela Foohey!

posted by Adam Levitin

Congratulations to Pamela Foohey on being named to the American Bankruptcy Institute's 40 Under 40 list for 2019!  Pamela joins Credit Slips own Dalié Jiménez (class of 2018) as an honoree

And it's been a great news day for our former co-blogger Katie Porter, who was not only the subject of an American Banker article, but was put on a SCOTUS short list

The Clock Is Ticking for the Sacklers

posted by Adam Levitin

It's funny how what goes on in one bankruptcy case can sometimes point to looming issues in another. The PG&E plan exclusivity fight suggests an interesting dynamic looming in Purdue:  Purdue's own plan exclusivity could expire, which would completely upend the dynamic of negotiations with the Sackler family for a plan contribution in exchange for a non-consensual release of creditors' claims against them.  

As I see it, the Sacklers have no more than 18 months (and perhaps as few as 4 months) to cut their deal. If the Sacklers fail to reach a deal before plan exclusivity lapses, a state AG (or anyone else) could easily propose a plan that assigns all of the bankruptcy estate's litigation claims against the Sacklers to a trust for opioid victims or sells off the claims to a litigation vehicle.  The trust (or litigation vehicle) will then go and litigate against the Sacklers, and any recoveries will go to opioid victims. Critically, if this happens, the Sacklers will not be able to get a third-party release from Purdue's creditors.  They can still settle the fraudulent transfer claims of the bankruptcy estate, but they won't be shielded from creditors' direct claims.  

Now, I'm not sure how strong those direct claims really are, and thus how important a third-party release is for the Sacklers. They might decide that the asking price isn't worth paying. And the AGs might prefer to get half a loaf, rather than nothing; if so, they don't want plan exclusivity to lapse either--it's a great threat until it actually has to be played. Again we see the standard bankruptcy dynamic of one party threatening to push the other out the window, and the other party threatening to jump. Mutual defenestration.   

More generally, though, I wonder if Purdue will be able to get a pro forma extension of exclusivity given the enormous conflict of interest of its Sackler-controlled management. This seems like exactly the sort of case where plan exclusivity should not be extended because its main effect is to give the conflicted equity owners time to play for a lower settlement figure for their own liability.  In other words, plan exclusivity is benefitting the Sacklers personally, not necessarily the estate. That's akin to letting out-of-the-money equity sit around in bankruptcy and gamble on resurrection while burning up estate assets on administrative expenses. Yes, it's a mess of a case, but letting Purdue maintain plan exclusivity hardly seems like the right way to deal with that problem. A better outcome might require letting someone else be in the drivers' seat.

[Update: It seems that there actually is someone else in the drivers' seat already. Purdue's board of directors has been transformed over the past year. It now has a majority of independent directors and they seem to have some degree of insulation from the Sacklers, who continue to be the majority shareholders. There's not a lot of visibility on this because it is a private company, but the "informational brief" filed by Purdue explains some of this--the two branches of the Sackler family each appoint up to two Class A or Class B directors, but that there are also four other directors chosen by jointly by Sackler family members. Critically, there is a Special Committee of the board (comprised of a star-studded cast of restructuring professionals). The Special Committee has no Class A or Class B directors on it, and the Special Committee handles all matters relating to the Sacklers. It seems from a Shareholder Agreement (which I do not believe is public) that the Sacklers lack the ability to get rid of the Special Committee or do things like bylaw amendments, etc. to keep control.

That said, what I cannot tell from the public documents is what sort of board vote would be needed to proceed with a bankruptcy plan. Is it a simple majority? Unanimous? Is it even a vote of the full board, or just the Special Committee? The Informational Brief does not indicate whether matters encompassing more than to the Sacklers are solely the purview of the Special Committee. All of which is to say that from the public documents I have seen, I can't tell if the Sacklers have been totally pushed out of any management influence or if it is just that their influence has been substantially diminished. In any event, to the extent there's new management in charge, the case for terminating exclusivity is much weaker. Additionally, the case for a creditors' committee bringing fraudulent transfer actions derivatively looks a lot weaker.]

Speaking of which, why haven't we seen a motion to dismiss for cause filed at this point?  My guess is because it doesn't obviously help any one.  

Amicus Brief on Valid-When-Made

posted by Adam Levitin

I have filed an amicus brief regarding "valid-when-made" in Rent-Rite Super Kegs West, Ltd. v. World Business Lenders, LLC. The brief shows pretty conclusively that there was no such doctrine discernible in the law when either the National Bank Act of 1864 or the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 were enacted, and that subsequent cases consistent with the doctrine are based on a misreading of older law. 

