Firm to Farm: Farm Bankruptcy and the Preferential Payment Rule
Today’s blog post by RFD-TV Agri-Legal Expert Roger McEowen takes a look at the “preferential payment rule,” a unique bankruptcy provision that can come as a suprise to farmers in financial distress.
Economic times continue to be difficult in much of agriculture. Many crop prices have declined from their peak a few years ago. The same is true for much of livestock agriculture. What more, great yields rarely if ever make up for low prices. As a result, farm bankruptcy filings are occurring at an increased rate, particularly in areas that have both crops and dairy operations.
An important issue that can come up in a farm bankruptcy is known as the “preferential payment rule.” It can be a surprise not only to farmers in financial distress, but also to creditors who receive payment or buy agricultural goods shortly before the debtor files bankruptcy. It is also an issue that can arise in the normal course of doing business before bankruptcy is filed when nothing “unusual” appears to be happening.
11 U.S.C. §547 provides in general that when a debtor makes a payment to a creditor and the debtor files bankruptcy within 90 days of making the payment, the bankruptcy trustee can “avoid” the payment by making the creditor pay the amount received to the bankruptcy estate where it will be distributed to the general creditors of the debtor. The timeframe expands from 90 days to one year is the creditor is an “insider.” The rule can come as a shock to a creditor that has received payment, paid their own creditors from the funds received from the debtor, and now has no funds to pay the bankruptcy estate to satisfy the bankruptcy trustee’s avoidance claim.
The preferential payment rule does come with some exceptions. The exceptions basically comport with usual business operations. In other words, if the transaction between the debtor and the creditor occurred in the normal course of the parties doing business with each other, then the trustee’s “avoidance” claim will likely fail. So, if the payment was made as part of a contemporaneous exchange for new value given, the trustee’s avoidance claim will be rejected. Also, if the payment was made in the “ordinary course of business” between the debtor and the creditor where invoices are paid in the time period required on the invoice, or payment is made in accordance with industry custom or past dealings, the trustee’s claim will likely fail. Likewise, if the transfer creates a security interest in property that the debtor acquires that secures new value given in accordance with a security agreement, the trustee’s claim will also likely not be granted.
A recent court decision from Arkansas illustrates how the preferential payment rule can apply in an agricultural setting. In Rice v. Prairie Gold Farms, No. 2:17CV126 JLH, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51678 (E.D. Ark. Mar. 28, 2018), the debtor was a partnership engaged in wheat farming activities. The debtor entered into two contracts for the sale of wheat with a grain broker. The contracts called for a total of 10,000 bushels of wheat to be delivered to the broker anytime between June 1, 2014 and July 31, 2014. In return, the debtor was to be paid $6.78/bushel for 5,000 bushels and $7.09/bushel for the other 5,000 bushels for a total price of $69,350. The debtor delivered the wheat in fulfillment of the contracts on July 21, 2014 and August 4, 2014 and received $71,957.10 later in August, in return for a total delivery of 10,813.07 bushels.
The debtor subsequently filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on October 23, 2014 (which was later converted to Chapter 7). The Chapter 7 trustee sought to avoid the transfer of the debtor’s wheat crop as a preferential transfer under 11 U.S.C. §547(b) and return the wheat crop to the bankruptcy estate for distribution to creditors. The trial court disagreed with the trustee, noting that 11 U.S.C. §547(c)(1) disallowed avoidance of a transfer if it is made in a contemporaneous exchange for new value that the debtor received. The trustee claimed that the transfer of wheat was not contemporaneous because the contract was entered into in May and the wheat was not delivered and payment made until over two months later.
The trial court determined that the transfer was for new value and payment occurred in a substantially contemporaneous manner corresponding to the delivery of the wheat. Thus, the exception of 11 U.S.C. §547(c)(1) applied. The court also noted that the wheat sale contracts were entered into in the ordinary course of the debtor’s business and, thus, also met the exception of 11 U.S.C. §547(c)(2). The debtor and the grain broker had a business history of similar transactions, and the court noted that the trustee failed to establish that the wheat contracts were inconsistent with the parties’ history of business dealings.
The preferential payment rule is important to know about, especially in the context of agricultural bankruptcies. The matter can get complicated in agricultural settings with the use of deferred payment contracts, forward grain contracts and the various types of unique business relationships that farmers often find themselves in. In the Arkansas case, the court noted that the parties had prior dealings that they conducted in the same manner and that nothing was out of the ordinary. There wasn’t any attempt to defraud creditors or shield assets from the reach of creditors. That’s really the point behind the rule. Continue conducting business as usual and the rule won’t likely come into play.