By LEN WEISER-VARON

The linked Mintz Levin client advisory discusses a recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that held a “make-whole” optional redemption premium to be due upon a refinancing of corporate debt following its automatic acceleration upon bankruptcy. As noted in the linked advisory, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals also is considering this issue; whether it will come to the same conclusion remains to be seen. One way or another, these decisions will have spillover effect on judicial interpretation of optional redemption provisions in municipal bond transactions, and shine a spotlight upon the discrepancies between optional redemption provisions and other early payment provisions in most municipal bond indentures.

The Third Circuit case involved a debtor, Energy Future Holdings, that filed for bankruptcy for the explicit purpose of refinancing the debt at favorable interest rates while avoiding the hefty make-whole premiums payable upon an optional redemption of the refinanced notes. The bankruptcy court and the federal district court found nothing in the applicable corporate indenture requiring payment of a make-whole following an acceleration.  The Third Circuit reversed, interpreting the applicable corporate indenture’s “optional redemption” provisions to be applicable to the bankruptcy-triggered acceleration followed by repayment of the accelerated debt via a refinancing.

The Third Circuit’s ruling that the repayment following acceleration was an “optional redemption” may have been driven by the factual context of what could be characterized as an “optional bankruptcy” filed solely or primarily to jettison the make-whole payments and lock in lower rate replacement financing. The indenture’s acceleration provision was, as is usual, a remedial provision entirely separate from the indenture’s optional redemption provisions, and, as is typical but not universal, did not specify a premium to be due upon payment of the accelerated debt. Although once the accelerated payment was due there was nothing “optional” about paying it, the appellate panel opined that the payment on the applicable date was “optional” because the issuer chose to file for bankruptcy and chose not to deaccelerate the debt after the bankruptcy triggered the automatic acceleration.  The fact that the bondholders objected to repayment without a make-whole premium also seems to have factored into the court’s determination that the payment by the issuer was “optional.”

The federal appellate court also concluded that under New York law a “redemption” may occur at or before maturity of bonds, and that therefore a “redemption” is not synonymous with a prepayment.  (Indeed, the court suggested that if the make-whole premium had been labeled a “prepayment” premium rather than an “optional redemption” premium, it may have held the make-whole inapplicable, a curious distinction that leads back to the question of under what circumstances payment of an amount that has become due can be deemed optional.) The court disregarded indenture provisions that were technically inconsistent with its determination that the payment was an “optional redemption”, such as the optional redemption requirement of prior notice from the issuer to the bondholders. According to the court: “[The issuer] offers no reason why it could not have complied with [the redemption] notice procedures. In any event, it cannot use its own failure to notify to absolve its duty to pay the make-whole.”

By interpreting the indenture’s optional redemption provisions as applicable to the payment of the accelerated debt, the Third Circuit panel mooted and declined to address the noteholders’ alternate argument that the bankruptcy court should have granted relief from the bankruptcy stay to permit the bondholders to deaccelerate the accelerated debt. Whether that would have provided a more straightforward means of getting to the same result is debatable, as debt generally is deemed accelerated upon a bankruptcy whether or not it is contractually accelerated by the terms of the indenture.

The optional redemption provisions that are typical in municipal bond indentures refute the equivalence found by the Third Circuit between an optional redemption and a payment after acceleration. In contrast to the permissibility in corporate transactions of optional redemption at any time at a make-whole premium, the norm in municipal bond transactions is a lockout period (often 10 years) during which optional redemption is impermissible, followed by a declining fixed optional redemption premium. The fact that municipal indentures permit acceleration whenever there is an event of default, including upon bankruptcy, while imposing a lockout period for optional redemption, suggests that in the municipal bond context there may be less receptiveness by courts to the notion of deemed equivalence between an optional redemption and a payment following acceleration. Accordingly, a court may be less likely to deem an optional redemption premium applicable to a post-acceleration payment on a municipal bond absent express language requiring a premium in a post-acceleration context.

Whether corporate or municipal bonds are at issue, the best way to ensure the intended result is to draft clearly and specifically.  Municipal bond indentures often permit or require bonds to be paid ahead of schedule not only upon acceleration but upon a so-called extraordinary redemption.  These provisions, which typically permit payment ahead of schedule at par, are infrequently deployed relative to optional redemption provisions. Use of bankruptcy as a means of avoiding a prepayment premium is less likely in the municipal context, where the prepayment premium is typically 3% or less versus the often substantially larger make-whole premium, but “default refundings” of municipal bonds have been attempted to circumvent the optional redemption lockout period. There is no difference in the economic impact to a bondholder of early payment, no matter the degree of optionality or lack of optionality from the issuer’s perspective, and whether an early payment premium is expressly provided by the indenture in cases other than “optional redemption” is primarily a risk allocation question.

Drafting acceleration provisions and/or extraordinary redemption provisions in a manner that applies an equivalent premium to the optional redemption premium upon their exercise during the post-lockout period, and a make-whole or other premium during the optional redemption lockout period, provides better protection against any perceived risk of abuse of those provisions than reliance on the courts to figure out what the parties intended and/or is equitable in borderline scenarios.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust puts an end to one of Puerto Rico’s multi-pronged efforts to deleverage itself.  Given the comprehensiveness of the First Circuit’s intermediate appellate opinion upholding the district court’s invalidation of Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act, it was surprising that the highest court took the case, a decision apparently prompted by Justice Sotomayor’s interest in obtaining a reversal.  Comments of some other Justices at oral arguments raised the possibility of Sotomayor attracting a majority for the proposition that the preemption provisions of Section 903 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code were inapplicable to Puerto Rico, but in the end only Justice Ginsburg joined what turned out to be Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion in a 5-2 ruling upholding the relegation of the Recovery Act to the dustbins of history.

