What are the legal consequences of Puerto Rico not paying bondholders? Can Puerto Rico be sued? In which Court? Who can sue? All these are important questions for investors and the general public after Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s downgrades, which include the latter’s actions on the COFINA backed bonds. Here, I will try to predict the possible scenarios.
The most obvious is that PR, nor any state of the Union, can file for US Bankruptcy law protection for the Code does not provide fro them to do so. In addition, none of PR’s municipalities or public corporations may do so. Not only does PR law expressly allow it, but 11 U.S.C. § 101(52) expressly excludes PR and Washington DC from Chapter 9 protection. Hence, the organized reorganization that Detroit is undergoing is not possible for PR.
Puerto Rico is not an independent country nor is it a state of the Union. It is a self-governing non-incorporated territory of the United States, see, Harris v. Rosario, 446 U.S. 651 (1980). But for purposes of the Eleventh Amendment, it is a state, see, Fresenius Medical Care Cardiovascular Resources, Inc. v. Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Cardiovascular Center Corp., 322 F.3d 56, 61 (1st Cir. 2003). This Amendment was incorporated on the heels of Chisom v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419 (1793), which decided that a state of the Union could be sued in Federal Court, even if it could not in its own courts. Soon after, the Eleventh Amendment was enacted and approved. Hence, PR cannot be sued in Federal Court without its consent.
PR has given its consent to be sued in its own courts for breach of contract, see, Hato Rey Stationery, Inc., v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 19 P.R. Offic. Trans. 153 (1987) and Montalvo & Comas Electric Corp. v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 7 Offic. Trans. 613 (1978). The inquiry, however, does not end there.
Although it is usually agreed that PR owes around $70 billion, not all of the debt is owed by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the official name of the island’s government. According to slide 56 of The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Update on Fiscal and Economic Progress, FY 2014 Q1 Investor Webcast – October 15, 2013 , has a general breakdown of who owes what. This brings several issues to bear. Public corporations such as the PR Electric Power Authority that generate their own income are subject to federal court jurisdiction and these owe around $25 billion. In addition, municipalities owe over $3 billion and are not protected by the 11th Amendment. Moreover, only $16.233 billion which is GO debt backed by the full faith and credit of PR are Constitutionally protected and are required to be paid before anything else, see, Article VI, sections 2 and 8 of Puerto Rico’s Constitution, available here in English.
Hence, the bond holder or the insurance company that subrogates on its insured’s rights, has to examine who is the issuer of the debt, what if any 11th Amendment protection it may have and then determine where to sue for collection of moneys.
This does not mean that bond holders or their agents or subrogees will collect from PR. The island may unilaterally change the conditions of the contract. The guarantee against the impairment of contracts provided by the Contract Clause of the US and Puertorrican Constitution have been greatly eroded in the past years. This can be seen in United Auto., Aerospace, Agr. Implement Workers of America Intern. Union v. Fortuño, 633 F.3d 37 (1st Cir. 2011); Trinidad v. ELA, 2013 TSPR 73 and Domínguez Castro et al. v. E.L.A. I, 178 D.P.R. 1 (2010), cert denied, Domínguez Castro v. Puerto Rico, 131 S. Ct. 152 (2010). This means that it is very likely that a court could conclude that PR may put a temporary moratorium or even repudiate part of its debt or that of its political subdivisions. Such a step would be radical and I doubt if the present administration would even consider it, but it is there to consider.