Asbestos Plaintiff's Lawyers Ask W.R. Grace Bankruptcy Court to Order that Its Findings - on Solvency - Do Not Matter In any Other Forum
The W. R. Grace chapter 11 case has produced a striking motion that highlights the too often bizarre and unconstitutional nature of much that happens in mass tort chapter 11 cases. In their motion, available here [Docket # 22543], the Asbestos Creditors Committee and the Futures Representative ask the bankruptcy court, Judge Judith Fitzgerald, to issue an order that any post-trial findings she makes on the solvency of Grace are to have no effect outside of her courtroom. The motion goes on to say that Grace does not object to the motion or proposed order.
As proof that I am not making up this motion "to pay no attention to the findings," set out below are key quotes from the motion and the proposed order. The full text quotes are followed by analysis of why the motion is rather absurd, why it was filed, and why it is unfair to co-defendants who remain stuck in asbestos cases in which Grace was, is or should be a co-defendant. The short answer, in my opinion, is that the motion to pay no attention to the findings is a transparent ploy to game the state courts by having them treat Grace as if it is insolvent even though it is in fact solvent. Why? Because Grace being viewed as insolvent by state court judges will in some cases block state court proceedings from properly allocating fault and/or monetary losses to Grace, thus defeating state laws on allocating fault and loss among multiple tort defendants.
1) Key Quotes from the Motion to Pay No Attention
The following are the key portions of the motion to "pay no attention to the findings:"
"In support [of this motion], the ACC and the FCR state as follows:
1. As the Court is aware, the Bank Lenders, various unsecured creditors, and the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors (collectively, the "Unsecured Creditors") object that the Debtors are solvent and, therefore, the Unsecured Creditors are entitled to receive post-petition interest. The Unsecured Creditors have indicated that they intend to litigate this issue at the upcoming confirmation hearing.
2. Whether the Unsecured Creditors are entitled to post-petition interest, and
if so, at what rate is, at bottom, a contractual dispute between the Debtors, on the one hand, and the Bank Lenders and other Unsecured Creditors, on the other hand. Neither the ACC nor the FCR are parties to the relevant contracts, and are not participants in that dispute. Accordingly, the ACC and the FCR are not required, and do not intend, to present evidence on these issues."
Here is the request for relief:
"WHEREFORE, the ACC and the FCR respectfully request entry of an order, in the form of the proposed order attached hereto, providing that any findings or conclusions by the Court with respect to solvency shall only be used for the purpose of determining whether the Unsecured Creditors are entitled to postpetition interest and shall not be used by any party for any other purpose, and granting such other and further relief as the Court may deem just."
Set out below is the key portion of the proposed order - note that it is NOT limited to the bankruptcy court case and instead refers to any proceedings anywhere, such as a state court asbestos law suit where Grace being solvent might make it possible for other defendants to allocate fault or liability to Grace:
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
Any findings made or conclusions reached by the Court with respect to the Debtors' solvency shall be used only for the purpose of assisting the Court to resolve the question of whether Unsecured Creditors, as defined in the Motion, are entitled to postpetition interest and shall not be used by any party in any proceeding for any other purpose. (emphasis added)
IT IS SO ORDERED.
2) Analysis of the Motion to Pay No Attention to the Findings
The ACC's motion is striking for multiple reasons. To begin with, consider its premise. According to the ACC and Futures Rep, they are parties to the case with notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard, but they say they can just sit back and not present evidence and not be bound by whatever happens. That certainly seems rather absurd when the entire chapter 11 case was driven by present and future asbestos claiming. Indeed, the ACC spent several years contending that Grace is insolvent due to an alleged $ 6 billion or more of "asbestos liabilities." But, the ACC and the Futures Representative caved in and settled the present and future asbestos claims against Grace for far less than $ 6 billion after Grace went to enormous effort and expense to prove the bogus nature of many or most asbestos claims against it. The settlement in fact is said by Grace to have a present value of less than $2.5 billion and even the plaintiff's lawyers are said in this AmLaw article to have conceded the present value is less than $ 3 billion. And, when one looks at the settlement, only $ 250 million of present cash is being paid out by Grace itself before 2019- the deal,as described before here, is:
"The trust that will pay out asbestos claims will be funded by a $250 million cash contribution from Grace (payable on the company's emergence from Chapter 11); an additional $1.55 billion from Grace paid over 15 years, beginning in 2019; Grace's asbestos insurance coverage, worth an estimated $600 million; warrants to purchase Grace shares; and more than $1.2 billion in previous settlements with companies accused of fraudulently purchasing Grace assets."
It's rather hard to imagine that $ 250 million is even close to being the tipping point for Grace between solvency and insolvency.
The motion of the ACC and the Futures Representative also is striking for what it says about bankruptcy court proceedings. If anyone can figure out whether any entity such as Grace is or is not solvent, doesn't it make sense that it might be an experienced bankruptcy judge? And, if the court does make findings on solvency, why wouldn't the findings bind parties such as the ACC who were given meaningful prior notice of the hearing and the opportunity to participate in the hearing ?
As referred to above, another question of course is: why have the ACC and the Futures Representative asked the bankruptcy court to order that its findings on solvency should not mean anything anywhere else in the world. And, why would Grace not object to the motion when it has spent several years in arguments denying the extent of its alleged "asbestos liabilities" and, thus, its insolvency ?