The Sky Is Falling: Securitization, Chicken Little Edition

posted by Adam Levitin

It's been quite a week for "valid-when-made (up)".  Not only did FDIC and OCC race to court to defend the doctrine in the context of a 120.86% small business loan, but there's a Bloomberg story out about a set of class action usury law suits (here and here) against the credit card securitization trusts used by Capital One and Chase. The story suggests that these suits threaten the $563 billion asset-securitization market and also the $11 trillion mortgage securitization market. That claim is so readily disprovable, it's laughable. 

Here's the background. New York has a 16% usury cap under Gen. Oblig. Law 5-501. The National Bank Act § 85 provides that that cap does not apply to national banks that are based in other states (such as Delaware), but the National Bank Act only covers banks. The securitization trusts are not banks, but are common law or Delaware statutory trusts. The class action suits argue that under the 2d Circuit's Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC precedent, it is clear that New York usury law applies to the trusts; they cannot shelter in National Bank Act preemption because they are not national banks. 

Obviously, the banks see it the other way, and have invoked valid-when-made as part of their defense. They're wrong, but what irks me is that financial services industry lawyers and trade associations are claiming that if these class action suits succeed the sky will fall for securitization and that the Bloomberg article didn't really question this claim: Bloomberg's headline is that the entire $563 billion ABS securitization market is at risk, and bank attorneys suggest in the article that the $11 trillion mortgage securitization market is at risk too. 

Let's be clear. This is utter nonsense on a Chicken Little scale. These class action law suits affect only part of the $123 billion credit card securitization and the very small $30 billion unsecured consumer loan securitization markets. Even then they do not threaten to kill off these markets, but merely limit what loans can be securitized to those that comply with the applicable state's usury laws. They do not affect mortgage securitization at all and are unlikely to have much, if any impact on auto loan securitization or student loan securitization. To suggest, as the Bloomberg article does, that these class action suits affect the securitization markets for cellphone receivables or time shares (where is there a usury claim even possible in those markets?) is embarrassingly ridiculous. The sky isn't falling, Turkey Lurkey. Full stop. 

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FDIC and OCC Race to Court to Defend 120.86% Interest Rate Small Business Loan

posted by Adam Levitin

FDIC and OCC filed an amicus brief in the district court in an obscure small business bankruptcy case to which a bank was not even a party in order to defend the validity of a 120.86% loan that was made by a tiny community bank in Wisconsin (with its own history of consumer protection compliance issues) and then transferred to a predatory small business lending outfit. Stay classy federal bank regulators. 

[Update: based on additional information--not in the record unfortunately--this is clearly a rent-a-bank case, with the loan purchaser having been involved in the loan from the get-go.]

FDIC and OCC filed the amicus to defend the valid-when-made doctrine that the bankruptcy court invoked in its opinion. FDIC and OCC claim it is "well-settled" law, but if so, what the heck are they doing filing an amicus in the district court in this case? They doth protest too much.

What really seems to be going on is that FDIC/OCC would like to get a circuit split with the Second Circuit's opinion in Madden v. Midland Funding in order to get the Supreme Court to grant certiorari on the valid-when-made question in order to reverse Madden. The lesson that should be learned here is that while Congress seriously chastised OCC for its aggressive preemption campaign by amending the preemption standards in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, that hasn't been enough, and going forward additional legislative changes to the National Bank Act are necessary. Indeed, the FDIC and OCC action underscores why FDIC and OCC cannot be trusted with a consumer protection mission, even for small banks (currently they enforce consumer protection laws for banks with less than $10 billion in assets). The FDIC and OCC are simply too conflicted with their interest in protecting bank solvency and profitability, even if it comes at the expense of consumer protection. Moving rulemaking and large bank enforcement to CFPB was an important improvement, but what we are seeing here is evidence that it simply wasn't enough. 

More on the background to the story from Ballard Spahr. Needless to say, I completely disagree with the historical claim by FDIC/OCC (and echoed by Ballard Spahr) about "valid-when-made". Valid-when-made-up is more like it.  

Purdue and the Sacklers and the Limits of Fraudulent Transfer Law

posted by Adam Levitin

One of the major issues in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy is how much the Sackler family, which (indirectly) controls Purdue will contribute in order to get releases from opioid liability. (Relatedly, are such non-debtor releases allowed outside of the asbestos context, where they are specifically authorized by statute? Second Circuit law says "sometimes.") 

The question I have is why the Sacklers would contribute anything? Do the Sacklers themselves really have any opioid liability?  As far as I'm aware, the only suits filed so far against the Sacklers or their non-Purdue entities are for fraudulent transfers or unjust enrichment.  

