Recently, I (along with colleagues at other law schools) asked that an “examiner” be appointed in the Purdue Pharma chapter 11 bankruptcy case, pending in the Southern District of New York. Although the Bankruptcy Court has not yet acted on that request (technically, it was in the form of a letter to the United States Trustee), it has generated controversy and media attention (e.g., WSJ, WaPo, Rachel Maddow), which will likely persist until there are credible answers to the questions that motivated our request:
- What was the role of the Sackler family (the owners of Purdue) in Purdue’s role in the opioid crisis? and
- To what extent did the Sacklers or other insiders strip assets out of Purdue in anticipation of bankruptcy?
Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code governs corporate reorganizations, such as Purdue Pharma’s, and provides that an examiner can be appointed if, among other things, it is in the interests of creditors and the debtor’s bankruptcy estate. Here, we argued that there is an overwhelming public interest which overlaps with the estate’s interest. This makes the need for an independent report on these two questions compelling.
As is well known, Purdue Pharma is at the center of the opioid crisis in America, having developed and marketed Oxycontin (among other drugs). This crisis has generated more than 2600 lawsuits against Purdue and the Sacklers, many brought by state and local governments that have had to bear the costs of drug addiction. The debtors and the Sacklers have proposed a settlement under which the Sacklers would cede the company to a public trust (whatever that is) and make additional contributions, in exchange for releases. While some plaintiffs have agreed to settle, others have not, and are fighting the bankruptcy process aggressively.
Like many mass tort debtors—from Johns-Manville to PG&E—Purdue seeks to channel and control its liability through bankruptcy reorganization. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, of the Southern District of New York, has temporarily stayed the lawsuits—against both Purdue and the Sacklers (even though they are not debtors in bankruptcy)—in order to permit the debtors to negotiate a plan of reorganization that would embody the proposed settlement.
We argued that an independent examination would answer the two key questions more credibly and efficiently than other mechanisms in bankruptcy for three reasons.
First, unlike many mass-tort bankruptcies, these cases appear to shield non-debtors (the Sacklers) from discovery and potential liability, even though there are credible allegations that they may have actively contributed to the opioid crisis and/or stripped assets from the debtors. The important question is not whether the Sacklers are making a contribution, but whether their contribution is appropriate in light of the answers to our two questions. It will be very difficult to assess that without an independent examiner’s report.
Second, because Purdue Pharma is privately held, it is hard to know what happened at the company before bankruptcy. The debtors have appointed a special committee of the board to look into the prebankruptcy transfers, but because the Sacklers apparently still control the debtors, it is hard to know how independent this committee can be. In any case, even where other high profile debtors, such as Enron, have used independent committees to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, courts have nevertheless appointed bankruptcy examiners to assess, verify, and supplement the work of those committees. It is hard to see why Purdue should be different.
Third, and perhaps most important, the opioid crisis is not like other mass torts because it has generated extraordinary public interest. Victims of the opioid crisis understandably want their day in court—which is something that bankruptcy tends to eliminate. While thousands of lawsuits would be wasteful, failing to take seriously the dignitary interests of victims of the opioid crisis could threaten the legitimacy and integrity of the bankruptcy system. At the same time, if an independent examiner exonerates the Sacklers, this may help provide the redemption that they presumably want.
So far, the debtors have vowed to actively resist our request, although they have also failed to produce answers to the two basic questions noted above. Unless and until there are credible answers to these questions—what did the Sacklers do and what did they (and other insiders) take out of the debtors?—there will be a shadow over these cases.
Jonathan C. Lipson is Harold E. Kohn Professor of Law, Temple University-Beasley School of Law.