As  we have written previously, the Recovery Act was damaged goods from the beginning: even if the fairly clear preemption argument had not prevailed, the Contracts Clause constraints on non-federal bankruptcy legislation would have severely constrained, if not eliminated, the effective use of  the Recovery Act to break bond contracts. In any event, the Recovery Act, and the Supreme Court’s decision, were  a couple weeks away from being moot, as it appears evident that Congress will pass PROMESA, the federal oversight and debt restructuring legislation that has always constituted the logical legal mechanism for those favoring a less chaotic denouement to Puerto Rico’s debt woes.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

A few thoughts on Tuesday’s oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the litigation over whether Puerto Rico’s Public Corporations Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act, an insolvency statute for certain of its government instrumentalities, is void, as the lower federal courts held, under Section 903 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code:

  • Due to Justice Scalia’s death and Justice Alito’s recusal, only 7 Justices heard the case and only 4 votes are needed for a majority.  Almost all of the questioning at oral argument came from Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer, plus a couple noteworthy questions from Justice Ginsburg.  With the standard disclaimer that questions at oral argument are not necessarily predictive of a Justice’s votes, it seems clear from the questioning that Justice Sotomayor will vote to reinstate the Recovery Act and is the most passionate of the Justices about the issue, and, even if the relatively silent Chief Justice Roberts and the silent Justice Kennedy and Justice Thomas vote to affirm,  the questions and musings of Justices Kagan, Breyer and Ginsburg suggest that Justice Sotomayor could sway them to her position and thereby obtain the 4 votes necessary for reversal of the First Circuit’s holding and reinstatement of the legislation.
  • All that can be said about the actual statutory language that the Supreme Court will interpret is that the drafting does not represent Congress’s finest work.  (Justice Breyer provided the only moment of merriment on the Scalia-less panel when, after a suggestion that the opaque statutory language requires a contextual reading, he responded, “That may be, but I can’t say that an ‘airplane’ means a horse.”) There is no relevant legislative history, so it is not clear that Congress, when it amended the Bankruptcy Code to exclude Puerto Rico’s (and the District of Columbia’s) government instrumentalities from Chapter 9 eligibility, thought about the question of how that would or should impact Puerto Rico’s and D.C.’s right to enact their own insolvency statutes.  So while nominally a statutory interpretation case, this is, on a technical level, almost purely a “what makes the most sense” case.
  • The First Circuit was persuaded that it would make no sense for Congress to act affirmatively to withhold from Puerto Rico the right to authorize its insolvent instrumentalities to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9, while intending that Puerto Rico have the right to authorize such filings under some insolvency statute of its own creation.  That seems almost unassailably correct; basic common sense suggests that whatever distrust of Puerto Rico must have motivated Congress to close the door to Puerto Rico’s ability to authorize its instrumentalities to file under Chapter 9 cannot be reconciled with Congressional intent that Puerto Rico be allowed to authorize such filings under its own version of an insolvency statute that might be identical to, or differ in unpredictable ways from, Chapter 9.
  • However, Puerto Rico seems to have gotten some traction before the Supreme Court with the proposition (which the First Circuit correctly rejected) that Congress cannot have intended to leave Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities in a “no man’s land” where they had no access to Chapter 9 and no access to an alternative insolvency regime. The short answer is that there is a high likelihood that Congress, if it had an intent on the matter when it eliminated Puerto Rico instrumentalities from Chapter 9 eligibility, precisely intended that Puerto Rico instrumentalities would not have access to an insolvency process unless and until Congress specifically authorized the applicable process (as it is currently being pressed to do by Puerto Rico and the U.S. Treasury.)  Such federal control would be and is consistent with Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory, however it is labeled in the Bankruptcy Code.
  • Justice Sotomayor also raised the issue of whether the principles of federalism and state sovereignty that make the federal Chapter 9 available only to instrumentalities of states that have elected into the Chapter 9 regime would be violated if Chapter 9 were the only insolvency regime available to a state, i.e. whether interpreting Section 903 of the Bankruptcy Code as applicable to states that have not exercised such option (as well as to Puerto Rico and D.C., which have no such option to exercise) would be unduly coercive and raise Tenth Amendment issues.  The First Circuit left that question unaddressed on the grounds that Puerto Rico is not protected by the Tenth Amendment.  But as Section 903 applies to any “State”, if the Supreme Court interprets it, and its restriction on a “State’s” ability to enact insolvency legislation for its instrumentalities, as applying to Puerto Rico, it also will be interpreting it as applying to the 50 states, including those that have not opted to authorize their instrumentalities to use Chapter 9.  Whether or not any of the other Justices would view such an interpretation as presenting a substantial Tenth Amendment concern cannot be discerned from the oral argument, but the Court often interprets ambiguous statutes in a manner that avoids a potential constitutional concern, and Sotomayor’s apparent invocation of that principle may be targeted at her fellow Justices as a counterweight to the proposition that Congress, in eliminating Chapter 9 access for Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities,  must have intended to preclude any access to bankruptcy by such  instrumentalities absent direct authorization by Congress.  In divining what Congress intended by Section 903, Sotomayor appears to be suggesting, the Supreme Court cannot focus myopically on what Congress would have intended for Puerto Rico.
  •  As we have previously discussed, even if the Court revives the Recovery Act, the Recovery Act is, from Puerto Rico’s perspective, a problematic, and possibly ineffective, insolvency process.  A principal purpose of bankruptcy is to adjust, restructure and impair contracts.  The federal government is not subject to the constitutional restriction on impairment of contracts, and therefore the federally-enacted Chapter 9 process can impair debts and contracts.  Puerto Rico, and therefore its Recovery Act, have been held to be subject to the constitutional restriction on impairment of contracts.  A couple of the Justices noted this constraint, both in questioning what benefit Puerto Rico would derive from a reinstatement of the statute and as a potential protection that Congress might have taken into account if it did not intend to preclude non-federal insolvency law.  If the Recovery Act is reinstated and used by Puerto Rico, one can expect years of litigation on the question of whether any debt adjustment (or other contract adjustment) effected thereunder does or doesn’t meet the high bar of public necessity and unavailability of reasonable alternatives required for such adjustment not to constitute an unconstitutional “impairment.”
  • Puerto Rico’s persistence in seeking reinstatement of the Recovery Act reflects a calculus that an insolvency process that produces a legally questionable and potentially unenforceable result is better than no process, and provides creditors more incentive for consensual resolutions than no process.  Chapter 9 eligibility for Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities, and, if Congress were to grant it, “super Chapter 9“ eligibility for Puerto Rico itself,  would clearly, in Puerto Rico’s view, constitute a far more advantageous and conclusive process.  However, there is some risk to Puerto Rico that if the Supreme Court reinstates the Recovery Act before Congress acts on federal legislation to address Puerto Rico’s financial woes, the revival of the Recovery Act would undercut any Chapter 9 momentum, leaving Puerto Rico with its legally wobbly Recovery Act.  But Puerto Rico appears willing to gamble that the Supreme Court will issue its decision after Congress has done whatever it will do, and, in any event, to believe that a constitutionally vulnerable local bankruptcy statute in the hand is worth a constitutionally bulletproof federal bankruptcy statute in the bush.

