Chapter 15 and US Bankruptcy Courts: How Universal is “Universalism”?
Chapter 15 of the US Bankruptcy Code, enacted in 2005, was Congress’ effort to make cross-border insolvency proceedings just a little more predictable.
Specifically, the statute’s policy objective was to “recognize” the efforts of foreign insolvency administrators and trustees to administer their debtors’ US-based assets – thereby helping to “standardize” the way assets and claims are treated in non-US insolvency proceedings.
Chapter 15 reflects a strong Congressional preference for what has been described as a “universalist” (rather than a “territorial”) approach to cross-border insolvency administration. But have US Bankruptcy Courts actually followed through on this “universalist” policy?
That is the question behind an empirical study on Chapter 15 recently published by Jeremy Leong, an advocate and solicitor with Singapore’s Wong Partnership. According to Mr. Leong, the study (entitled IS CHAPTER 15 UNIVERSALIST OR TERRITORIALIST? EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE FROM UNITED STATES BANKRUPTCY COURT CASES, and forthcoming in the Wisconsin International Law Journal) and its results indicate that, despite its ostensibly “universalist” objectives:
United States courts applying Chapter 15 have not unconditionally turned over [the] debtor’s assets in the United States to foreign main proceedings. The results of the study show that while United States courts recognized foreign proceedings in almost every Chapter 15 case, courts entrusted United States assets to foreign proceedings for distribution in only 45.5% of cases where foreign proceedings were recognized. When such entrustment was granted, 31.8% of cases were accompanied by qualifying factors[,] including orders which protected United States creditors by allowing them to be paid according to the priority scheme under United States bankruptcy law[,] or assurances that certain United States creditors would be paid in full or in priority. In only 9.1% of cases, entrustment of assets for distribution was ordered without any qualifications and where there were US creditors and assets at stake.
Based on this data, Mr. Leong goes on to conclude that “when deciding Chapter 15 cases, United States courts seldom grant entrustment [of assets for foreign distributions] without [protective] qualifications when United States creditors may be adversely affected.” Consequently, “Chapter 15 is not as universalist as its proponents claim it to be and exposes the inability of Chapter 15 to resolve conflicting priority rules between the United States and foreign proceedings.”
Mr. Leong’s study is commendable as one of the earliest pieces of empirical work on how Chapter 15 is actually applied. But it raises some questions along the way. For example:
- Is a 45.5% “entrustment” rate really accurate? Mr. Leong’s claim that “courts entrusted United States assets to foreign proceedings for distribution in only 45.5% of cases where foreign proceedings were recognized” does not really compare apples to apples. That is, it measures the “entrustment” of assets across all recognized foreign proceedings – and not the smaller subset of proceedings where entrustment was actually requested.
According to Mr. Leong’s study results, “of the 88 cases where recognition was granted, the [US bankruptcy] court made orders for [e]ntrustment in only 40 cases. Of the remaining 48 cases where [e]ntrustment was not granted, [e]ntrustment had been requested by foreign representatives in 25 of these cases.” In other words, “entrustment” of assets was requested in 65 of the cases in Mr. Leong’s sample – and in those cases, it was granted in 40, providing a 61.5% success rate for the “entrustment” of assets, rather than the study’s advertised 45.5% success rate.
- Is a 45.5% “entrustment” rate really all that bad? Success rates – like many other statistics – are significant only by virtue of their relative comparison to other success rates. Assuming for the moment that the 45.5% “entrustment” rate observed where US courts apply Chapter 15 was indeed accurate, how does that rate compare against similar requests in the insolvency courts of other sophisticated business jurisdictions applying their own recognition statutes?
Without such benchmarks or relative rankings, the conclusion that US courts are not “universal” seems premature.
- Is “asset entrustment” really the true measure of “universalism?” Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, Mr. Leong’s focus on the “entrustment” of assets – i.e., the turnover of US-based assets for distribution in a foreign insolvency case – seems to neglect the other reasons for which a US bankruptcy court’s recognition of cross-border insolvency might be sought. Such reasons include the “automatic stay” of US-initiated litigation against the debtor, access to US courts for the purpose of gaining personal jurisdiction over US-based defendants and the recovery of assets, and access to the “asset sale” provisions of the US Bankruptcy Code which automatically apply along with recognition under Chapter 15.
Given the breadth of strategic reasons for seeking recognition of a foreign insolvency in the United States (many of which are unrelated, at least directly, to the ultimate distribution of assets), the study’s focus on “entrustment” as a measure of “universalism” may be over-narrow.
These questions aside, however, Mr. Leong’s study asks thought-provoking and empirically-grounded questions about the true nature of “universalism” as applied in US bankruptcy courts. It is an important initial step in framing the proper assessment of cross-border insolvencies in coming years.
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