Monthly Archives: April 2013

Bankruptcy Docket Beat: Levittown’s Renee’s Pizza & Grill Files for Chapter 11Bankruptcy

pizza                  On April 12, 2013, Debtor Renees LLC, of 8739 Newportville Road, Levittown, PA 19054, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Case No. 13-13236.  Debtor’s counsel is Michael P. Gigliotti of Kashkashian & Associates , 10 Canal Street, Suite 204, Bristol, PA 19007.  The case was assigned to Chief Judge Eric L. Frank.

Renee’s LLC did business as Renee’s Pizza and Grill offering a takeout service and grill.  Assets and liabilities both were in the range of  $0-$50,000.  This Chapter 11 is an asset case and it is anticipated that there will be some distribution to creditors.

Advertisements

Ch. 7 or Ch. 11: Which Bankruptcy Option Is Best For My Business?

CO-AUTHORS: Katie Imler and Salene Kraemer

Let’s face it, all businesses face challenges. Especially when the economy is not a booming bull, financial challenges are in abundance. You are not alone. So what do you do when your company has financial troubles staring you down? What do you do when going to work every day puts you and your family deeper in debt instead of adding money to your bank account? At some point, the best business decision you can make may be the decision to no longer do business.

Image

What do you do?  Well, there are a few options:  1) Sell the business to a competitor, strategic business, or key employee; 2) File for Chapter 7 bankruptcy; 3) Wind-down the company yourself. We want to talk about the latter two options. Before taking action, both avenues have advantages and disadvantages that must be weighed.

Avenue 7. Filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy means that a Bankruptcy Trustee employed by Office of the United States Trustee of the Department of Justice, steps into the shoes of the company and has the burden of winding-down the business.  In doing so, the Trustee is in control of distributing the business assets according to the Bankruptcy Code.

Perks of Chapter 7:

  • Upon filing a petition for Chapter 7, an automatic stay is imposed preventing lawsuits and writs of execution against business assets –think of it as MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” This preserves the vital business assets and provides peace of mind that the business will not have to defend against future legal actions arising from pre-petition debts
  • The Bankruptcy Court assumes the burden of notifying all creditors of the bankruptcy (sending the “funeral notice”, if you will).  Having this objective third party serve as a buffer between the business owner and the unpaid creditor provides a sense of relief to the business owner
  • Debtor benefits from expertise of an experienced Bankruptcy Trustee
  • Debt forgiveness is not taxable

Downsides of Chapter 7:

  • Business management has no control in the winding-down
  • Trustee will scrutinize the pre-petition financial and operational affairs of the Debtor
  • Instead of finding a strategic buyer who may pay more for business assets, a trustee may liquidate business assets for pennies on the dollar, called a “fire sale”
  • Trustee may abandon certain assets letting creditors with an interest in them duke it out
  • Since the Trustee assumes the place of the debtor, he or she also assumes all of the debtor’s legal claims. The debtor, therefore, may be without standing to pursue a future lawsuit arising out of pre-petition transactions, unless otherwise agreed
  • Furthermore, filing for bankruptcy creates a public record and may pick up media attention, depending upon your business
  • Time and monetary costs are also associated with Chapter 7.  In addition to attorney’s fees, the filing fee alone is $306 and the Debtor will have to pay Trustee’s fees if there are assets for the Trustee to liquidate. Plus, the Trustee’s fees come off the top of liquidation proceeds before any distributions to creditors are made.

The Wind-Down Alternative.  If you are a do-it-yourself personality, then the Wind-down approach may be the approach for you. In this scenario, you control the winding-down process of the company and pay off the debts. However, this do-it-yourself project may require a thick skin and much cooperation from your creditors and lessors.Image

Perks of Non-Bankruptcy Wind-down:

  • Winding-Down the business yourself avoids the legal and bankruptcy fees
  • Business owner retains control and does not expose dirty laundry to the public
  • Business avoids scrutiny by the Trustee
  • Higher likelihood that you, the business owner with the industry know-how, will find a better buyer in the market who is willing to pay more for business assets

Downsides of Non-Bankruptcy Wind-down:

  • Creditors may initiate an involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition against your business
  • Business must comply with state laws for dissolving which are usually more demanding than the Bankruptcy Code and take longer to execute. If liquidation is done incorrectly, the business can be exposed to lawsuits for dishonoring creditors’ legal rights
  • Business owner personally deals with all of the creditors and is responsible for all issues that arise.
  • Debt forgiveness is taxable outside of bankruptcy

Now, do you file for Chapter 7 or Wind-down? In some cases, a hybrid approach may be best. Go as far as feasible in the liquidation process on your own, and then turn it over to a Trustee or a bankruptcy  lawyer to finish the job.  Weigh which option suits your needs the most, reflecting upon your unique business, the nature and amount of the debt that your business still owes, and your personal capabilities.  And, as always, it is best to first consult with your attorney.