 

While secured creditors are entitled to special rights in bankruptcy, those rights may differ depending on whether creditors have a statutory or consensual lien on their collateral. This is primarily because section 552(a) of the Bankruptcy Code provides, in part, that “property acquired by the estate or by the debtor after the commencement of the case is not subject to any lien resulting from any security agreement . . . .” In other words, consistent with the concept that a debtor receive a ‘fresh start’ following a bankruptcy discharge, section 552(a)* strips certain secured creditors of liens in the post-petition property received by a debtor. However, section 552(a) does not apply if a creditor is secured by a statutory lien; a statutory lien ‘flops over’ the petition date and attaches to post-petition receipts of a debtor.

In general, the Code contemplates three types of liens: (1) consensual liens (i.e. a lien created by a security agreement), (2) judicial liens and (3) statutory liens. The primary distinction is that consensual liens are created by a security agreement between a debtor and a creditor, while judicial and statutory liens are created by operation of law and/or an order of a judge and do not require a debtor’s agreement. As the name suggests, a statutory lien arises automatically by statute.

Most statutory liens are obvious; you ‘know ‘em when you see them’. Perhaps that is why caselaw on the subject is so limited. The most substantial analysis of the issue appears in two decisions from the Orange County, California chapter 9 bankruptcy case where noteholders sought continued post-petition payment of pledged taxes and other revenues of the debtor. The Bankruptcy Court concluded that the noteholders held a consensual lien which was cut-off by the bankruptcy filing. The District Court disagreed, finding that the noteholders were secured by a statutory lien. Despite the reversal, we think the Bankruptcy Court got it right.

The Bankruptcy Court enumerated the key characteristics of a statutory lien: “the lien is automatic, and there is no need for any consent by the borrower or designation of revenues.” For example, a statutory lien is created if a statute provides that debt issued pursuant to that statute shall be secured by a lien on property specified by that statute. The lien is automatic, there is no need for any consent of the borrower. If instead a statute provides that a borrower may borrow money and may pledge property to secure such borrowing, any lien granted by the borrower pursuant to the statute would be consensual.

One area where the consensual/statutory lien distinction may not be as significant is in a chapter 9 bankruptcy case when a creditor has a lien on ‘special revenues’ (as defined in section 902(2) of the Code). This is because, pursuant to section 928, a creditor’s consensual lien on special revenues ‘flops over’ the petition date and attaches to post-petition receipts—much like a statutory lien does in all instances. However, it may still be preferable to have a statutory lien on special revenues because, in addition to the ‘flop-over’ effect, section 928 also subordinates a creditor’s lien to “necessary operating expenses” of the project or system. Since by its terms it appears that only consensual liens are addressed in section 928 (referencing “any lien resulting from any security agreement. . .”), section 928(b)’s subordination mechanism may not affect statutory liens on special revenues.