The former claim allege that the Sacklers received assets that were transferred from Purdue with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors. It is not a "fraud" claim involving a misrepresentation, but a claim based on intentional evasion of creditors. It's sometimes also called fraudulent conveyance or voidable transfer.  (There are also constructive fraudulent transfer allegations, but that's just a bunch of valuation questions.) The later claim is really a Hail Mary sort of claim, but the fraudulent transfer suits have some legs, and given that they are alleging actual fraudulent transfers, the crime/fraud exception to attorney-client privilege shouldn't apply under the Supreme Court's recent Husky Electronics ruling. (Also some states have criminal fraudulent transfer statutes, although none of have used them vis-à-vis the Sacklers...the statutes are pretty weak.  Maybe there's an argument for a federal bankruptcy criminal under 18 USC 152(7) as well, but a lot more facts would need to be known.) Without attorney-client privilege, the actual fraudulent transfer case gets a lot easier. But what it does mean practically?  

It means that the Sacklers will probably keep some, but not all of the funds they received from Purdue during the statute of limitations period (and everything they got outside of the limitations period). The situation underscores two problems with  fraudulent transfer statutes and the need for legislative fixes.

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Private Equity's Abuse of Limited Liability

posted by Adam Levitin

One of the central features of the Stop Wall Street Looting Act that was introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and a number of co-sponsors is a targeted rollback of limited liability.

This provision, more than any other, has gotten some commentators’ hackles up, even those who are willing to admit that there are real problems in the private equity industry and welcome some of the other reforms in the bill. (See also here and here, for example.)

The idea that limited liability is a sine qua non of the modern economy is practically Gospel to most business commentators.  These commentators assume that without limited liability, no one will ever assume risks, such that any curtailment of limited liability is a death sentence for the private equity industry.

They're wrong. Limited liability is a substantial, regressive cross-subsidy to capital at the expense of tort creditors, tax authorities, and small businesses. Limited liability is a relic of the underdeveloped financial markets of the Gilded Age and operates as an implicit form of leverage provided by law. But it’s hardly either economically efficient or necessary for modern business activity. It's a fairly recent development in the western world, there are numerous exceptions to it, and a number of notable firms have prospered without it (JPMorgan & Co., Lloyds of London, American Express, and many leading law law firms).

In any event the Stop Wall Street Looting Act rolls back limited liability solely for private equity general partners in a surgical manner such that doesn’t affect limited liability more broadly. All the Stop Wall Street Looting Act will do is reveal which private equity firms have real managerial expertise, and are thus able to thrive without limited liability, and those that don’t and require the legal subsidy to be profitable. Far from undermining the private equity industry, it is a restoration of a central tenet of honest American capitalism: reward should be commensurate with risk.

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How NOT to Regulate ISAs

posted by Adam Levitin

Income-sharing agreements or ISAs are becoming an increasingly popular way to finance higher education. The key problem that ISAs face as a product is uncertainty about their regulatory status. Are ISAs “credit” for various statutory purposes? Or are they something else? Into the regulatory void comes a bipartisan bill, introduced by Senators Mark Warner, Marco Rubio, and Chris Coons, that would set forth a regulatory framework for ISAs. The problem is that the regulatory framework proposed is shamefully bad: it would give a green light to discriminatory financing terms and tie the CFPB’s hands from further regulating ISAs.

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Playing with Fire: The CFPB's Proposed Repeal of the "GSE Patch"

posted by Adam Levitin
CFPB recently put out an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to amend the Qualified Mortgage (QM) Rule by letting the "GSE Patch" expire.  What the Bureau is proposing is potentially very dangerous.  While I haven’t liked some of the Bureau's other proposed rules (including under the Cordray Directorship), none of them were an all-out ideological gamble with the economy. This one, in contrast, is really playing with fire.  

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Biden's Involvement in the Detroit Bankruptcy?

posted by Adam Levitin

In the Democratic Primary debate last night, former Vice-President Joe Biden claimed to have been deeply involved in the Detroit bankruptcy: 

Q (Tapper): What do you say to progressives who worry that your proposals are not ambitious enough to energize the progressive wing of your party, which you will need to beat Donald Trump?

A (Biden): ... Number three, number three, I also was asked, as the mayor of Detroit can tell you, by the president of the United States to help Detroit get out of bankruptcy and get back on its feet. I spent better part of two years out here working to make sure that it did exactly that.

What on earth is Joe Biden talking about? I followed the Detroit bankruptcy case fairly closely and never once heard of any involvement from Biden. A google search for "Biden Detroit bankruptcy" shows an involvement consisting of all of one lunch with the Mayor of Detroit.  Maybe Biden was deeply involved behind the scenes, but I doubt it, as the federal government simply didn’t do anything to help out Detroit. Perhaps he was referring to the GM/Chrysler bankruptcies? If so, there was important federal involvement as a lender, but Joe Biden was not an important player in those cases either as far as I know.

If others know more, it would be interesting to hear, but as far as I can tell, Biden is claiming credit for things that he had no involvement in.  

