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.
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.