Category Archives: Resolving Claims Disputes

Avoiding Emergency Bankruptcy Filings

It was the day before Thanksgiving.  A friend of mine called me in a panic.   She received a notification that her bank account was frozen by a creditor; she was to get a direct deposit of her salary in the next 2 days, which was two weeks before Christmas.  She needed to file bankruptcy fast in order to trigger the automatic stay (legal principle that means no creditor can take action to harm you).

I stayed up until midnight that day in order to get the case filed for her.  Her business had gone bad and this was the fallout from it.

Often, bankruptcy cases are filed on an emergency basis. In many instances, time may be of the essence and you need to file the case immediately (e.g. a creditor  has a judgment against you and has sent the Sheriff to your home or business; you have received a notice of garnishment of your wages or bank account by a taxing body).  If this firedrill can be avoided, it should be.

Rushing into a case is pretty much never a good idea.   Filing the petition on an emergency basis only increases the costs of your case and there may not be enough time to research potential issues that may arise during the course of your case.   You may omit important creditors.  You may omit assets.  If the schedules are not accurate,  you will need to amend them and that costs more money to do.  Substantial, repeated amendments do not leave favorable impressions upon the U.S. Trustee or the Ch. 7 Trustee.

A debtor is permitted to file a barebones “emergency “bankruptcy petition together with a list of 20 largest creditors. The full set of schedules must be submitted within 14 days, unless extended.

Regardless of whether the case is an emergency filing or not, if you are an individual, you MUST complete pre-bankruptcy filing credit counseling course at least 24 hours before any case is filed.

BOTTOM LINE:

  • Talk to an attorney.  He or she can give you the questionnaire you need to fill out well ahead of time. He or she will also give you a list of documents you will need You can start gathering that info.  If the case is billed hourly, you will save yourself money by gathering up this information rather than having a paralegal do it.
  • Pre-bankruptcy planning is always advisable for any individual or business.  You don’t want to throw good money after bad (meaning you don’t want to pay down debt that ultimately may be discharged). You don’t want to make preferential or fraudulent transfers.    Often, there are non-bankruptcy options, particularly for businesses (but that can be a topic for another blog post).

DISCLAIMER:  This does  not constitute legal advice.  This post does not create an attorney client relationship.  Consultant an attorney for more information re: this topic.

firedrill

Article for ABI Business Reorganization Committee: In Re Vivaro Corporation, et al. (S.D.N.Y.) Case Summary

WARNING: This is not a blog post written “In Plain English”.  It is a repaste of an article Daniel and I wrote for a technical business bankruptcy legal e-newsletter published by the American Bankruptcy Institute (“ABI”) Business Reorganization Committee.  Here is a link to the article replete with our bios.

abiForeign Claimants?  No Problem.  All You Need Is a Postage Stamp to Satisfy Claims Objection Service and Declarations from the Debtor to Assert 502(d) Disallowance 

By Salene Mazur Kraemer, Esquire, MBA, CTA and Daniel Hart, Paralegal

             On November 13, 2015, in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, Judge Glenn issued a memorandum opinion in the bankruptcy case, In re: Vivaro Corporation, et al.  (Case no. 12-13810), with the following rulings:  (1) a claim objection against a foreign entity may be served by U.S. mail under Bankruptcy Rule 3007 and need not be served in the same manner required for service of a summons and complaint in accordance with Rule 7004; and (2) when a claim objection is based on § 502(d) of the Bankruptcy Code, the Debtors must meet their burden under § 547 of the Bankruptcy Code  regarding the receipt of an avoidable transfer before the court will disallow and expunge such claims.

IMG_0178large.PNG         In Vivaro, various foreign entities from Pakistan, Costa Rica, Canada, London, El Savador, etc. filed proofs of claim in the debtors’ cases.  Vivaro Corporation, et al. (the “Debtors”) filed various objections to such claims as well as to scheduled claims of such foreign creditors.  At the same time, the Debtors initiated preference actions against such foreign creditors. The bases for the claims objections included § 502(d) of the Bankruptcy Code, which permits the disallowance (even if temporarily) of a claim if there are pending allegations of unreturned preference transfers.