* All section references are to the Bankruptcy Code.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

 

A draft of the U.S. Treasury’s proposed debt restructuring legislation began circulating earlier today.  The draft legislation would give Puerto Rico, as well as other U.S. territories, and their municipalities access to U.S. bankruptcy court under a new chapter of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code (so-called “Super Chapter 9”) as well as making Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities (but not Puerto Rico itself) potentially eligible to file for bankruptcy under existing Chapter 9. The prospects for bipartisan cooperation on some form of such legislation appear somewhat more promising than those for the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, but whether this trial balloon will fly remains uncertain.

Some initial observations:

  • The legislation would provide access to bankruptcy to Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories (Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands) and their municipalities.
  • The availability of bankruptcy to a territory and/or any “municipality” (i.e. political subdivision, public agency, instrumentality or public corporation of a territory) would be conditioned on the establishment of a Fiscal Reform Assistance Council (Council) at the request of the applicable territory’s Governor.  The Council would consist of 5 members appointed by the President of the United States and would have to approve any such bankruptcy filing.  The Council would have a variety of oversight powers including budget and debt issuance approval powers.
  • The legislation preserves the concept of “special revenue” bonds that benefit from more protective provisions under Chapter 9, such as the continued application of a lien on special revenues to such revenues arising after the filing of the bankruptcy petition, and the inapplicability of the bankruptcy stay to the application of special revenues to payment of debt service on special revenue bonds.  However, the definition of “special revenues” is narrower under the draft legislation than it is under Chapter 9.  As under Chapter 9, “special revenues” include “receipts derived from the ownership, operation, or disposition of projects or systems of the debtor that are primarily used or intended to be used primarily to provide transportation, utility, or other services, including the proceeds of borrowings to finance the projects or systems.”  However, for Puerto Rico and other territories, the draft legislation would not include as “special revenues” “special excise taxes imposed on particular activities or transactions,”  “incremental tax receipts from the benefited area in the case of tax-increment financing,” “other revenues or receipts derived from particular functions of the debtor, whether or not the debtor has other functions” or “taxes specifically levied to finance one or more projects or systems, excluding receipts from general property, sales, or income taxes (other than tax-increment financing) levied to finance the general purposes of the debtor.”  Accordingly, debtors that under the legislation could file under either Chapter 9 or this new chapter would have an incentive to file under this new chapter if their revenues would constitute “special revenues” under Chapter 9 but not under the new chapter.
  • The legislation creates a one-year stay (from the date of establishment of a Council) on (i) the commencement or continuation of any action or proceeding that seeks to enforce a claim against the territory and (ii) the enforcement of a lien on “or arising out of” taxes or assessments owed the territory.  Note that the stay becomes effective without regard to whether a bankruptcy petition is filed.
  • A territory may be a debtor upon the establishment of a Council and approval of the filing by the Council.  A municipality of a territory must, in addition, be specifically authorized by territory law to be a debtor.
  • In contrast to Chapter 9, a debtor need not be insolvent in order to be eligible to file for bankruptcy under the proposed new chapter.
  • A territory and its municipalities may file bankruptcy petitions and plans of adjustment jointly.
  • If the debtor is a territory, the presiding judge in the bankruptcy is appointed by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  If the debtor is a municipality filing separately from a territory, the presiding judge is appointed by the chief judge of the applicable federal circuit court of appeals (the 1st Circuit, in the case of Puerto Rico).
  • Among the various conditions for confirmation of a plan, noteworthy conditions include that “the plan does not unduly impair the claims of any class of pensioners.”  The draft legislation does not define what is meant by “unduly.”
  • The legislation provides a limited degree of protection for Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds, including as a plan approval condition that “if feasible, the plan does not unduly impair” the claims of holders of the territory’s general obligation bonds that are “identified in applicable nonbankruptcy law as having a first claim on available territory resources.”   Notably, this protection is provided “if feasible” whereas there is no feasibility requirement on the protection of pensioner claims.  Again, the protection of general obligation bonds, “if feasible” is against being “unduly” impaired, without clarity as to what constitutes undue impairment.  Oddly, the implication is that general obligation bonds can be “unduly impaired” if it is not feasible to “duly” impair them.
  • The draft legislation makes many but not all of the general provisions of the Bankruptcy Code, many but not all of the provisions of Chapter 9, and some of the provisions of Chapter 11, particularly those relating to plan confirmation,  applicable to a bankruptcy involving a territory or a territorial municipality.

By LEN WEISER-VARON, BILL KANNEL and ERIC BLYTHE

It is said that muddy water is best cleared by leaving it be.  The Supreme Court’s December 4 decision to review the legality of Puerto Rico’s local bankruptcy law, the Recovery Act, despite a well-reasoned First Circuit Court of Appeals opinion affirming the U.S. District Court in San Juan’s decision voiding the Recovery Act on the grounds that it conflicts with Section 903 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, suggests, at a minimum, that at least four of the Justices deemed the questions raised too interesting to let the First Circuit have the last word. This discretionary granting of Puerto Rico’s certiorari petition further muddies the already roiling Puerto Rican waters.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s granting of the Commonwealth’s petition for a writ of certiorari, eight Justices will hear the case (Justice Alito has recused himself), with oral arguments likely in March, 2016.  A decision would then be expected in June, 2016, coinciding with the Commonwealth’s fiscal year end.  At first glance, the decision to grant “cert” appears to be a victory for the Commonwealth (according to SCOTUSblog, over the past three terms the Supreme Court has reversed approximately 72% of cases it has accepted for review).  Of course, the Supreme Court could weigh-in in a manner or on a topic that does not fully resolve the status of the Recovery Act.  At the very least, the review may hinder creditor negotiations and the chances of a consensual resolution.  And a consensual resolution may be Puerto Rico’s best hope.

