In a decision issued on April 3, 2007 in the In re: Ahaza Systems, Inc. case, the Ninth Circuit held that even first time transactions can qualify for the "ordinary course of business" defense to preferences. A copy of the Court of Appeal’s decision is available here.
The Bankruptcy Preference. As a quick refresher, preferences are payments or other transfers made in the 90 days prior to a bankruptcy filing, on account of antecedent or pre-existing debt, at a time when the debtor was insolvent, that allow the transferee (the preference defendant) to be "preferred" by recovering more than it would have had the transfer not been made and the defendant instead had simply filed a proof of claim for the amount involved. The 90-day reachback period is extended to a full year prior to the bankruptcy petition for insiders such as officers, directors, and affiliates.
Pre-BAPCPA Statute. The ordinary course of business defense, designed to protect parties who engage in normal transactions with a financially troubled business, is one of the most common defenses available to preference recipients. The Ninth Circuit examined it under the version of the preference statute, Section 547 of the Bankruptcy Code, as it existed before the 2005 amendments made in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (known as BAPCPA). This pre-BAPCPA statute, specifically Section 547(c)(2), provided that a trustee could not avoid a transfer as a preference
to the extent that such transfer was —
(A) in payment of a debt incurred by the debtor in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee;
(B) made in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee; and
(C) made according to ordinary business terms.
The Court’s focus was on subsection (A), the "debt" issue. Usually, parties have a series of contracts or purchase orders, as well as a payment history, that gives context to the ordinary course of business between them. In this case, however, the transaction that led to the allegedly preferential payments was their first one. The Court faced the question of whether a debt can be considered as having been incurred in the ordinary course of business of the debtor and the preference defendant when there had been no other past transactions to which it could be compared.
Court Looks To Past Practices With Other Similar Parties. The Court’s answer was yes, holding that a preference defendant can indeed assert the ordinary course of business defense involving a debt created by the first contract or transaction between the parties. However, the Ninth Circuit articulated a special rule when a "first time" debt is involved:
[W]hen we have no past debt between the parties with which to compare the challenged one, the instant debt should be compared to the debt agreements into which we would expect the debtor and creditor to enter as part of their ordinary business operations. Consistent with Food Catering [971 F.2d 396 (9th Cir. 1982)], however, this analysis should be as specific to the actual parties as possible. Thus, we hold that to fulfill § 547(c)(2)(A), a first-time debt must be ordinary in relation to this debtor’s and this creditor’s past practices when dealing with other, similarly situated parties. Only if a party has never engaged in similar transactions would we consider more generally whether the debt is similar to what we would expect of similarly situated parties, where the debtor is not sliding into bankruptcy.
Both Original And Restructured Agreements Are Relevant. On a related point, since the first transaction here was an agreement that was later restructured to give the debtor more time to pay, the Ninth Circuit also held that both the original and revised agreement should be evaluated for ordinariness.
Ruling Still Important Under BAPCPA. BAPCPA revised the ordinary course of business defense so that Section 547(c)(2) now provides that a payment or other transfer cannot be avoided
to the extent that such transfer was in payment of a debt incurred by the debtor in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee, and such transfer was—
(A) made in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee; or
(B) made according to ordinary business terms.
Although different, the current statute still makes the issue decided in the In re: Ahaza Systems case, whether the debt was incurred in the ordinary course of business, a requirement. The major change is that the statute now allows the defense to be established by additionally showing that payments were made either (A) in the ordinary course of business of the parties or (B) according to ordinary business terms, rather than both as under the pre-BAPCPA version.
How Hard To Meet? Having established the new test, the Court then reversed the granting of summary judgment to the defendant because it found the proof presented was inadequate. This suggests that although the Ninth Circuit will permit preference defendants to assert the ordinary course of business defense on first time transactions, some defendants may face a challenge in meeting that standard.