      Debtors served the claims objections upon the foreign creditors via U.S. mail and attached copies of the preference transfer complaints to the notices of claims objection.  Debtors used the address listed on the Debtors’ schedules or listed on the appropriate proof of claim.  In the packet sent to the foreign creditors, the Debtors included a declaration from the Debtors in support of their claim objections, which informed each claimant that they were in receipt of an avoidable preference transfer and provided the standard for a preference payment under § 547 of the Bankruptcy Code

                 Judge Glenn ruled that Bankruptcy Rule 3007 applies to claims objections and permits service by U.S. mail which includes service by mail on foreign entities, and, therefore, the Debtors’ properly served notice of claims objection to each foreign entity by U.S. mail.   Bankruptcy Rule 3007 states that “[a] copy of the objection with notice of the hearing thereon shall be mailed or otherwise delivered to the claimant, the debtor or debtor in possession, and the trustee at least 30 days prior to the hearing.”  Fed. R. Bankr. P. 3007(a).   Service by Rule 7004(a) was not necessary.   Bankruptcy Rule 7004(a) provides that in adversary proceedings, personal service under Rule 4(e)–(j) F.R.Civ.P. may be made by any person at least 18 years of age who is not a party, and the summons may be delivered by the clerk to any such person.  Fed. R. Bankr. P. 7004(a).

               The standard of service of a summons and complaint upon an individual in a foreign country is governed by F.R.Civ. P. Rule 4(f)(1), which is made applicable to adversary proceedings by Bankruptcy Rule 7004(a).  Service must be “[b]y any internationally agreed means reasonably calculated to give notice, such as those means authorized by The Hague Convention….” Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f)(1).

          This Vivaro Court rejected the  Jorgenson v. State Line Hotel, Inc. (In re State Line Hotel, Inc.), 323 B.R. 703, 713 (9th Cir. B.A.P. 2005), decision that Rule 7004 applies to the service of claims objections.  Rather, the Vivaro Court concluded that “Rule 9014 defers to Rule 3007 on the subject of claims objections: [Rule 3007] calls for an objection, not a motion, and authorizes notice, rather than requiring service.”  The Court further reasoned that there is no reason to require different rules of service when dealing with claims filed by foreign entities.  In respect to the second issue, the Vivaro Court ruled that if the Debtors showed proof to the Court that preferential transfers were made and not repaid, then § 502(d) of the Bankruptcy Code requires that the entire claim be disallowed unless the full amount of the avoidable transfer has been repaid.   The Court, however, must be satisfied that the estate or estate representative has established a prima facie basis that the claimants received and have not repaid avoidable transfers.  Although the complaint was not properly served in accordance with Rule 7004(a), copies of the complaint and Debtors’ declaration provided the claimants with notice and evidence of the avoidable transfers.  Such service shifted the burden to the claimants to rebut the evidence that they received an avoidable preference.  In this case, none of the claimants responded to the claims objections or made an attempt to repay the preference transfer to the estate.

          The Court held that once a claimant’s liability has been determined, the claimant must be provided with a reasonable opportunity to turn over the property to the debtor’s estate in compliance with § 502(d) of the Bankruptcy Code before the claims may be disallowed.  If the creditor is liable to the estate for having received an avoidable transfer in any amount, the creditor’s entire pending claim must be disallowed in full.

Practice Pointers:

  • If you have a foreign claimant, service of a claims objection by U.S. Mail will suffice.
  • If you are attempting to disallow a creditor’s claim based on 502(d) of the Bankruptcy Code, you must first establish a prima facie basis that the claimant received and has not repaid avoidable transfers. Copies of the preference complaint together with declaration from the debtor should suffice.

Preference Litigation: The Fine Art of the “Aging Analysis”

 

overdue-invoices

SOURCE CREDIT: Fiona Robertson Graphics

An aging analysis is often needed to mount an ordinary course defense in a preference action that a debtor has initiated against your client creditor, who could be a supplier, a lender, a trade creditor, a landlord.

 

EXAMPLE: Debtor retail toy store buys toy inventory from Defendant Supplier Creditor on Net 30 day terms and has done so for years. Debtor always paid in about 45- 60 days (or 15 to 30 days late– the  “lag time”). The purchase history is evidenced by 1000’s of invoices, purchase orders, and checks.   As the Debtor started its “slide into bankruptcy”, it slowed down payments to this Supplier Creditor and started paying in 75 to 100 days after invoice within the 90 days prior to filing bankruptcy (35-70 day “lag time”).  Debtor paid Supplier $100,000 in those 90 days about 75-100 days after invoice.   Post- bankruptcy, the Debtor or a Trustee sues the Supplier Creditor for a return of the $100,000 alleging that the payments were preferential payments.

To argue the ordinary course of business defense provided for creditors in the Bankruptcy Code, the Supplier must show that the timing of the payments in the 90 day period was consistent with Pre-Preference Period transactions, that this was a typical supplier/debtor credit relationship where the Debtor and Supplier over time had fallen into a pattern of regularly paying and accepting payments on a late basis. The Supplier must show that during the Preference Period, the average lag times remained substantially the same. The Creditor had come to expect this and had accepted these payments to be made in the “ordinary course of business.”