Even as Puerto Rico legislators laud the Supreme Court’s decision, their pleas for alternate solutions—namely, Chapter 9 eligibility and/or a voluntary debt exchange—continue.  They argue that, absent these solutions, the territory will reach its breaking point before the Supreme Court rules.  The reappearance of the Recovery Act as an arguable solution to Puerto Rico’s quest for a debt restructuring process will likely only contribute to the gridlock in Congress regarding Puerto Rico’s campaign for Chapter 9 eligibility or for “Super Chapter 9” legislation that would enable it to restructure its general obligation debt.  Consensual creditor resolutions may be the Commonwealth’s most realistic option; indeed, the Commonwealth was hopeful it could implement a voluntary debt exchange by May, 2016.  But that was before cert was granted.

Creditors may now be even more wary of negotiating given the greater uncertainty the Supreme Court’s review engenders.  Parties striking deals with the Commonwealth and its entities are going to want to make sure the arrangements reached are “Recovery Act remote”, “Chapter 9 remote”, “Super Chapter 9 remote” and “Whatever the heck Congress, the courts or the Puerto Rico legislators do remote”.  Given the uncertainties regarding Recovery Act implementation (if/when/how), creditors may be unwilling to bear these risks and may choose to leave the muddy water be, for now.  That could be disastrous for Puerto Rico.

Finally, even if the Supreme Court reinstates the Recovery Act, the Recovery Act may still be an ineffectual vehicle for debt restructuring.  Because it is not enacted by the federal government, any plan confirmed under its provisions will be subject to a variety of constitutional challenges under the contracts clause and the takings clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The future’s not ours to see.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

A few reactions to today’s oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit regarding the validity of Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act:

  • On the three judge panel, Chief Judge Lynch seemed prepared to uphold the lower court decision invalidating the Recovery Act; she suggested  that Congress’s amendment of the Bankruptcy Code to eliminate the Chapter 9 eligibility of Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities could be interpreted as reflecting Congressional intent that Congress, and not Puerto Rico, should determine how to deal with Puerto Rico’s municipal insolvencies.  Judge Torruella seemed more sympathetic to Puerto Rico’s arguments that the statutory language does not articulate any such intent, that there is no legislative history as to the rationale for the removal of Puerto Rico from Chapter 9 eligibility, and that Congressional intent to preempt Puerto Rico’s use of its police power to enact bankruptcy legislation addressing a fiscal crisis cannot be assumed absent affirmative evidence of such intent.  The third judge on the panel, Judge Howard, asked fewer questions, but asked some pointed ones relating to the potential severability of certain provisions of the Recovery Act.  At the end of the arguments, Chief Judge Lynch characterized the case as an important one and pledged that the court would “work hard” on its decision.
  • On the basis of the judges’ questions, it seems more likely that the panel will uphold the lower court’s decision than that it will reverse it, although the decision may be a close one.  It is possible that the court will remand the case back to the District Court with instructions to determine whether provisions of the Recovery Act that do not impact nonconsenting creditors can be salvaged by severing those that do (versus invalidating the entire Recovery Act), but it is questionable that such a statute, and such an exercise, would be of any utility.
  • Either way, there is a good chance that the First Circuit’s opinion will turn out to be a way station on a longer road, the next segment of which will be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The appellants pressed their arguments that, read literally, Section 903 of the Bankruptcy Code is only applicable in situations involving a Chapter 9 debtor, which Puerto Rico instrumentalities by definition cannot be, and that the lower court therefore misconstrued Section 903 in holding its restrictions on nonfederal bankruptcy statutes applicable to Puerto Rico. The oral arguments then focused primarily on whether a literal interpretation of Section 903 as inapplicable to Puerto Rico would or would not lead to absurd results and/or results that Congress could not have intended, and on what Congressional intent can be inferred (given little, if any, applicable legislative history) from the chronology of revisions to provisions of federal bankruptcy statutes impacting the inclusion or exclusion from federal bankruptcy eligibility of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other territories.  Each side construed the legislative chronology as clearly supporting their clients’ views of whether Congress’s ultimate exclusion of Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities from Chapter 9 eligibility was or wasn’t intended to leave Congress with the sole power to enact any bankruptcy statute for such excluded instrumentalities.  When Judge Torruella asserted that it would be highly unusual for Congress to leave Puerto Rico in a “no man’s land” with no recourse to any bankruptcy process, Chief Judge Lynch countered that perhaps Congress did not intend to leave Puerto Rico’s municipalities in limbo forever, but that it might take time for Congress to decide what approach to take.
  • Addressing arguments by the appellees that it would make no sense for Congress to eliminate Puerto Rico’s Chapter 9 eligibility while permitting Puerto Rico to “xerox Chapter 9 and make it worse” through a statute such as the Recovery Act, appellants’ counsel reminded the judges that Puerto Rico would be subject to substantial federal law constraints, such as the contracts clause, that would not be applicable in a Chapter 9 proceeding.   That is accurate, and brings to the fore the question of whether, even if Puerto Rico were to persuade the First Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court that Section 903 does not preempt the Recovery Act or invalidate its key provisions, it will have done itself any favors.  Although the contracts clause is not impregnable, it sets a high bar for a public instrumentality’s restructuring of its own debts.  The Section 903 litigation is only the first salvo in an armada of facial and as applied legal assaults that would face any Puerto Rico issuer attempting to break its bond contracts.  Puerto Rico clearly believes that having a Recovery Act gives it more leverage in creditor negotiations than not having it, but any meaningful restructuring under the Recovery Act might well be legally ineffectual.  Whatever happens to the Recovery Act, Puerto Rico needs to find other ways to address its fiscal issues.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