What Is "Credit"? AfterPay, Earnin', and ISAs

posted by Adam Levitin
A major issue in consumer finance regulation in mid-20th century was what counted as “credit” and was therefore subject to state usury laws and (after 1968) to the federal Truth in Lending Act. Many states had a time-price differential doctrine that held that when a retailer sold goods for future payment, the differential between the price of a cash sale and that of credit sale was not interest for usury law purposes. State retail installment loan acts began to override the time-price doctrine, however, and the federal Truth in Lending Act and regulations thereunder eventually made clear that for its purposes the difference was a “finance charge” that had to be disclosed in a certain way. 
 
Today, we seem to be coming back full circle to the question of what constitutes “credit.” We’re seeing this is three different product contexts: buy-now-pay-later products like Afterpay; and payday advance products like Bridgit, Dave, and Earnin’; and Income-Sharing Agreements or ISAs (used primarily for education financing). Each of these three product types has a business model that is based on it not being subject to some or all “credit” regulation. Whether those business models are well-founded legally is another matter.
 
Let me briefly recap what is “credit” for different regulatory purposes and then turn to its application to the types of products.

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Elizabeth Warren & the Dow Corning Bankruptcy: Nothing to See

posted by Adam Levitin

The Washington Post has a story about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s involvement in the Dow Corning bankruptcy that implies that Senator Warren was somehow working against the interests of personal injury victims. That’s rubbish, and it’s frankly irresponsible reporting that fundamentally fails to understand the bankruptcy process and leaves out a critical fact.

Bankruptcies are complicated, so let me relate the Dow Corning story and then what we know of Senator Warren’s minimal involvement. Bottom line is that this is a complete nothing burger, much like the previous Washington Post story with the shocking headline (much mocked, and now amended) that then-Professor Warren had billed [a below-market] rate of $675/hr for her legal work

Here's the properly related story in a nutshell: Senator Warren did some minimal work in support of a deal to ensure compensation for tort victims that was supported by the overwhelming majority (94%) of those tort victims and that was approved by a federal court. That’s a good thing that deserves praise, not some implicit shade.  Alas, the Post doesn't bother to mention the tort victim support for the plan. 

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Libra and Financial Inclusion

posted by Adam Levitin

Facebook’s proposed Libra cryptocurrency project has truly stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy.  Critics have generally focused on Libra as a currency and the power of Facebook in society and its appropriation of users’ privacy.  

I think that discussion misses a key point.  Libra will be, first and foremost, a payment system.  It will be a payment system that happens to operate using a currency index, rather than a single country’s currency, and clear using blockchain rather than other clearing software, but it’s still a payment system, that is a system for moving value between parties.  The payment system aspect is what both makes me incredibly skeptical about Libra’s financial inclusion claims and about Libra’s prospects for success. 

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The Meaning of "Abusive" in the UDAAP Triad

posted by Adam Levitin

On June 25, the CFPB will be holding a symposium on the meaning of "abusive" in the Consumer Financial Protection Act.  "Abusive" is an expansion of the traditional FTC Act couplet of "unfair or deceptive" acts and practices (UDAP) to a triad of "unfair, deceptive, or abusive" acts and practices (UDAAP). Although the Bureau has operated for the past eight years without defining the term "abusive", it has indicated in its long-term rulemaking agenda that it intends to undertake a rulemaking to define "abusive"—presumably in response to US Chamber of Commerce complaints about legal uncertainty chilling business.

The symposium will have two panels, one of academics, one of practitioners.  Credit Slips will be well represented on the first panel by me and our former guest blogger, Patricia McCoy.  We'll be joined by Howard Beales of GW University's Business School, and the inimitable Todd Zywicki of Scalia Law School.    

My (lengthy) written submission (a/k/a everything you wanted to know about "abusive" but were afraid to ask) is here.  Bottom line, there's no reason for the Bureau to undertake a definitional rulemaking, its legal authority to do so is suspect, it cannot bind state AG's to any definition... but if it does do so, there's no scienter requirement, no cost-benefit analysis required, and "taking unreasonable advantage" sounds in unjust enrichment.   

Is Cryptocurrency What Makes Ransomware Possible?

posted by Adam Levitin

The story about Baltimore's entire municipal IT system being held hostage by ransomware has two angles that might be of interest to Slips readers. 

First, among the services that are affected is the city's lien recordation system (the city is treated as a county; confusingly there is a separate Baltimore county). That means you can't readily get a lien search, and that's gumming up property transactions.  To me this underscores the risk of electronic property records. They are vulnerable to disruption in a way paper is not. One has to worry about fire and water with paper, but we know how to deal with those risks pretty well. Electronic systems are vulnerable in other ways.  Indeed, if a system can be taken hostage, what prevents data from being altered without Baltimore's knowledge?  I don't want to be a Luddite here, but the convenience of electronic systems comes with some scary risks. 