As a debtor draws closer to the filing of a bankruptcy, it is generally the case that almost all invoices will be paid with less frequency. A creditor must prove more than just that fact. See Hansen Lumber, 270 B.R. 273 (even where representative of debtor acknowledged that as debtor got closer to filing bankruptcy, the invoices were being paid with less frequency and the creditor defendant was treated no differently than any of the debtor’s other suppliers, debtor’s batch payments to supplier were still preferential). Generally speaking, there have been two ways in which Courts have done an “aging analysis” comparing the timing of preferential payments to the course of dealings established by the payment history between the parties: the “ranging method” and the “averaging method”.

For the “ranging method,” the first step is determining the range of “lag times” for payments made by the Debtor to the Creditor during the Preference Period, (if possible, also taking into consideration both the number of invoices and the dollar amount of invoices).  The second step is determining whether this Preference Period range of “lag times” falls within, or close to, the range of lag times for payments made by the debtor to the creditor prior to the Preference Period. Calculating a “lag time” is described below.

For the “averaging method,” a creditor simply compares the average “lag time” for payments made during the Preference Period with payments made during the Pre-Preference Period.  To calculate the average, one must first count the days after invoice date for each invoice, add up the total number of days and divide by the total number of invoices. Global Distribution, 103 B.R. 949, 953 n.3 (citing In re First Software Corp., 81 B.R. 211, 213 (Bankr. D. Mass.1988). If a debtor is a making payment to the creditor which pays many invoices (a batch basis), there is an issue as to whether the “lag time” is calculated on a “batch” basis or on an “unbatched” basis (invoice by invoice).  Uh. yeah, this analysis can get more complicated.

As I have previously written here, I have developed an extensive series of excel spreadsheets to generate an “aging analysis” to defend preference litigation.  I am able to take a client’s 1000s of invoice transactions, input them into excel and do an analysis using both the “ranging” and “averaging” methods on both a “batched” and “unbatched” basis.  The analysis must also account for how the “Ordinary Course” defense interplays with the “New Value” defense (another defense to preference allegations).  More on that later.

In true scholarly fashion, I amassed 100’s of cases in various Circuits that scrutinize what is a reasonable “average” or reasonable “range” in determining whether a transfer is ordinary or not.

I know this is riveting stuff.  But, this type of litigation can make or break a creditor, thrusting the creditor also into a liquidation itself if forced to disgorge payments a Chapter 11 Debtor has made to it for bona fide goods or services.  Trust me, my clients are fuming after being hit with one of these lawsuits.

Feel free to reach out if you have any additional questions about the “aging analysis” in a preference action.  The age of the transaction is only one factor in determining whether a transfer is or is not within  the ordinary course defense, but albeit a weighty one.

 This post does not constitute legal advice.  Consult an attorney about your specific case.

#notalllawyershatemath: Where Mathematics and Lawyering Meet in Business/Bankruptcy Litigation

greetings from phoenix, aZ •.jpgI am analytical. I like numbers. I like clear answers. Black and white. Not grey.

I was the Calculus member of my high school’s academic team in high school. Dad was an industrial engineer and the visual lens through which he viewed the world rubbed off on me. I initially majored in Physics because I appreciated how Calculus concepts could be applied to real life.

Fast forward 25 years. I love my work as a business lawyer. But, I still crave that opportunity to solve math problems (I did have a chance to be a financial analyst for two years before I started the firm). I just recently realize that, whenever I can, I attempt to solve my clients’ legal problems using spreadsheets and finite alternative scenarios.   I reduce chaos and moving parts down to a formula, decision tree, or spreadsheet. There are only so many scenarios. There is a range of only so many possible outcomes. The law can only go so many ways.

Such an approach has worked really well for me in the context of settling business litigation. Recently, in bankruptcy litigation, I had to resolve the extent, amount, and priority of competing lien positions of 5 creditors (2 mortgage holders and 3 taxing bodies), on my clients’ commercial assets (including a building) and one of the owner’s residence. We tried to negotiate for months and no one was budging, but then I busted out my spreadsheets. I kept running the numbers given different assumptions regarding the value of the assets, whether to include interest and penalties, and given the two alternative legal outcomes as to whom should be first in lien priority.  With the help of an esteemed mediator, we resolved the matter and successfully confirmed the plan of reorganization.

My abstract skills and fancy excel handywork also came in handy when I was about 29 (12 years ago, gasp), and working as a young associate. I developed an extensive series of “aging analysis” excel spreadsheets to utilize math to resolve a special type of bankruptcy litigation: preference litigation. The cases we handled were large dollar amounts in controversy, ranging from $15k- $8 million. Where a creditor is sued in a preference action (see first post on What the Heck is a Preference Action: Paying Off Favorite Creditors As a Business Tanks), there is an ordinary course of business defense. In order to mount this defense, a defendant should present an “aging analysis” of the length of time the parties were engaged in the transactions at issue.