At the end of “The Candidate”, Robert Redford’s title character, having won, famously asks, “What do we do now?”

A similar question can be asked now that the federal district court in Puerto Rico has struck down the Puerto Rico Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act.

In a February 6, 2015 opinion, Judge Besosa rejected enough of Puerto Rico’s ripeness and standing arguments to reach the merits of the plaintiffs’  challenges to the validity of the Recovery Act.  As we had anticipated, Judge Besosa held that the Recovery Act is preempted by Section 903(1) of the federal Bankruptcy Code, which provides that “a State law prescribing a method of composition of indebtedness of [a] municipality may not bind any creditor that does not consent to such composition.”  The Recovery Act contains provisions that purport to permit changes to the debt obligations of eligible Puerto Rico public corporations without the consent of all affected debtholders. The court held that Section 903(1) applies to Puerto Rico, and that it not only invalidates those provisions of the Recovery Act that purport to bind non-consenting creditors, but preempts the Recovery Act entirely.

Puerto Rico enacted the Recovery Act because the federal Bankruptcy Code precludes Puerto Rico’s public corporations from availing themselves of Chapter 9 of the federal Bankruptcy Code to restructure their debts. Puerto Rico’s public officers are now asking themselves the Spanish version of Redford’s question: “Y ahora que hacemos?” Certain creditors of PREPA and other overleveraged Puerto Rico issuers may be asking variations of that question.

Some potential answers:

1)      The Recovery Act may yet recover. In addition to the ripeness and standing issues, Judge Besosa’s opinion rests on a textual analysis of Section 903(1), including the definition of the word “creditor” as used therein and elsewhere in the Bankruptcy Code and its applicability to creditors of an entity that is not a debtor in a federal proceeding. Puerto Rico is likely to appeal the federal district court’s ruling, both as to the ripeness and standing analysis and as to the applicability of Section 903 to Puerto Rico and the Recovery Act. The ruling is certainly a victory for the plaintiff bondholders and takes the Recovery Act off the table for the near future. In addition, Judge Besosa’s discussions of the contract clause and taking clause issues with the Recovery Act highlight the obstacles the Recovery Act has faced from the beginning as legislation that does not benefit from the federal bankruptcy power’s override of the contracts clause. Accordingly, a resurrected version of the Recovery Act, if any, would continue to face substantial legal challenges. But the Recovery Act, or something like it, will remain hovering in the background of any restructuring discussions during the pendency of the likely appeal.

2)      The invalidation of the Recovery Act, whether or not it proves permanent, eliminates the only existing process under which those public entities that would have been eligible to restructure under that legislation could do so over the objections of holdouts.  Both for Puerto Rico and for those creditors who believe that PREPA and/or certain other Puerto Rico issuers are incapable of sustaining their existing debt and must restructure, the invalidation of the Recovery Act may provide additional impetus to try to persuade the U.S. Congress to amend the Bankruptcy Code to authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its public corporations, or certain of its public corporations, to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9. Such legislation was filed in the prior session of Congress and its viability may be somewhat enhanced by Judge Besosa’s ruling.

3)      While any Recovery Act appeal wends its way through the higher courts, and while any  legislation to amend the federal Bankruptcy Code seeks to wend its way through Congress, PREPA and PREPA’s creditors, and any other Puerto Rico issuers who seek debt relief and their creditors, will need to negotiate without a forum, without a final arbiter, and without the ability to impose a majority or supermajority consensus on holdouts. That process can be a messy and difficult one, but not necessarily an impossible one. In contrast to Robert Redford’s most recent movie, the working title for the as-yet-unfinished movie about Puerto Rico and its creditors remains All Is Not Lost.

 

 

 

By LEN WEISER-VARON and MAXWELL D. SOLET

In the aftermath of recent municipal bankruptcies in which issuers proposed and/or implemented bankruptcy plans involving partial discharges of the issuer’s payment obligation on insured bonds, there has been increased focus on whether municipal bond interest paid by a bond insurer after the bankruptcy plan’s effective date continues to be tax-exempt.

Market confusion as to the treatment of bond insurance payments in the discharged issuer context is at least partially attributable to an incomplete understanding of why bond insurer payments of municipal bond interest are deemed tax-exempt in other contexts. Although the IRS has not specifically addressed the tax status of bond insurer payments following the issuer’s partial (or full) discharge in bankruptcy, review of IRS rulings on bond insurance suggests that, in ordinary circumstances, interest on the insured bond continues to be tax-exempt notwithstanding that the only source of payment is the bond insurance.