Second, the payment demanded is in Bitcoins. Ransomware seems very dependent upon cryptocurrencies (particularly Bitcoin). Did ransomware even exist before Bitcoin? (That's a serious question. Maybe someone knows.) The only reason to take data hostage is to get paid. But payment is the dangerous moment for the hostage-taker:  if the payment can be traced to the hostage-taker, the long arm of the law can likely get him too.  This means that a bank-based payment system doesn't work well for the ransomware model. Banks are required to "know their customer," and while false fronts can be used that still creates a possible route for law enforcement, as the beard may know who hired him, etc.  Prepaid cards and cash present similar problems because they have to be physically delivered.  But crypto, ah, crypto seems perfectly made for ransomware, particularly when the hostage takers are overseas.     

If I'm right about this, it leaves me wondering first, why there isn't much more stringent regulation of crypto-currency markets for AML? Not all the players can base themselves off-shore. Even if an exchange is in Ruritania, US consumers need to have a wallet provider. Someone's going to be doing business in the US and using a US bank. If the US can squeeze state actors with its AML regime, why can't it similarly squeeze crypto markets into compliance?   

Second, is there any positive social value to crypto currencies? They seem to be used primarily for two purposes:  money-laundering (I'm including ransom payments in this bucket) and speculation.  Other than the occasional odd case, they aren't being used to hedge, for payments, or for any other socially beneficial purpose that I can tell. Maybe I have this wrong, but I'm having trouble seeing why crypto currencies should be tolerated by the law. 

Payday Rule Comments

posted by Adam Levitin

Because the ALI Consumer Contracts Restatement plus grading hasn't given me enough to do this week, I thought I would gin up some brief comments on the CFPB's proposed repeal of the Payday Rule.  My comments are here.   

Podcast on ALI Consumer Contracts Restatement

posted by Adam Levitin

I did a podcast for the Consumer Finance Monitor Podcast about the American Law Institute's Consumer Contracts Restatement project.  It's not often that you will see me on the same side of an issue as the podcast's host, Alan Kaplinsky, an attorney at Ballard Spahr who represents financial services firms.  Indeed, I suspect the next time Alan is sitting across a table from me asking me questions, it will be at a deposition.  Given what a great radio voice Alan has, that might almost be fun. But our collaboration on this podcast goes to an important, but hard to understand thing about why both consumer groups and business groups are opposed to the Restatement.  

Both consumer and business groups are uncomfortable with the ALI acting as a private legislature, unchecked by any constituency.  But the real issue is that for consumer advocates, the Restatement is a bad project because it would bind all consumers to contractual terms that they do not agree with or even know about.  

In contrast, the concern for business groups is that the Restatement gives that small subset of consumers who litigate somewhat stronger tools.  These tools aren't strong enough to change the balance of power, but they are enough to be a pain for businesses, specifically a jettisoning of the parol evidence rule (i.e., it doesn't matter what the written contract says, the salesman's representations are admissible evidence) and a contract defense of deception that will apply to some contracts where UDAP would not (again, you've gotta worry about the sales rep's communications).  In other words, the concerns here aren't symmetrical, so this is not a situation where the Restatement is a moderate neutral position.  It's bad for all consumers, and it creates more litigation problems for businesses without creating meaningful consumer protections.   

 

ALI Consumer Contracts Restatement--More Problems with the Legal Research

posted by Adam Levitin

More problems are emerging with the legal research underlying the American Law Institute's Consumer Contracts Restatement project.  The Consumer Contracts Restatement has been the subject of scholarly criticism for a while because of its novel quantitative empirical approach (case counting).  The Restatement stands on six empirical studies of consumer contracts.  While the current draft claims that these studies merely serve as confirmation for the Restatement's positions, which were supposedly arrived at through the traditional method of reading and distilling the law from the cases, all of the early drafts of the Restatement said nothing about this traditional method and only relied on the empirical studies, which now conveniently arrive at exactly the same positions.  

The first two scholarly works to examine the legal research underlying the Restatement were one by Professor Gregory Klass at Georgetown Law and another by yours truly with seven other ALI members.  These studies were basically looking for "false positives"--cases claimed to be relevant by the Restatement that aren't.  Both studies found an incredibly high rate of false positives--over 50% in some instances.  The Restatement had included in its case count, among other things, completely irrelevant cases, such as business-to-business cases, cases not involving common law contract disputes, duplicate cases, and vacated cases.  These types of errors were pretty shocking in what should be a document based on unimpeachable legal research.  A nice summary write-up of these studies by Professor Martha Ertman can be found over at JOTWELL (the Journal of Things We Like Lots).  

Now Professor William Widen at the University of Miami has done some digging on the Restatement's treatment of pay-now, terms-later contracts. Professor Widen's preliminary research has found that there's also a false negative problem--the Restatement has missed a number of state Supreme Court cases, many of which are contrary to its position.  Additionally, the Restatement seems to have missed a substantial number of state Supreme Court cases that make clear that providing "notice" in consumer contracts means actual knowledge, not merely notional notice.  In short, there is increasing evidence of serious problems with the legal research underlying the Restatement, both false positives and false negatives.  My sense is that with more time, research will adduce even more false negatives.  Given that the ALI likes to present itself as the gold standard of legal research, these problems should give ALI membership pause when considering approving the Restatement.  