In my opinion, the motivation for the motion is that a bankruptcy court finding that Grace is solvent would create an inconvenient truth for asbestos plaintiffs. Why? My view is that the asbestos plaintiff's bar does not want Grace found solvent because that ruling would have an adverse impact in state court asbestos tort cases where various state law rules apply to the allocation of damages and/or fault to solvent and insolvent entities.
Specifically, so long as Grace is viewed as insolvent, the laws of some states will completely block or limit the ability of co-defendants in asbestos trials to have financial liability or fault allocated to Grace. But if Grace is deemed solvent, those joint and several liability rules may not be applied and then co-defendants could use trial to have fault or damages attributed to Grace even if Grace does not have to actually pay out any cash. For example, in some states, a trial finding that Grace is 50% or more at fault could cause other defendants to become only severally liable for economic losses equal to their allocated percentage of fault. Thus, a finding that Grace is solvent could and should cause plaintiffs in some individual cases to collect less money from co-defendants when a jury or judge finds that Grace in fact was at fault for a particular person's asbestos disease. In short, joint and several liability rules why the ACC and the Futures Representative filed their motion asking that the bankruptcy court to order the rest of the world not to pay any attention to what the bankruptcy court says about Grace's solvency.
The ACC/Futures Rep. motion to "pay no attention to the findings" also indirectly highlights other absurdities and inconsistencies in the relationships between and interactions of state and federal tort trials and chapter 11 proceedings. The absurdities arise in both chapter 11 cases actually caused by mass tort claiming and in chapter 11 cases such as GM and Chrysler where the chapter 11 case was not specifically caused by a mass tort problem but the chapter 11 case injunctions have huge impacts on underlying tort cases as they purport to cut off present and future rights to bring lawsuits against debtors, insurers and others. Trying to cover all the inconsistencies would require a book, but the following provides some examples.
One example of inconsistency arises from the positions the plaintiff's bar takes regarding the role of federal supremacy. In most state court tort cases, plaintiff's lawyers bitterly oppose federal supremacy and federal preemption. Time and again, plaintiff's lawyers argue that state law should control tort issues. And, in the GM and Chrysler chapter 11 cases, the ACC and other tort claimants argued at length that state law rights could not and should not be cut off by an order and injunctions issued in a chapter 11 judge court. And, in the future, tort claimants of all kinds no doubt will say that plaintiffs were denied due process in the GM and Chrysler cases, and are not bound by those federal court orders.
In other contexts, however, the plaintiff's personal injury bar and future's representatives go to great lengths to support the power of bankruptcy courts to issue sweeping orders binding everyone in the world to whatever went on the bankruptcy court. In asbestos bankruptcies, the plaintiff's bar time and again argues that bankruptcy courts can and should deem themselves to have incredibly broad powers to create billion dollar trusts to help debtors exit chapter 11 and at the same time pay money to real - and not real - "victims." Along the road to the creation of such trusts, plaintiff's lawyers unabashedly sell the certainty created by the bankruptcy court injunctive orders under section 524(g) of the bankruptcy code. Look back at the terms of the Grace deal above - the plaintiffs bar sold certainty to Grace, to insurers, and to entities that bought assets from Grace.
Particularly worth noting is the way the plaintiff's bar sells certainty to insurers. The deal invariably is: agree to pay $ x now, $ x over ___ future years, and then you, the insurance company, can have the benefit of a federal court injunction protecting your company and its insurance policies from any more lawsuits involving asbestos or any other tort claims arising from the debtor. That certainty, it is said, will protect the insurer against "direct action" claims by plaintiffs, against contribution claims by other insurers, and against claims arising from what the insurer may or may not have hidden from the public. Indeed, being able to sell that kind of certainty was the central point of the facts related to this year's Supreme Court opinion in the Manville/Travelers case, which I've touched on before at posts such as this one. Thus, in that context, plaintiff's lawyers embrace and extol federal bankruptcy court supremacy and want bankruptcy court orders to apply in every case and every time so that the plaintiff's can sell more certainty to more entities at higher prices. Thus, that's one example of glaring inconsistency as the plaintiff's bar extols federal supremacy in that setting, but denies it in other state court settings and seeks to moot it through their motion to "pay no attention to the findings." (And by the way, the Supreme Court's oral argument questions - and its opinion - in Manville/Travelers both reflect the Court's lack of a meaningful record on or other knowledge of what actually happens in the chapter 11 mass tort cases that some of the justices characterized as "mysterious.")
The plaintiff's bar is enormously clever and creative. They have created two different compensation systems - one composed of $ 30 billion or more of asbestos trusts and the other composed of ordinary tort law suits. To better serve their clients and their own pocketbooks, the plaintiff's bar seeks to keep the two compensation systems apart so that they can have their cake and eat it too (a phrase Bates White has been the first and most public to apply to the situation). The motion to "pay no attention to the findings" is merely one of the more recent examples of how the two systems can be and are in fact being gamed. How can this happen? Because the two different systems are run by judges who have little or no detailed understanding of what is happening in the other system, and because almost all bankruptcy and state court trial court judges view their primary job as getting individual cases resolved, regardless of the consequences for others.
One final thought. Doesn't the motion bring to mind the Wizard telling Dorothy and the others to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?