The technical basis for the continued tax-exemption of post-discharge interest is discussed in detail below.  The analysis is rooted in one simple concept articulated in an IRS revenue ruling: in ordinary circumstances, a payment by a bond insurer is deemed, for tax purposes, to have been made by the issuer of the bonds.  For this reason, although a bankruptcy may, for non-tax purposes, discharge an issuer from further liability on all or a portion of bond payments, for tax purposes the bond payments made by the bond insurer continue to be treated as being made by the issuer.  All else is detail, for those with an interest in such detail.

And so, on to the technical discussion.

The tax-exempt treatment of interest paid by a municipal bond insurer is founded on a trio of favorable IRS revenue rulings, which, unlike private letter rulings, are statements of IRS policy on which the market can rely.

The first such ruling, Revenue Ruling 72-134, dealt with the situation where the issuer pays for bond insurance when the bonds are issued, and concluded that “defaulted interest paid by the independent insurance company is excludable from the gross income of the bondholders.”

Revenue Ruling 72-575 extended such favorable treatment to a bond insurance policy purchased by the underwriter, and Revenue Ruling 76-78 went a substantial step further, upholding the tax-exemption of interest payments received under secondary market bond insurance purchased by a bondholder.

These three rulings state a favorable result without discussing the rationale. The technical basis for the tax-exemption of bond insurance payments is illuminated in Revenue Ruling 94-42, an adverse ruling involving a bondholder that purchased secondary market bond insurance on zero coupon bonds, rerated the bonds AAA and resold the bonds.  The bond insurance premium for the secondary market insurance was an amount sufficient to fund the bond insurer’s purchase of a high-yielding portfolio of Treasury securities that economically defeased most of its insurance obligation. In the ruling, the IRS expressed concern that treating such bond insurance interest payments as tax-exempt would effectively permit a secondary market arbitrage bond, and set about distinguishing the scenario under review from “customary” bond insurance payments treated as tax-exempt in the earlier rulings.

In the 1994 ruling, the IRS noted that customarily bond insurance enhances marketability and reduces interest rates, which is consistent with the IRS’s objective of preventing overburdening of the market with tax-exempt interest. The ruling stated that such tax-exempt treatment is accomplished by “integrating the insurance contract with the obligation of a political subdivision” instead of treating the bond insurer’s obligation as a separate debt instrument.

According to this key ruling, “an insurance contract or similar agreement is treated as both incidental to bonds and not a separate debt instrument … only if, at the time it is purchased, the amount paid is reasonable, customary, and consistent with the reasonable expectation that the issuer of the bonds, rather than the insurer, will pay debt service on the bonds.” The ruling concluded that at the time the bond insurance policy under review was purchased, the insurance premium was not reasonable and customary and reflected an expectation of default by the issuer.  The IRS ruled that because the insurance purchaser looked primarily to the insurer for payment of the debt service on the bonds, the bond insurance was not incidental and should be treated as a separate non-municipal obligation rather than integrated with the insured bonds.  The conclusion that the interest payments by the bond insurer were taxable followed from the treatment of the bond insurance as a non-municipal obligation.

Two significant concepts are articulated in Revenue Ruling 94-42. First, the technical basis for treating bond insurance interest payments as tax-exempt is that, for customary bond insurance transactions, the bond insurance is integrated with and treated as the same debt instrument as the insured municipal bond. Second, the treatment of bond insurance as integrated with the insured bond versus as a separate debt instrument that is not a municipal bond is determined based on reasonable expectations at the time the bond insurance is purchased.

In other words, provided the bond insurance is “customary” at the time it is purchased, it becomes another source of payment by the issuer of the insured bonds, albeit one that, at the time the insurance is purchased, is not expected to be needed. If circumstances change and defaulted interest is paid from the bond insurance, it is deemed a payment by the municipal issuer on the insured bond, not a separate payment by the bond insurer.

Nothing in the revenue rulings on the tax-exemption of interest payments sourced to a bond insurer makes the integration of the bond insurance with the bond dependent on the continuing legal obligation of the issuer to make the insured debt service payment. The above-summarized favorable revenue rulings describe customary bond insurance as including provisions under which a bond insurer’s payment to a bondholder does not discharge the bondholder’s payment claim against the issuer, to which the insurer becomes subrogated. But such revenue rulings do not suggest that if a bondholder has no claim against the issuer because the issuer has received a bankruptcy discharge, the worthlessness of the bond insurer’s subrogation claim alters the character of the bond insurance payment as an integrated tax-exempt payment on the municipal bond constructively made by the issuer, notwithstanding the issuer’s discharge as a source of payment for non-tax purposes.

The utility of bond insurance, and the reduction in bond interest rates and the aggregate amount of tax-exempt bond interest that have justified its tax treatment, would be substantially eroded if the IRS were to rule (which it never has) that the tax-exempt nature of bond insurance payments hinges on abstract distinctions between whether non-payment from other sources is due to the issuer’s financial condition or to the legal discharge in bankruptcy of the issuer’s duty to make such payments. Bond insurance is purchased for the precise purpose of insuring against default by the issuer, foreseeably and prominently including the possibility of the issuer’s bankruptcy and the potential legal discharge of part or all of its legal obligation to pay debt service.