ALI Consumer Contracts Restatement-What's at Stake

posted by Adam Levitin

The American Law Institute's membership will vote next Tuesday (the 21st) on whether to approve the ALI's Consumer Contracts Restatement project.  Let me recap why you should care about this project:  it opens the door for businesses to use contract to abuse consumers in basically any way they want.  The Restatement would do away with the idea of a "meeting of the minds," as the touchstone of contract law for consumer contracts, and allow businesses to impose any terms they want on consumers, even if the consumers are unaware of the terms and haven't consented to them.  

Under the proposed Restatement, a consumer would be bound by any and all of a business's standard form terms if the consumer (1) assented to a transaction, (2) had notice of the terms, and (3) had a reasonable opportunity to review the terms.  In other words, the consumer would not actually have to know or agree to any of the terms to be bound by them.  The Restatement would replace meaningful assent with a legal fiction of notice.  That opens the door to consumers being deprived of all sorts of rights by contract, starting with arbitration, but then going on the privacy rights and continuing to disclaimer of warranties, etc.  If you think I'm being paranoid, go look at Walmart.com's Terms of Use. Few, if any, of those terms exist when you buy something from Walmart at a storefront, but the cost of larding on an extra term on the Internet is so low, that there's no reason for a business not to bury its whole Christmas wishlist in linked on-line terms and conditions.  

The Restatement strangely believes that courts will somehow police abuses of contract through unconscionability and deception, but this presumes (1) that consumers will litigate in the first place, and (2) that courts will stretch these constrained doctrines to prevent the enforcement of not just outrageous terms, but also quotidian unfair terms.  Do I have a nice bridge to sell you in Brooklyn if you think that's a trade-off that will help consumers....

A bipartisan group of 23 state Attorneys General has recently written publicly opposing the Restatement. That sort of opposition is unprecedented and is a sign that something is seriously amiss with the project. 

So, if you know an ALI member, urge them to attend the Annual Meeting session and vote against the Restatement!

ALI Engages in Cheap Intimidation Tactics in Its Attempt to Ram Through the Consumer Contracts Restatement

posted by Adam Levitin

As Credit Slips readers know, I've been fighting the American Law Institute's Consumer Contracts Restatement project for several years.  I think it started with good intentions, but it's unfortunately turned into a remarkably anti-consumer project.  The ALI has accused yours truly of a copyright violation for making the draft Restatement available through Dropbox to other ALI members in the context of a link in a letter urging those ALI members to vote against the Restatement.    

ALI's actions on this are the pettiest sort of bullying to try and quash the "vote no" campaign against a project that would seriously harm consumer rights.  ALI filed a DMCA takedown notice with Dropbox that resulted in Dropbox preventing me from sharing all my files, not just the one file in question. (Damages, damages...) ALI even went so far as to freeze me out of its website, which prevented me from reading comment letters about the draft or filing motions to amend it.  

Fortunately, there's a good way to deal with bullies, and that's get a lawyer.  ALI restored my website access after hearing from my righteous copyright counsel, and has in fact since made the draft Restatement publicly available, even while still insisting (on a completely factually misinformed basis, but ALI never bothered to ask me) that what I did was somehow outside of fair use and refusing to rescind the DMCA takedown notice. It's become clear that ALI desperately needs to finish its Restatement of Copyright so it can understand how fair use actually works.    

The fact that ALI is making the draft publicly available now just shows what nonsense its claim was—it was nothing but a cheap intimidation tactic. ALI ought to be ashamed for acting this way. Is this kind of thug behavior really how the nation's preeminent law reform organization rolls?  

Middle Class Homeowners Are the Biggest Winners from Student Loan Forgiveness

posted by Adam Levitin

A lot of the criticism of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness proposal has focused on how it's not fair to give loan forgiveness to current borrowers when past borrowers repaid their debts.  That criticism overlooks the enormous boost Senator Warren's proposal would give to the real estate market. Many previous borrowers are homeowners, and homeowners are going to be one of the major beneficiaries of any student loan debt forgiveness as their home equity value will increase because of the increase in housing demand from deleveraged student borrowers.  

By my calculations Senator Warren's proposal for $640 billion in student loan forgiveness could readily translate into $1 trillion of increased home equity value plus an additional $320 billion to $680 billion in GDP growth. That's an amazing win-win-win for student loan debtors, for homeowners, and for those in the home building and furnishing trades.  