MAZURKRAEMER represents debtors and creditors in bankruptcy courts all over the country. The information, comments and links posted on this blog do not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship has been or will be formed by any communication(s) to, from or with the blog and/or the blogger. For legal advice, contact an attorney at MAZURKRAEMER or an attorney actively practicing in your jurisdiction.

The Weirton Steel Chapter 11 Bankruptcy & My 20-Minute Conversation with Gretchen Weir

NOTE:  This is not necessarily related to bankruptcy.  But, on second thought, maybe it is.  Just short of its 100th birthday, Weirton Steel Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the Northern District of West Virginia (Wheeling) on May 19, 2003.   Here the NY Times article published the day after the filing.  As detailed in the Weirton Steel wikipedia entry, by bankruptcy court order, the assets were auctioned with most being acquired by ISG. ISG then formed a new division called ISG Weirton Steel. On April 5, 2005, ISG completed a merger with Mittal Steel.  Then again in 2006, Mittal Steel completed a merger with Arcelor thus resulting in a new company known as Arcelor Mittal. While I was practicing bankruptcy in Philadelphia at the time of the initial bankruptcy filing, I would then relocate to Pittsburgh in 2004 and work for a boutique commercial bankruptcy firm who served as counsel to the creditors’ committee in the Weirton Steel Ch. 11 case.  I was raised in Weirton, West Virginia and returned last year (after 21 years away) to open a law office there.

Life-Magazine-1937-09-13      So I attended the Weirton Festival of Nations this past Saturday. I had to man the Rotary booth. I brought along my children.

Weirton Steel

Weirton Steel

I had the privilege of sitting next to E.T. Weir’s lovely wife Gretchen at the Festival. Her late husband was the grandson of E.T. Weir, who founded the Weirton Steel Corporation. He is the man after whom our town and high school were named. Gretchen Weir traveled here with her dynamic daughter from New York City to donate memorabilia to the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center and to address the audience as a part of the opening ceremony for the Festival. She and I talked about many things.   I told her what it was like growing up in Weirton and what it is like now. I have reflected much about my upbringing in Weirton and my continued close bonds with my childhood friends.IMG_3298[1]Gretchen asked me to what extent the mill was still operating and I said I wasn’t exactly sure but, to my relief, I see smoke sputtering out of a few remaining stacks. I told her my mom and I drove down Main Street just on Friday and shuttered when we noticed another part of the mill had been demolished.

IMG_3286[1]

Festival of Nations

I explained Weirton was, at one time (and probably still is), one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the state of West Virginia. There were numerous ethnic enclaves- Italian, Greeks, Polish, Serbs, etc. The Festival this weekend was a celebration of this diversity. Performances, foods, booths, etc. My children and I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I was a kid we used to have the “International Food Festival” each July. It was a 3-4 day event. I used to LOVE it. I still have my “half-Italian” red, green and white pin. I told Gretchen that Weirton was so unique because there were not significant economic disparities (i.e, the haves and have nots). Most all of our pops, of course, worked in the mill; our moms had to quit working once they got married (!!! ). Most families were in the middle class and experiencing a similar way of life. Weirton native Anna Egan Smucker wrote a lovely children’s book title NO STAR NIGHTS about growing in Weirton, this way of life. I happened to borrow it from the local Mary H. Weir library çand have been reading it to my children for the past few weeks.

rotary flag

Me at my Law Office in Weirton

Gretchen and her daughter were kind and interested and enthusiastic about urban renewal and where Weirton can go from here. Gretchen even let me take a photo with her to post to Facebook!!This post is a chapter in a turnaround story about urban renewal and the evolution of a small steel mill town.   TO BE CONTINUED …

Weirredriders

Weir High School Logo

Does Motive Matter in a Preference Lawsuit?

This is the second in a series of blog posts I am writing here about preference lawsuits (I have a 50 page research treatise that I wrote, from which I am pulling to create these posts!).  I will try to make the subject matter as interesting as possible.    

Does the motive of a debtor a creditor matter in a preference law suit?

MOTIVE

MOTIVE

Scenario One: I know our business is not going to make it another 30 days.  I have one $10,000 receivable that we can expect to receive.  We owe our trade creditors about $100,000 and we owe my Aunt Molly $50,000 that she lent to us on an unsecured basis.  We have been making monthly payments in the amount of $500 to her for the past three years.   I want to take the $10,000 once we get it and pay her all of it because she is my favorite Aunt, I feel bad we are going to stiff her, and she use to buy me pink marshmallow peeps for every Easter.

