A Reminder That Disruption Takes on Many Forms
PETITION is, broadly speaking, a newsletter about disruption. As loyal readers have surely noticed, the predominant emphasis, to date, has been tech-based disruption. But, spoiler alert, there are other forms. Earlier this week, Senators Elizabeth Warren and John Cornyn proposed a bill that swiftly reminded a cohort of (mostly Delaware) legal professionals that legislation, if passed, can be an even more immediate, powerful and jarring form of disruption.
Let’s take a step back. Shortly before Christmas, the Commercial Law League of America (CLLA) indicated that the U.S. Senate should consider a new bankruptcy venue reform bill. The gist of the proposal is that a debtor should have to file for bankruptcy in its principal place of business (or where their principal executive offices reside) - as opposed to, as things currently stand, its state of incorporation (the "Inc Rule"), where an affiliate is located (the "Affiliate Rule"), or where a significant asset is located (the "Abracadabra Rule"). Notably, a large percentage of companies are incorporated in Delaware, a state with well-established and well-developed corporate laws and legal precedent. Consequently, thanks to the "Inc Rule," Delaware is typically the most sought after venue by debtors, perennially topping annual lists with the most bankruptcy filings. In other words, the state of Delaware is the biggest beneficiary of the status quo.
Putting aside the Inc Rule for a moment, the “Affiliate Rule” and “Abracadabra Rule,” respectively, have provided debtor companies with wide and crafty latitude to file in jurisdictions other than that of their principal place of business. Again, typically Delaware (and then, to a lesser extent, New York). Have a non-operating subsidiary formed in Delaware? Venue, check on the "Affiliate Rule." Got a random (unoccupied) office you set up last week in a WeWork in Manhattan? POOF, venue! Check on the "Abracadabra Rule." Got a bank account set up (a week ago) with JPMorgan Chase Bank in New York? Venue, again check on the "Abracadabra Rule". It is, seemingly, THAT optional. All of this is like saying that despite the entire automobile industry being manufactured, headquartered and principally-based in Detroit, General Motors ($GM) should file for bankruptcy in New York rather than Michigan. Oh, wait. That actually happened. Take two: that’s like saying that despite the entire automobile industry being manufactured, headquartered and principally-based in Detroit, Chrysler should file for bankruptcy in New York rather than Michigan. Damn. That also happened. Ok, here’s a good one: that’d be like saying it’s okay for the Los Angeles Dodgers to file for bankruptcy in Delaware rather than California. Wait, SERIOUSLY!?!? WTF. Who is to blame for this outrage?
We'll keep this simple, lest this become a treatise absolutely nobody will want to read: federalism. Bankruptcy law is federal but every state has their own courts, circuit courts, and legal precedent. Some states have bankruptcy courts that are historically more favorable to debtors (cough, Delaware...need that incorporation business) - which, speaking commercially and realistically - are de facto clients of the state. Currently, debtors typically choose the venue so if you want to drive debtors to your courthouse steps, favorable corporate and debtor-favorable bankruptcy case precedent goes a long way towards filling court calendars. Not to mention hotels. In this regard, the bankruptcy court isn't all too dissimilar from a large tech company. Go fast and furious to market, aggregate a ton of users (here: debtors), acquire talent (read: judges), and build a database full of information (read: precedent) to then use against everyone else who tries to compete with you. That aggregation is the moat, the competitive advantage. Say, "we're the most sophisticated due to our talent, data, and predictability" and win. Boom. Dial up the Hotel Du Pont please!
As a consequence of federalism, one jurisdiction's "makewhole provision" enriching bondholders is another jurisdiction's "no recovery for you" enraging bondholders. One jurisdiction's "restructuring support agreement" is another jurisdiction's "meaningless bound-to-be-blownup-worthless-piece-of-paper." That's the beauty of venue selection, currently. The system allows debtors to choose based on that precedent. Ask any of your biglaw buddies about "venue analysis" and watch their eyes roll into the back of their heads. That is, if you're even still reading this. They've all had to do it. It's a big part of the filing calculus. And everyone knows it.