Continue reading "Middle Class Homeowners Are the Biggest Winners from Student Loan Forgiveness" »

About the Student Loan Forgiveness Price Tag...

posted by Adam Levitin

Senator Warren's student loan forgiveness proposal has a lot of scolds moaning about the immorality of debt forgiveness, the unfairness to those who paid their debts, and complaining about the price tag. It's pretty obvious that none of those folks know anything about how the federal student loan system works. If they did, they'd know the we crossed the debt forgiveness Rubicon long, long ago. There is already enormous debt forgiveness baked into the federal student loan program.

The only real difference between Senator Warren's proposal and the existing forgiveness feature in the student loan program is whether the forgiveness comes in a fell swoop or is dribbled out over time. Given the federal government's infinite time horizon, the difference is really just an accounting matter. It's not a matter of principle in any way, shape, or form.  

Continue reading "About the Student Loan Forgiveness Price Tag..." »

Student Loan Borrowing Is Different

posted by Adam Levitin

Education finance and student loan forgiveness have been getting a lot of attention the last couple of days because of our former co-blogger's loan forgiveness proposal.  I'm not going to address the merits of that proposal here.  Instead, I want to make a simple point that many of the critics of Senator Warren's proposal don't seem to understand:  student loan borrowing is materially different from other types of borrowing, such that the borrower has no idea what s/he is getting into.

When I borrow to buy a car or a home, it is a one-and-done deal with a single loan product.  With the car or home, I also know what I’m getting and I know what it costs.  These aren’t perfect markets, but the work on a broad level.  Education finance does not.  That’s why criticisms of student debt relief plans that claim that borrowers know what they’re getting into or the sacredness of the contract just irk me.  Student borrowers have no clue what they’re getting into and if a party doesn’t really understand a deal, it’s hard to see why it should be treated as sacrosanct. (Not to mention, as any good bankruptcy lawyer knows, basically all deals are made subject to the possibility of a bankruptcy discharge.). There is a fundamental market failure in student lending and that is that borrowers simply don't materially understand the nature of the obligations they are assuming...and probably can't.  

Continue reading "Student Loan Borrowing Is Different" »

The Second Circuit Got It Right in Madden v. Midland Funding

posted by Adam Levitin

Professor Peter Conti-Brown of the Wharton School has written a short article for Brookings decrying the Second Circuit’s 2015 Madden v. Midland Funding decision. Professor Conti-Brown doesn’t like the Madden decision for two reasons. First, he thinks its wrong on the law. Specifically, he thinks it is contrary to the National Bank Act because it "significantly interferes" with a power of national banks—the power to discount (that is sell) loans. Second, he's worried about Madden from a policy standpoint both because he fears that it is unduly cutting of access to credit for low-income households and because he thinks it is reinforcing the large bank’s dominance in the financial system and impairing the rise of non-bank “fintechs”. I disagree with Professor Conti-Brown on the law and think that attacking Madden is entirely the wrong way to address the serious policy question of what sort of limitations there ought to be on the provision of consumer credit. As for fintechs, well, I just don't see any particular reason to favor them over banks, and certainly not at the expense of consumers.  

Continue reading "The Second Circuit Got It Right in Madden v. Midland Funding" »

Plan Optionality: Extreme Edition (A Pick-Your-Own-Adventure Restructuring with Shopko)

posted by Adam Levitin

I've seen some Chapter 11 plans that include some optionality, such as allowing the debtor, based on subsequent market conditions or litigation outcomes to undertake a transaction or change the way a class is paid.  Such optionality has always troubled me because I don't think a disclosure statement can provide "adequate information" in the face of debtor optionality--a hypothetical investor might understand that the debtor has options A or B, but the uncertainty about which option will be selected makes it hard to make an "informed judgment about the plan":  the investor might like option A, but dislike option B--without knowing the likelihood of A or B, how can the investor make such an informed decision?  To be sure, it is possible to get two disclosure statements approved, one for option A and one for option B, but then creditors would be able to vote separately on each plan, rather than voting on a plan that gives the debtor optionality.  

A disclosure statement I looked at today, however, takes such optionality to an extreme I've never previously seen.  Specifically, Shopko's proposed disclosure statement is for a plan that "contemplates a restructuring of the Debtors through either (a) a sponsor-led Equitization Restructuring or (b) an orderly liquidation under the Asset Sale Restructuring."  As explained:  

The Plan includes a "toggle" feature which will determine whether the Debtors complete the Equitization Restructuring or the Asset Sale Restructuring. The Plan thus provides the Debtors with the necessary latitude to negotiate the precise terms of their ultimate emergence from chapter 11.  

In other words, what is being disclosed is "we might liquidate or we might reorganize, our pick."  The plan has, of course, two separate distributional schemes, depending on which restructuring path is chosen.   I really don't get how such a single disclosure statement for a single plan with optionality can be approved given the huge difference between these two paths.  A creditor can't know what outcome it is voting on and might like one, but not the other.  Maybe others have seen this move before, but I suspect this will be a first for the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Nebraska.  