       Scenario Two: My critical supplier knows that we  have been in distress.  He knows that we lost our biggest customer and we are barely making ends meet.  He just recently shortened my payment terms from net 30 to net 7, he has told me he doesn’t care if I cannot pay my electric bill or payroll and that he wants me to pay his aged account receivable now!  He sends me threatening letters, emails, and nasty voicemail messages.  I don’t even answer my phone anymore. 

As set forth in my prior blog post, there are the five basic elements of a preference; basically, a transfer must be made (1) to or for the benefit of a creditor, (2) on account of an antecedent debt, (3) while the debtor is insolvent, (4) within ninety days before bankruptcy (for non-insiders) or 1 year (for insiders); and (5) the transfer must enable the creditor to receive a greater amount had the transfer not occurred and had the creditor received payment in a hypothetical Chapter 7 liquidation.

What is absent from that list is mental state of mind, motive, or intent.   Under the predecessor statute to Bankruptcy Code § 547 (§60 of the Bankruptcy Act of 1898), a plaintiff had to establish that the creditor had “reasonable cause to believe” that a debtor was insolvent before a preferential transfer could be avoided.  But, importantly, a creditor’s state of mind is no longer an element to the preference cause of action.  See Barash v. Public Finance Corp., 658 F.2d 504, 510 (7th Cir. (Ill.) 1981).  In the Barash case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that voluntary payments by a debtor to creditor on an installment contract were preferential transfers, and the fact that the creditor had no way of knowing that the debtor was having financial difficulties was irrelevant.   The Barash Court quoted the legislative notes regarding Bankruptcy Code § 547:  “A creditor’s state of mind has nothing whatsoever to do with the policy of equality of distribution ….”.  H.R.Rep.No.95-595, supra, at 178, 5 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News at 6139.

Collier on Bankruptcy, the most authoritative secondary authority on bankruptcy law, acknowledges this change as well.  “Intent or motive is not a material factor in the consideration of an alleged preference under §547.  Generally speaking, it is the effect of a transaction, rather than the debtor’s or creditor’s intent, that is controlling.” See 4 COLLIER ON BANKRUPTCY, ¶547.01 at 547.12.

Some courts, however, have attached a significance to the intent, motive or state of mind of either the debtor or a creditor, even though intent is not a “material” or a basic element of a preference,.  In the Eleventh Circuit, for example, see In re Craig Oil Co., 785 F.2d 1563 (11th Cir. (Ga.) 1986)).   The Craig Oil Court held that a pre-Petition payment was a preference, attaching significance to fact that debtor’s motive for making a payment to a creditor was to forestall an involuntary petition and to prevent personal liability on guaranteed debt, but observing that state of mind of the debtor alone, would not establish unusual or extraordinary actions by the debtor, but merely would go to explain unusual payment actions by debtor.  Also, in the  First Software Corp. v. Micro Educ. Corp. of Amer., 103 B.R. 359 (D. Mass. 1988), the United States District Court for Massachusetts held that payments made by a debtor under an agreement with a creditor were not preferences.   The debtor agreed to make larger weekly payments to a creditor until the balance on the account was reduced to zero.  The Court held that the transfers were within the ordinary course of business (and not preferences), where there was no evidence that indicated that the creditor knew that the debtor was on the verge of bankruptcy when the payments at issue were agreed upon and made.

I have had cases in which my creditor clients were guilty of making dunning phone calls to the debtor prior to company’s slide into bankruptcy.  I have also had cases in which my client was a critical supplier and it wanted to keep servicing the debtor during the time of distress.  Often, at moments like that, new deals are struck in order to keep the debtor afloat and the supplier still dealing with the debtor.   Perhaps, the supplier is owed a substantial amount of money from the debtor and the supplier is willing to do anything to keep the debtor as a going concern; otherwise, the supplier faces the threat of its own bankruptcy.

Although the intent, mens rea, state of mind, motive of either the debtor or the creditor is no longer a prima facie element to a preference action, when I conduct diligence surrounding an alleged preferential transfer I always ask the necessary questions to get a better understanding of what was really going on in the business relationship as the debtor became unable to pay its debts as they came due.   Asking these questions is important in order to paint an accurate picture of the course of dealing between the parties and how such dealing may have changed prior to the filing of the case.

I often advise the credit risk groups of all of my clients always to have a pulse on the financial condition of their clients, especially if a client generates revenue from only a handful of customers.  I even advise my clients to put “google alerts” on each such client so that they can catch wind of any distressed circumstances.

