Friday, August 04, 2006

BAPCPA Preference Amendments Are Creditor-Friendly, But Not Always Enough

In what may be the first published decision interpreting the BAPCPA amendments to bankruptcy preference provisions for an "ordinary course of business" defense, a North Carolina court has held that the new provisions substantially lighten a creditor/defendant's load, but not enough to provide a defense to the creditor in this particular case. In re National Gas Distributors, LLC, __ B.R. __, 2006 WL 2135557 (Bankr. E.D.N.C. 7/31/06).

In bankruptcy a trustee has the authority to recover "preferential" payments made by an insolvent debtor within 90 days before the filing on debts owed to creditors. The Bankruptcy Code also provides several defenses to preference actions, including what is known as the "ordinary course of business defense." Under pre-BAPCPA law, this defense, codified in 11 U.S.C. 547(c)(2), required a creditor to demonstrate that the payment was:

(1) in payment of a debt incurred by the debtor in the "ordinary
course of business" or financial affairs of the debtor and creditor;
(2) made in the "ordinary course of business" or financial
affairs of the debtor and creditor;
(3) made "according to ordinary business terms."
As generally interpreted, the pre-BAPCPA provision required creditors to demonstrate both that the transfer was ordinary with respect to the debtor and creditor's dealings (the "subjective" test), and that such dealings were ordinary for the industry (the "objective" test - sometimes applied to the debtor's industry, sometimes the creditor's, and sometimes both). The objective test in particular often required creditors to find industry experts who could testify as to industry practices, a complicated and expensive burden in most preference cases. BAPCPA amended 547(c)(2), however, so that it now provides protection for transfers:

(1) in payment of a debt incurred by the debtor in the "ordinary course of
business" or financial affairs of the debtor and creditor;
(2) made in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the
debtor and creditor;
(3) made "according to ordinary business terms".

In National Gas, the corporate debtor had made two payments within 90 days of the filing totaling about $3.25 million to its bank lender to pay off a line of credit and working capital loan owed by the corporation (and also guaranteed by the principals). The line of credit and loan had both matured prior to the payments but had been extended by the bank several times before the payoff. In defense, the bank creditor/defendant contended that the payments were made "according to ordinary business terms" (but not necessarily in the ordinary course of business of the debtor and creditor. In support, the bank submitted an affidavit from one of its loan officers (who had 15 years of experience with the bank and 30 in the banking industry) that: (1) the terms of the line of credit and working capital note were customary for the bank and the banking industry; (2) it was a customary practice at the bank and in the industry to extend maturity dates on loans, and that the extensions were done on standard and ordinary terms; (3) when a loan becomes due, it is typical for the bank and in the industry for borrowers to pay the loans in full on or shortly before the maturity date; and (4) the payment of the line and loan were made within the terms of the notes, as modified. The trustee submitted an affidavit in opposition to summary judgment, but according to Judge Small, the affidavit did not address the bank's "ordinary business terms" defense.

To evaluate whether the bank's evidence established an "ordinary business terms" defense, the court was required to evaluate the effect of the BAPCPA amendments. It started by noting while 547(c) previously included one "ordinary course of business" defense with three separate elements, as amended it now provides both an "ordinary course of business" defense and a "separate, independent" "ordinary business terms" defense. Since the context of the phrase "ordinary business terms" has changed, the court had to look at whether it acquired a different meaning in this new context.

The court looked first to the plain language, but found that the phrase "ordinary business terms" is so inclusive that a plain meaning analysis is not helpful. It also found the legislative history unhelpful. Although the history makes clear that the "or" is to be read in the disjunctive, it provides no further insight into how the reconstructed statute should be interpreted.

Looking further back, Judge Small provides an interesting review of the development of this particular amendment, including a 1995 American Bankruptcy Institute task force recommendation that the defense be clarified, which was adopted by the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. Although the NBRC recommendation was to limit the "objective industry test" to situations where there was insufficient pre-petition conduct to establish a course of dealing between the debtor and creditor, that is not what Congress ultimately did in BAPCPA. Rather, the statute as amended "allows the 'ordinary business terms' defense to be used where a course of dealing existed and even where the transfers at issue clearly deviated from that course of conduct."

Judge Small notes that pre-BAPCPA interpretation of the "ordinary business terms" clause often tied it to the "ordinary course of business" prong -- for instance, applying a "sliding scale" whereby industry standards become more or less important depending on the length of the parties' relationship. But under the amendments, "'ordinary business terms' has been released from the controlling influence of the ordinary course of business subsection." While pre-BAPCPA cases varied in their analysis of which particular industry was relevant (the debtor's, the creditor's, or both), under BAPCPA the court found that review of both the debtor's and creditor's industry was required. It found this result mandated, notwithstanding prior Fourth Circuit law directing that only the creditor's industry need be considered, based on the generally recognized purpose of the ordinary course of business defense being to "leave undisturbed normal financial relations". "If the 'ordinary business terms' defense only requires examination of the industry standards of the creditor, there would be no review or check on the debtor's conduct."

Accordingly, the court looked to the industry standards of both the debtor and its creditors. Applying this test, it found that the bank's affidavit describing the typical and customary practices of the bank and the banking industry "too general to establish industry norms." But perhaps even more significantly, it found that "the industry standards must be applied to the factual circumstances of the transfer." Even though "From [the bank's] point of view, it did nothing out of the ordinary," the court would look at "the debtor's industry standards and the standards applicable to business in general":

"When those standards are examined, the conduct of the debtor in paying its loans was not in accordance with 'ordinary business terms.' It is clear what was going on here: [the debtor] was going out of business and was paying off those debts which [the principals] guaranteed and for which [one of the principal's] assets stood as collateral. These payments were not made 'according to ordinary business terms' and are not the type of transfers that the 'ordinary business terms' defense is designed to protect."

Accordingly, even though the BAPCPA amendment to 547(c)(2) "substantially lightens the creditor's burden of proof," the court rejected the bank's defense and entered judgment in the trustee's favor.

This result is, to me, a puzzling one. It seems that notwithstanding the clear split of 547(c)(2) into an either/or proposition of evaluating either the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the parties, or the ordinariness of the terms of the transaction, the National Gas decision rejects an "ordinary business terms" defense not because the terms were extraordinary, but because the payment was extraordinary in relation to the rest of the debtor's financial affairs. There doesn't appear to be any evidence in the case that the terms of the loans were unusual or that the payments were not made in accordance with their terms; rather, the payments were extraordinary only when viewed in light of what else was happening in the debtor's business.

If the "ordinary business terms" defense is to be given separate, independent meaning, then it would seem that payments that are made in accordance with the terms of an ordinary loan should be protected, even if they can not be shown to be ordinary with respect to the debtor's other financial affairs.

No comments: