Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (“PROMESA”) in an attempt to pull Puerto Rico back from the abyss. The reason for this drastic action—a special insolvency regime available only for Puerto Rico—was plain: the Commonwealth had accumulated debts well beyond its ability to repay. Its economy was in such a dreadful state that even if one were to declare an indefinite moratorium on all of its debt payments, it would still be the case that the island could not make ends meet without a drastic overhaul of both its operations and its finances. Yet prior to congressional action there was no moratorium. The island’s creditors were demanding money, and the government’s cash reserves were nearing depletion. Disaster seemed imminent.
Congress provided a glimmer of hope to the American citizens of Puerto Rico. PROMESA, at least temporarily, put a halt to the creditors’ collection efforts. It also created a proceeding that in essence replicates Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code for the Commonwealth, as well as an alternative path relying on consensual restructuring coupled with the power to bind holdout creditors. Puerto Rico gained two options that it lacked prior to the legislation’s passage. But the price for these protections was steep. A control board was put in place that effectively took over control of the territory’s finances and the conduct of any insolvency proceedings. The members of this board were appointed by elected officials in Washington. The elected government of Puerto Rico had no right to appoint or veto any members. Given potential constitutional infirmities with the control board, it remains to be seen whether this last-minute action is sufficient to save the island from total financial collapse.
This Article reports on a breakdown in access to justice in bankruptcy, a system from which one million Americans will seek help this year. A crucial decision for these consumers will be whether to file a chapter 7 or chapter 13 bankruptcy. Nearly every aspect of their bankruptcies—both the benefits and the burdens of debt relief—will be different in chapter 7 versus chapter 13. Almost all consumers will hire a bankruptcy attorney. Because they must pay their attorneys, many consumers will file chapter 13 to finance their access to the law, rather than because they prefer the law of chapter 13 over chapter 7.
The world of business and finance has become increasingly complex. Within the recent past, we have experienced significant improvements to finance as novel structures and concepts are created to meet people’s varied needs. For example, new business structures have emerged, including limited partnerships, limited liability companies, and even series LLCs. Simple lending and borrowing has changed to make debt more desirable and to further the economic growth of businesses. Commercial mortgage-backed securities allow companies to raise capital at lower interest rates. Parent-subsidiary relationships enable businesses to isolate their liability. Debt can be structured with numerous mezzanine tiers, each comprised of perhaps an unidentifiable number of investors
In the early months of the financial crisis that started in August 2007, Citigroup suddenly had to take onto its balance sheet $25 billion of assets–which, due to subprime mortgage exposure, were worth on the market only a third the amount that Citigroup was required to pay for them. The reason for the appearance of these troubled assets on the bank’s balance sheet was a liquidity guarantee provided by Citibank from the time it originally sold the assets to protect short-term lenders from the possibility that their debt could not be refinanced at maturity. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission would conclude that such guarantees helped “bring the huge financial conglomerate to the brink of failure.”
The assets in question were collateralized debt obligations (“CDOs”), which package together a large number of loans and other debt products and use the income from those loans to pay returns to the investors in the CDOs. It is clear, however, that not all of the “loans” underlying Citibank’s CDOs were actual loans. Some of them were financial contracts called derivatives that promised payments based on the performance of a specific set of actual loans. That is, some of the underlying assets were not loans, but simply represented the promise of one financial institution to make payments to another.
Firms rarely go from solvency to Chapter 11 in an instant. Instead, the slide into bankruptcy will be marked by a period (the “zone of distress”) that begins with the breach of a lending contract and ends, perhaps months or even years later, with either a formal bankruptcy case or some other resolution, such as a nonbankruptcy restructuring or liquidation. In this period, the firm’s governance will be up for grabs. Doctrinally, state corporate law gives directors the power and responsibility to manage the firm for the benefit of shareholders, subject to fiduciary review. In fact, however, real control shifts away from directors and shareholders to creditors. Yet, the law offers little to check this control. Creditors are not generally viewed as fiduciaries, and so they owe their borrowers neither duties of care nor loyalty. In theory, regulation or contract could channel creditor conduct in the zone of distress, but three fundamental changes in the dynamics among distressed firms and their investors have weakened these constraints.
One important rule of the Bankruptcy Code is that a creditor generally is not entitled to receive interest on a claim that accrues after the date when the bankruptcy petition is filed. As with most general rules, however, there are several exceptions to this ban on postpetition interest, one of which is that postpetition interest may be allowed in certain cases when the debtor is solvent. This exception is expressly codified in § 726(a)(5) of the Code, which evinces a policy in favor of requiring debtors to pay postpetition interest on creditors’ claims when the debtor can afford to do so.
The road from defendant to debtor is often short, and the cases of the Catholic dioceses would appear to be no exceptions. Facing hundreds of millions of dollars in liability for priests’ sexual misconduct, dioceses in Washington, Arizona, and Oregon recently filed cases under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Other dioceses may soon follow suit. Like the Dow Corning Corporation, the A.H. Robins Company, countless asbestos manufacturers, and other tortfeasors of recent memory, the dioceses seek to discharge – to reduce or eliminate – the claims against them.
As with most mass tort bankruptcies, these cases present a struggle between two sets of comparatively innocent parties: tort claimants (the victims of the sexual abuse) and other creditors, on the one hand, versus the parishioners, or church members, on the other. Unlike most bankruptcies, however, these cases present two dilemmas: one doctrinal and the other constitutional.