Without a doubt, a business should be strategic when dealing with a distressed client, especially if there is a significant amount owed, and especially if you are striking a new deal with the debtor with changed terms.   Even if you are paid in the year or 90 days prior to your customer’s bankruptcy filing, you always run the risk that the payment will be clawed back post-Petition.  You should be prepared for what defenses you will mount in the event that happens.

MAZURKRAEMER represents debtors and creditors in bankruptcy courts all over the country. The information, comments and links posted on this blog do not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship has been or will be formed by any communication(s) to, from or with the blog and/or the blogger. For legal advice, contact an attorney at MAZURKRAEMER or an attorney actively practicing in your jurisdiction.

Inside the Trenches of a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Case-Preparing the Initial Filing

       In the world of business law, many seem to be mystified by the chapter 11 bankruptcy process.   When I tell my friends and colleagues what I do, they still don’t seem to understand me.  I get that glazed, deer-in-headlights look.   I just recently filed a Chapter 11 case and I decided to write a series of blog posts as we are going through the process.

        The chapter 11 process is expensive but can be a worthwhile option and a financially prudent decision for certain businesses wishing to reorganize, restructure their debts, reject undesirable contracts, and/or orderly liquidate certain assets under the jurisdiction and protection of the bankruptcy court.

Triggering Event.  Usually an event triggers the filing (a pending auction of assets, an inability to payroll, the threat of a shut-off notice for utilities, a impending freezing of bank accounts, a filed lawsuit, etc.).  A debtor can file an emergency petition in such an instance.

Emergency Petition.  To file an emergency petition, at the very minimum a debtor needs to submit the 2-page petition, its list of 20 largest unsecured creditors, and a creditor matrix (listing all of the creditors the debtor believes it currently has).    This sounds like a simple initial filing; but, it might not be.   The preparation of the debtor’s bankruptcy petition and related schedules can be very time-consuming depending upon the nature of the debtor’s business, how orderly its books and records are, and how many divisions or locations, it has etc.

Automatic Stay.  Once the minimal skeletal documents are filed, an “automatic stay” goes into immediate effect; the automatic stay is basically an injunction against any and all actions against the debtor and is property.    If a creditor violates the stay, it is a serious infringement and the bankruptcy court can award sanctions  against the creditor.

After the initial bankruptcy petition is filed, a Ch. 11 debtor has another 14 days within which to file its complete schedules and statement of financial affairs.   This timeframe can be extended for cause.

“Debtor In Possession” Bank and Insurance Information.  Also once the petition is filed, generally within 10 days, the debtor and its counsel have to submit certain bank account and insurance information to the United States Trustee (part of the Department of Justice).    Importantly, a business must close its books as of its bankruptcy “Petition Date” and open up  a new set of financial books and records.  New “Debtor-in-Possession” (“DIP”) Bank accounts must be opened at certain approved banks;  the United States Trustee’s Office has the “approved” list of banks.  The debtor and its counsel also may have an initial debtor interview with the agent for the United States Trustee (depending  upon the district in which you file), at which the debtor discusses its business operations and assets and liabilities.

The Bankruptcy Court Is Watching.  Once a bankruptcy petition is filed, a business will then have to seek bankruptcy court approval prior to taking many actions (paying its lawyers and accountants, paying pre-petition wages, utilizing cash (“cash collateral”) to pay expenses, selling anything outside the ordinary course).   A business debtor post-petition generally CANNOT pay any pre-petition obligations, otherwise serious consequences may ensure, including “avoidance” lawsuits. 

Drama.  The initial filing process can be intense for everyone involved.  Lots of information gathering, document review, fact checking.   Many phone calls may be made to and from creditors about the impact of the filing of the case.

Often, a distressed situation, not surprisingly, involves drama.  In some instances I have had to file the case right before the auction on the courthouse steps, right before the repossession crew found the vehicle, or right after the doors to a business were locked and the business suddenly went dark.  After the petition is filed and is made known to the public, media outlets may starting calling to find out more about the future of the business.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE DETAILS REGARDING INSIDE THE TRENCHES OF A CHAPTER 11 BANKRUPTCY CASE

MAZURKRAEMER represents debtors and creditors in bankruptcy courts all over the country.   The information, comments and links posted on this blog do not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship has been or will be formed by any communication(s) to, from or with the blog and/or the blogger. For legal advice, contact an attorney at MAZURKRAEMER or an attorney actively practicing in your jurisdiction.

