The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Dec. 4 over a bankruptcy deal that releases members of the Sackler family, who led Purdue Pharma, from future civil liability related to OxyContin.
In the years preceding Purdue’s bankruptcy, the Sackler family had already taken $11 billion from the company and transferred a significant portion of their wealth overseas, according to the Justice Department’s briefing to the Supreme Court.
A bankruptcy court approved Purdue’s bankruptcy plan, which entailed reorganizing the company into a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the opioid epidemic. As part of the plan, the Sackler family would contribute at least $5.5 billion to bankruptcy estates and victim compensation. In exchange, they would be released from certain civil liability, although the settlement didn’t preclude federal criminal prosecution.
The question they are considering is: “Whether the Bankruptcy Code authorizes a court to approve, as part of a plan of reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, a release that extinguishes claims held by nondebtors against nondebtor third parties, without the claimants’ consent.”
The Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors of Purdue Pharma L.P., which is comprised of opioid crisis victims and reached the settlement, is fighting to keep the plan in place as a way to quickly provide relief for those affected by the drug.
“It’s absolutely absurd that they think they’re just going to be able to walk away with their wealth intact,” said Ellen Isaacs, whose son Ryan died at 33 years old.
Lynn Wencus, whose son Jeff also died at 33, supported keeping the settlement. “Do I want to see them rot in hell? Absolutely,” she said. “But if we can get this money and put it into treatment the right way, then we are saving lives.”
The committee similarly said in one of its Supreme Court briefs that there was “no love lost for the Sacklers.” It worried, however, that the bankruptcy plan was “the only means of getting billions of dollars in life-changing and life-saving funds from the Debtors and the Sacklers that are desperately needed today.”
“Absent the [release of liability], there is no chance of fair allocation of the limited assets in this extraordinary case. Almost all claimants will be worse off as a select few creditors, competing with the Debtors’ more valuable estate claims, drain whatever money can be extracted from the Sacklers.”
Mr. Harrington argues that he does have standing and points to the portion of U.S. Bankruptcy Code that reads: “[t]he United States trustee may raise and may appear and be heard on any issue in any case or proceeding under [the Code] but may not file a [Chapter 11] plan.” He also argues that U.S. law doesn’t authorize non-consensual third party releases.
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who asked the Supreme Court to halt the appellate decision, noted in her petition that “courts of appeals are sharply and intractably divided on the question whether nonconsensual third-party releases are lawful. Likewise, the practical and legal importance of the question both in this case and for the bankruptcy system cannot seriously be disputed.”
She argued, “No provision of the Code authorizes the sweeping power of releasing nonconsenting third parties’ claims against nondebtors, and this Court has repeatedly rejected the premise at the heart of the court of appeals’ reasoning: that courts sitting in bankruptcy may take virtually any action not expressly forbidden by the Bankruptcy Code. In addition, that interpretation of the Code would raise serious constitutional questions by extinguishing private property rights without providing an opportunity for the rights holders to opt in or out of the release.”