The cause of non-payment of the bonds from sources other than the bond insurance is immaterial for tax-exemption purposes once the bond insurance payment is recognized as integrated with and indistinguishable from the other sources of payment of the bond.  Moreover, the line between an issuer’s lack of a legal obligation to pay and factual insolvency is often vague, and if such a distinction affected tax-exemption of bond insurer payments, uncertainty would prevail.  For example, a conduit bond issuer whose obligation to pay is limited to loan or lease payments from a conduit obligor that is not making any payments could be characterized as lacking a legal obligation to pay and/or the financial ability to pay.  Similarly, an issuer that ceases to operate and is dissolved without assumption of its liabilities by another party could be characterized as legally non-existent and/or factually unable to pay.

The tax treatment of bond insurance should not, and the relevant revenue rulings support the view that it does not, depend on distinctions that are esoteric, unpredictable and impractical. Notably, in a slightly different context, the market does not doubt the continued tax-exemption of interest on innumerable “legally defeased” bonds payable solely from portfolios of Treasury securities, although the issuer is contractually discharged from making payments from other sources.

The tax impact of bankruptcy plan modifications of an issuer’s rights and duties on insured bonds are often an afterthought not adequately focused on in the plan or the plan disclosure. Documentation and characterizations of what is technically occurring to the insured bonds under the plan may be imprecise. A bankruptcy plan may suggest that portions of insured bonds that the issuer will be discharged from paying are being extinguished, when what is actually meant is that such bonds will remain outstanding and payable from bond insurance that for tax purposes is attributed as an issuer payment.

To be sure, some bankruptcy plans may purport to make changes to insured bonds beyond the full or partial discharge of the issuer’s liability.  Presumptively, a modification of the issuer’s contractual duties under a bankruptcy plan does not change the payment obligations insured by the bond insurer. Nonetheless, to avoid muddying the waters plan language should be crafted in a manner that ensures that any portion of the original insured bond from which the issuer is discharged remains outstanding for tax purposes as well as for purposes of claiming against the bond insurer.

Any purported changes by a bankruptcy plan to the terms of the bonds beyond a reduction or elimination of the issuer’s liability require separate tax analysis. The devil is frequently in the details, and the debtor and its representatives may not be focused on or impacted by the tax treatment of insured future bond payments from which the issuer has been discharged. Holders of insured tax-exempt bonds that are being modified in any manner by a bankruptcy plan may wish to obtain input from tax counsel experienced in bankruptcy-related tax-exemption issues in time to impact the plan wording and structure relating to such bonds. But, although the IRS has not directly addressed the topic, there is no reason to presume that interest paid by a bond insurer on an outstanding municipal bond will be taxable simply because the issuer will have no remaining legal obligation to make the insured payment from another source.

By William Kannel and Adrienne Walker

Pennsylvania’s legislature recently approved House Bill No. 1773, an overhaul to its Municipalities Financial Recovery Act, commonly known as “Act 47.”  HB 1773 was signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett on October 31, 2014.

Act 47 was established in 1987 to provide the Commonwealth, largely through the Governor’s office, greater oversight over financially troubled municipalities.  Under Act 47 (currently and after the amendments go into effect), if a municipality is found to be in financial distress the Commonwealth is authorized to pursue a series of escalating steps to address the municipality’s financial problems, ranging from a coordinator to a receiver selected by the Governor.  At each level of state oversight, municipalities are required to adopt or abide by recovery plans to address their respective financial distress.  No Act 47 plan may unilaterally alter the rights of bondholders.

The primary changes to Act 47 include the following:

  • Termination Date:  The amendments establish a maximum 5 year exit strategy.  While the amendment does not stop a municipality from returning to Act 47, its intent is to move municipalities more quickly through an Act 47 rehabilitation.  This change will impact municipalities, such as Pittsburgh, which is presently under Act 47 oversight.  The amendment will require all current Act 47 municipalities to exit Act 47 oversight within 5 years from the date of their most recently enacted recovery plan.
  • Early Intervention Program:  With the goal of preventing municipalities from experiencing significant financial distress, the Commonwealth will establish an early intervention program to provide resources to municipalities to manage potential financial distress.  This early intervention program may provide financial support to municipalities through grants (subject to partial matching by the municipality) to develop plans for fiscal stability.
  • Ability to Raise Certain Taxes:  The amendment will allow a municipality under certain circumstances to petition to triple the applicable local services tax.  However, the amendments exempt Pittsburgh from this potential opportunity.
  • Disincorporation:  While it is unlikely to be a common occurrence, the amendments outline a process for disincorporation of “nonviable municipalities.”  For purposes of the disincorporation provisions, the definition of municipality excludes any city of the first class – which only includes Philadelphia. The process of disincorporation involves both state court and gubernatorial oversight. Upon disincorporation, the municipality is established as an unincorporated services district and the municipality’s assets (including bondholder collateral) would vest in the Commonwealth and be held in trust for the residents, property owners and other parties in interest.  While the amendments appear to preserve bondholder rights to collateral and payments of debt obligations, bondholders involved with a municipality that may disincorporate must be vigilant in preserving their rights to both their collateral and future debt service payments.