P2P Payments Fraud

posted by Adam Levitin

AARP has a nice piece (featuring yours truly) about the consumer fraud risks with peer-to-peer (p2p) payment systems like Zelle and Venmo.  

Both Zelle and Venmo expressly state in their terms of use that they are not for commercial use, yet there is certainly a healthy segment of their use that is commercial.  Some of it is sort of "relational" commercial--paying a music teacher or a barber--someone whom the payor knows, so there's a social mechanism for dealing with disputes and which protects against fraud.  But there is also some use for making commercial payments outside of a relational context--paying for goods purchased on the Internet--and that is very vulnerable to fraud.  

I wish p2p payments systems would do a bit more to highlight to consumers their prohibition on commercial use, including flagging the fraud risk, but I suspect that they have no interest in doing so--while the systems disclaim commercial use, they nonetheless benefit from it, and have little reason to discourage it.  

Nonpartisan Supreme Court Expansion

posted by Adam Levitin

My latest argument for a substantial nonpartisan expansion (i.e., not a partisan "packing") of the Supreme Court, which would require the Court to sit in randomly assigned panels, is up on Bloomberg Law.   Among other benefits, it would enable the court to hear more cases, so the bankruptcy world might finally rid itself of some of the lingering circuit splits (e.g., equitable mootness or actual vs. hypothetical test for assumption). 

Senate Banking Committee Testimony on Housing Finance

posted by Adam Levitin

I'll be testifying on Tuesday at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on housing finance that is focused on Chairman Crapo's reform outline.  My written testimony may be found here.  Suffice it to say, I'm skeptical.  I argue that a multi-guarantor system is a path to disaster and that the right approach is a single-guarantor system with back-end credit-risk transfers.  Oh wait, we already have that system in all but name.  The system has been totally reformed since 2008.  So why are we looking to do anything major with housing finance reform?  Hmmm.  

Restatement of Consumer Contracts—On-Line Symposium

posted by Adam Levitin

The Yale Journal on Regulation is holding an on-line symposium about the draft Restatement of the Law of Consumer Contracts, which is scheduled for a vote at the American Law Institute's annual meeting this May.  The launching point for the symposium are a pair of articles in JREG that take sharp issue with the empirical studies that underlie the draft Restatement.

The American Law Institute (ALI) is a self-appointed college of cardinals of the American legal profession.  It's a limited size membership organization that puts out various publications, most notably "Restatements" of the law, which are attempts to summarize, clarify, and occasionally improve the law.  Restatements aren't actually law, but they are tremendously influential.  Litigants and courts cite them and they are used to teach law students.  In other words, this stuff matters, even if its influence is indirect. 

The draft Restatement of Consumer Contracts is founded on a set of six quantitative empirical studies about consumer contracts.  This is a major and novel move for a Restatement; traditionally Restatements engaged in a qualitative distillation of the law.  Professor Gregory Klass of Georgetown has an article that attempts to replicate the Reporters' empirical study about the treatment of privacy policies as contracts.  He finds pervasive problems in the Reporters' coding, such as the inclusion of b2b cases in a consumer contracts restatement.  

A draft version of Professor Klass's study inspired me and a number of other advisors to the Restatement project to attempt our own replication study of the empirical studies of contract modification and clickwrap enforcement.  We found the same sort of pervasive problems as Professor Klass.  While the ALI Council completely ignored our findings, we wrote them up into a companion article to Professor Klass's.  

Some of the pieces posted to the symposium so far have been focused on replication study methodology (sort of beside the point given the very basic nature of the problems we identified) or defenses of the Reporters including mixed statutory-contract decisions in their data sets (which is no defense to inclusion of b2b cases or duplicate cases or vacated cases, etc.). But Mel Eisenberg has contributed an important piece that highlights some of the substantive problems with the draft Restatement, namely that it guts consumer protections.  For example, it would require findings of both procedural and substantive unconscionability for a contract to be unconscionable, while many states only require substantive unconscionability. Not surprisingly, I am unaware of any consumer law expert (other than the Reporters) who supports the project.  

But this thing that should really be a wake up call that something is very, very off with this Restatement project is the presence of outside opposition, which is virtually unheard of in the ALI process.  Every major consumer group (also here, here, and here), weighed in in opposition as well as 13 state attorneys general (and also here), and our former co-blogger (and also former ALI Vice-Chair), Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Nor has the opposition been solely from consumer-minded groups.  The US Chamber of Commerce and the major trade associations for banking, telecom, retailers, and insurers are also opposed (albeit with very different motivations).  Simply put, it's hard to find anyone other than the Reporters (and the ALI Council, which has a strong tradition of deference to Reporters) who actually likes the draft Restatement.  

So, if you're an ALI member, get informed.  If you know an ALI member, make sure that s/he is informed.  This is coming for a vote in May and if enacted would be bad policy, based on the legal equivalent of "junk science."  This isn't what the ALI should be doing.  

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  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

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