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Bankruptcy judge thrust into spotlight in Purdue Pharma case

US Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain of White Plains, N.Y., has a reputation for thorough preparation and deep experience handling big, complicated corporate cases. It will be up to him to decide whether to approve a potentially $12 billion plan by Purdue Pharma to settle more than 2,700 lawsuits over its role in the opioid crisis.
US Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain of White Plains, N.Y., has a reputation for thorough preparation and deep experience handling big, complicated corporate cases. It will be up to him to decide whether to approve a potentially $12 billion plan by Purdue Pharma to settle more than 2,700 lawsuits over its role in the opioid crisis.American Bankruptcy Institute via Associated Press

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — The judge overseeing the bankruptcy of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma warns that real-life court cases don’t unfold like “Perry Mason.” But he’s afraid this one might come to resemble “Dr. Strangelove.”

US Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain of White Plains, N.Y., has a reputation for thorough preparation, deep experience handling big, complicated corporate cases, a sometimes forceful manner from the bench — and a fondness for pop-culture references, some of them of baby boomer vintage.

It will be up to him to decide whether to approve a potentially $12 billion plan by Purdue Pharma to settle more than 2,700 lawsuits over its role in the opioid crisis that has killed 400,000 people in the United States over the past two decades.

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The proceedings are all but certain to be complex and acrimonious: Nearly half of the nation’s state attorneys general and many victims have come out against the plan and vowed to press on with their lawsuits, arguing that the deal on the table does not wring enough money from members of the billionaire Sackler family who own the company and does not contain an admission of guilt over one of the gravest public health crises in US history.

At a hearing in October, Drain cautioned that that’s not necessarily how the real legal world works: “There are trials where people stand up and say, ‘I did it’ — and that usually happens on ‘Perry Mason’ only.”

At the same time, he warned that pressing ahead with individual lawsuits — a risky strategy that could torpedo a global settlement and result in plaintiffs coming up empty-handed — reminded him of the “doomsday machine’’ in the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove.”

Drain graduated from Yale and got interested in bankruptcy law in the 1980s, when he was in law school at Columbia University. He told Federal Lawyer magazine in 2013 that he found its complexities, the overlap with other areas of law, and “the strong and often odd personalities’’ of the clients and practitioners ‘‘strangely compelling.”

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The judge, who declined to be interviewed or photographed for this story, was a bankruptcy lawyer for nearly two decades before being appointed to his current position in 2002 by the federal appeals court in New York. For the past decade, his courtroom has been in White Plains, where he is the only bankruptcy judge handling big business cases.

He has presided over the cases of Hostess, Sears, Reader’s Digest, auto parts maker Delphi, and the grocer A&P. In some of the highest-profile matters before him, he has done what the companies seeking bankruptcy protection asked.

In 2012, he let Hostess shut down over the objections of employee unions. Earlier this year, he allowed Sears to be sold to a hedge fund despite opposition from creditors and landlords who wanted it liquidated.

“If he thinks the debtor is in good faith attempting to reorganize, he will, on balance, support that when he can,” said Jonathan Lipson, a law professor at Temple University who worked for Drain in private practice at the start of his legal career. “The tie goes to the debtor.”

Drain doesn’t always side with corporate interests; in foreclosure cases, he often has ruled against big banks.

So far, Drain’s major rulings in the Purdue case have been what the drugmaker has wanted, though they have come after some compromise. He put lawsuits against the company and the Sacklers on hold until at least April. He also allowed Purdue to pay bonuses to its employees, though he left open for now the question of whether chief executive Craig Landau should get $1.3 million on top of his $2.6 million salary.

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But he has also been attentive to the victims, noting at one point in court, “What we’re talking about here is flesh and blood.’’ While opioid victims are assured a role in the proceedings through several seats on an official committee of unsecured creditors, Drain went further and told an advocate for victims to coordinate with state attorneys general.

In the hearings he has held so far in the case, Drain has been particularly hard on state attorneys general and their representatives, though he stopped a Purdue lawyer at a hearing this month from chastising states over a court filing that asked whether the company should be forced to pay for drug treatment or stop selling its most powerful OxyContin dosage.