So you’re doing business as usual and notice that payments from your customer are getting later and later. Turns out that customer is struggling to navigate in the sputtering economy. Waiting for your money is bad enough; but what if you receive a demand to refund what you’ve been paid? And not because of anything you’ve done but because your customer has filed for Bankruptcy?
Sound like a nightmare? Actually, it happens everyday. So what do you do if you’re next? That was the question addressed in the recent New York case of Davis vs. Clark-Lift, in which a reorganizing Chapter 11 Debtor paid vendors later and later as it listed towards Bankruptcy. But even those lucky creditors who got paid could not escape the demand of the Trustee (Davis) to fork over what they had received.
As the Court in Davis explained, to set aside a payment as a “Preferential Transfer” under Section 547(b) of the Bankruptcy Code the moving Creditor or Trustee must established that the Debtor made it:
(1) To an existing creditor to satisfy an existing debt;
(2) While it was actually, or presumptively, insolvent;
(3) Within 90 days before filing its Bankruptcy case; and
(4) The payee therefore gets more than it otherwise would.
So if you got paid within 90 days before your customer filed Bankruptcy, it’s all over right?
Not exactly. Even if a payment qualifies as a Preferential Transfer the recipient can assert defenses. If successful, the payee retains the money. One of the most frequently-used strategies is the “Ordinary Course of Business” defense found in Section 547(c)(2) of the Code, which provides that a payment made in the ordinary course of business will not be avoided as a preference. The idea behind the defense is to permit a reorganizing Debtor to maintain a semi-normal relationship with some creditors: because rebuilding goodwill is key to a successful reorganization.
In the Davis case the Court’s analysis was primarily focused on what the “ordinary course of business” was; which in turn meant determining the most common and frequently-used payment terms for vendors during the relevant 90-day period. This means looking at all vendors at first; then vendors of a certain type; then payments of a certain type; and finally a comparison between terms bef0re the 90-day period began running and afterwards.
The decision in the Davis case, like many similar cases, was that the vendor had to disgorge what it was paid. What would it get in return? Perhaps a return of its goods so it could resell them and offset its losses? Nope. In return for disgorging the payment the vendor got a claim in the Debtor’s case. Most likely, it wouldn’t see the money. So now the vendor was out both its money and its property. Isn’t the law grand?
If you have seen situations like this or are yourself the subject of such a situation, call us in confidence at 630-378-2200 or reach us at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com.