What the Heck Is a Preference Action: Paying Off Favorite Creditors as a Business Tanks

       Preferential Treatment.  My two older siblings Nathan and Nicole and I often teased my folks about being the favorite kid, each of us jockeying for the favorite position (not really).  I will be writing a series of posts on paying a favorite creditor and the consequences of a debtor doing so as his or her business slides into bankruptcy.  This is the first post.  (I have a 50 page research treatise that I wrote, from which I am pulling to create these posts!).  I will try to make the subject matter as interesting as possible.

Favorite Child      I have been prosecuting and defending the recovery of alleged preferential transfers since my first few weeks as a bankruptcy associate at a large firm in Philadelphia and Wilmington, DE.   I have developed a massive library of research regarding this special type of litigation that arises only  in a bankruptcy case.   So let’s start with the basics; what is a preference action?

As business owners and management see the tell-tale signs that they are going to close their doors or reorganize, the issue always comes up—who can I pay now and in what order?  Often, we see significant outstanding tax liability, much of which consists of trust fund taxes (i.e., payroll, sales taxes, etc.) for which the owners of the company are personally liable.  We also see mom and dads or related companies (aka insiders) lend an ailing business sizable chunks of money on an unsecured basis.   We also see business owners who feel terrible stiffing their long-term business buddy suppliers because they know if that last payment is not made, then the suppliers’ business will become troubled too.   In their darkest hour of distress, as the lights are about to go out, the owners scurry to pay “preferred” creditors.

But, the Bankruptcy Code provides a recourse to protect those creditors who are not on the preferred list.   Specifically, pursuant to 11 U.S.C.§ 547 (aka Bankruptcy Code §547(b)), a preference action is a statutory right unique to bankruptcy that allows a debtor-in-possession or trustee to recover transfers made to a creditor within 90 days of a bankruptcy filing or within 1 year if to an insider, where such transfers were made to pay pre-existing debt.   By initiating preference lawsuits inside of a bankruptcy proceeding, a bankruptcy trust or debtor is able to sue the creditors that it once “preferred” (either voluntarily or involuntarily) in order to claw back those monies into a debtor’s estate for fair distribution to all unsecured creditors.

The five basic elements of a preference are as follows:

  • The transfer must be made (1) to or for the benefit of a creditor,
  • (2) on account of an antecedent debt,
  • (3) while the debtor is insolvent,
  • (4) within ninety days before bankruptcy (for non-insiders) or within one year (for insiders); and
  • (5) the transfer must enable the creditor to receive a greater amount had the transfer not occurred and had the creditor received payment in a hypothetical Chapter 7 liquidation.

All of these elements of a preference under Section 547(b) of the Bankruptcy Code must be present.  If the plaintiff trustee/debtor-in-possession cannot prove a transfer’s avoidability by a “preponderance of the evidence” (generally the ability to prove as “more likely than not” that the five preference elements exist) then a defendant creditor will prevail.  Note that, neither the debtor nor the creditor’s intent regarding the transfer is a material factor in the consideration of an alleged preference (more on this later).

I have been on both the prosecuting and defending side of numerous preference cases.  When a debtor initiates preference actions, often a debtor is directed to pull its check register to identify payments and persons that the debtor has paid over the last year.  Sometimes, those names, addresses and payments are placed into an excel spreadsheet that is then merged with a form complaint.  The preference lawsuits are then filed in “batches.”   I have seen hundreds of preference actions filed in a batch.   Truth be told then — often, not a whole lot of diligence is put into determining whether a debtor’s actually preferred a certain creditor defendant (i.e., whether the debtor or trustee can satisfy each of the statutory elements of a preferential transfer  and/or whether a defendant will have any valid defenses to the action that will either limit or eliminate liability).    So the lawsuit is set in motion and now each creditor defendant to hire a bankruptcy lawyer and defend the lawsuit by either asserting that the plaintiff has not satisfied each of the prima facie elements set forth in the statute and/or asserting an affirmative defense.

Preference laws were designed to facilitate a fundamental bankruptcy policy of equality of distribution among creditors of the debtor.  Nonetheless, in practice, preference actions are often viewed by creditors as extremely punitive, inasmuch as their effect is to cause creditors to disgorge funds that they have received for legitimate, undisputed bills.   Fortunately, as referred to above, the bankruptcy statute also provides numerous defenses to a preference claim that can often substantially reduce or eliminate liability that would otherwise arise if the defenses are not timely asserted.   I will discuss defenses in another post!  Stay tuned.

MAZURKRAEMER represents debtors and creditors in bankruptcy courts all over the country. The information, comments and links posted on this blog do not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship has been or will be formed by any communication(s) to, from or with the blog and/or the blogger. For legal advice, contact an attorney at MAZURKRAEMER or an attorney actively practicing in your jurisdiction.