Enter Senators Warren and Cornyn. They're saying, "No way, Jose. This sh*t needs to stop." Okay, they didn't say that, exactly, but Senator Warren did say this, "Workers, creditors, and consumers lose when corporations manipulate the system to file for bankruptcy wherever they please. I’m glad to work with Senator Cornyn to prevent big companies from cherry-picking courts that they think will rule in their favor and to crack down on this corporate abuse of our nation’s bankruptcy laws.” The argument goes that the bill “'will strengthen the integrity of the bankruptcy system and build public confidence' by availing companies, small businesses, retirees, creditors and consumers of their home court." Ruh roh.
A few years ago, a heavy hitter lineup of restructuring professionals were asked by The Wall Street Journal what they thought about this venue debate. The general upshot was "nothing to see here." With apologies for the paywall attached to the following links, you'll get the general idea. See, e.g., "the myth of forum shopping." See, also, "venue reform is a solution in search of a problem.";
“allowing fiduciaries to exercise their business judgment about what filing location might maximize enterprise value or reduce execution risk or both.”; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”; "the current status quo of wide venue choice – should win out.”; “It’s not clear that these rules are problematic, so don’t apply a fix with its own set of unintended consequences.”; “The truth is that venue provisions are very appropriate and do not need to be adjusted”; "Letting debtors choose as they can now is 'good business sense.'"; and "current venue requirements 'strike a fair balance.'” In summary, you've got Senators Warren and Cornyn up against a LARGE subset of the bankruptcy bar. And those aren't all Delaware practitioners. That's a cross-section of the entire bar - with some financial advisors and investment bankers thrown in for good measure. Pop us some popcorn.
Now, we've been highlighting venue shenanigans since our inception. Not because it's wrong to leverage a favorable venue with uber-favorable precedent if you have that option; rather, because it has gotten so FRIKKEN OBVIOUS. Clearly an industry with $1750/hour billing rates isn't known for its subtlety. Want a third-party release to shield the private equity bros? St. Louis here we come! Have the opportunity to take advantage of a "rocket docket" and get those billable rates rubber stamped? Godspeed. Want to issue a "Standing Order" to divert bankruptcy traffic (back) into your court? May the Force be with you.
That last bit is particularly notable. Venue gaming got so blatant that even the courts got in to the game. That "Standing Order" is as patent an acknowledgement of venue manipulation as anything we've seen of late. Why did this happen? Take a look at the case trends. After a few early (small) oil and gas exploration and production companies (E&P) filed in Texas and things, uh, didn't go particularly well for professionals, a deluge of E&P debtors mysteriously started popping up in Delaware. That's basic cause and effect. The subsequent cascading secondary effect was the "Standing Order" which, in response, guaranteed professionals that they'd get one of two judges and that, effectively, the Texas courts were open for business. Once that Order came out, debtor traffic curiously reverted back to Texas. E&P management teams and creditors could be heard in their home jurisdiction. Local firms could become "local counsel." Delaware counsel's loss was Texas counsels' gain. (If only the same could be said for lead counsel). Naturally, then, both the Texas Bankruptcy Bar Association and Texas Hotel & Lodging Association back the proposed bill: it basically fortifies the Standing Order. Also, guess where Senator Cornyn is from? Alexa, please cancel that Hotel Dupont reservation.
We're not taking a position in this debate. We have no skin in that game. But we can't help but to chuckle at the timing. Ironically, it seems that more and more debtors are filing near their principal place of business rather than Delaware anyway (cough, third party releases!). See, e.g., Toys R Us, rue21, Payless Shoesource. And so this has the potential to reinforce a recent trend and compound the issues that have already surfaced for Delaware professionals.
This is nerdy sh*t. But it’s still big deal disruption. Just disproportionately for the Delaware bar and the city of Wilmington. It’s so big that even iHeartRadio released a podcast discussing it. Without irony. Dramatic disruption AND comedy.
Who knew bankruptcy could be so entertaining?