We settled every time (with only one exception) and I am sure my extensive volumes of “aging analysis” spreadsheets helped.  Maybe Dad would have preferred that I became an engineer like him. I don’t know. I do know that he would be proud of the way I approach my work now. Both my clients and I can thank my science and math teachers (Mr. Pete Karpyk, Mr. Phil Carey, Mrs. Kladakis, Mr. J.) for helping me be able to create these frameworks in which I can more readily resolve legal problems. So remember, #notalllawyershatemath.

Stay tuned for another post on exactly what is an “aging analysis” to be used to mount an ordinary course defense in a preference action.

Salene is a business and bankruptcy lawyer.  This post does not constitute legal advice and does not constitute a guarantee of any legal outcome.  The facts and legal issues vary from case to case; and not all outcomes will be the same.

Inside the Trenches of a Chapter 11: The Firehose of the First 30 Days

fire-hydrant-flushing    The first 30 days of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case often are like water spewing violently out of a fire hydrant.  Fast.   Furious.  Urgent.  Many issues being thrown at the Debtor, its employees, and its lawyers at one time.

According to the Pre-Bankruptcy Planning for the Commercial Reorganization: A Brief Guide for the CEO, CFO/COO, General Counsel and Tax Advisor, written by the Reorganization and Restructuring Group of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, LLP (2nd edition, 2008), a whopping 83 percent of chapter 11 reorganizations that are filed generally “die on the vine” and are never confirmed.

I purchased this Brief Guide at the American Bankruptcy Institute that I attended this past Spring and I thought I would write a few blog posts integrating my experience with the concise content of the book.  As set forth on Appendix A to the Guide, generally certain matters must be addressed within the first 30 days of a case.

  • Petition filed
  • Filing of list of 20 largest creditors
  • Applications for retention of professionals (attorneys, accountants, turnaround professionals, valuation specialists, real estate brokers).  A Debtor cannot pay a professional unless the retention of the firm is first approved by the Judge and the professional files a fee application on the docket, to which parties may review and/or object.
  • Filing of ”first day” motions (seeking authority to pay wages, use pre-petition bank accounts, pay deposits for utilities, use of cash collateral, payment of interim compensation to professionals)
  • Filing of schedules of assets and liabilities and statement of financial affairs.  Getting correct addresses and dollar amounts owed for every single creditor often is a daunting task.  Once the Schedules are filed, a creditor matrix is generated. The Bankruptcy Court and parties in interest use this address list to mail or “serve” important pleadings in the case. If the matrix is enormous, certain limited servicing lists can be authorized by the Court. In mega-cases, servicing agents are employed by the Debtor to handle only this aspect of the case, i.e., proper service.
  • Filing of Corporate Resolution authorizing the Chapter 11 filing
  • Negotiation of debtor in possession financing
  • Hearing on use of cash collateral and adequate protection
  • Negotiation with trade creditors regarding reclamation claims and/or reestablishment of trade terms.

The first few weeks of a case can be exhausting and dramatic.  Often, by the time a petition is filed, a debtor runs out of money and payroll has not been paid (therefore employees are angry and morale is low), bank accounts frozen, the utilities have been shut off, and/or the front doors have been padlocked by a creditor.   Once a case is filed, a creditor may immediately file a motion to dismiss the case.

The filing of the petition and related schedules requires a financial autopsy of a business and all of its related entities. In order to avoid confusion down the road, Debtor’s counsel should try to obtain as much factually accurate information as possible during this time. The process requires persistence, diligence and coordination with the Debtor’s employees, who basically become your co-workers for as long as the case is open, which could be 18 months or longer.

During this critical time, management and key employees must be counseled regarding what to do and not do, now that the actions of the Debtor are under close scrutiny by not only a Judge but also a U.S. Trustee as well as the creditor body. Employees should be clear regarding what transfers may or may not be made without court approval.  Also, at the same time, the U.S. Trustee’s Office dictates that a debtor comply with its financial reporting requirements (hence the required “Monthly Operating Report”), and the filing of insurance and bank account information.  Lack of compliance may lead to a dismissal of the case or a conversion to a Chapter 7.  Often the debtor must close pre-petition bank accounts and open new ones.

Keeping all constituencies informed is an important part of the role of Debtor’s counsel.  Creditors may include key lenders and critical vendors who will want to know what the turnaround strategy is for the company. Once creditors receive the “Notice of Suggestion of Bankruptcy”, they too will be scurrying around to hire bankruptcy lawyers if the size of their claims warrants such an expense.

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.

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.