There is nothing more frustrating that having one of your biggest customers file for bankruptcy, leaving your company holding a large unpaid debt, and then to be sued later for a “preference.” Clients often ask us: “I was not getting preferential treatment by the debtor, why am I being sued for a preference?” The answer to that question lies at the root of the supposed purposes of preference statutes in the bankruptcy code.
Congress enacted preference statutes for two reasons: 1) to prevent creditors from “dismembering” a struggling debtor during the debtor’s slide into insolvency; 2) to promote equality of distribution (of debtor’s assets) amongst debtor’s creditors.
The former is based on the premise that creditors typically realize when a debtor is struggling financially. Concerned that they debts may not be paid if the debtor enters bankruptcy, those creditors threaten the debtor (with lawsuits) until the debtor agrees to pay the debt. The debtor, at a time when cash flow is already a major problem, pays the debt in hopes of staying afloat by avoiding legal expenses.
If multiple creditors take the same action, the debtor’s limited assets are haphazardly distributed amongst a few select creditors to the detriment of debtor’s other creditors. In the meantime, debtor is stripped of its operating capital and forced into bankruptcy, leaving most of its creditors with unpaid debts.
In theory, the threat of bankruptcy preference actions may prevent creditors from demanding payment once a debtor is in financial turmoil. In reality, the creditor takes whatever action it would normally take and then hopes that more than ninety days pass before the bankruptcy is filed.
The second foundation for preference statutes is equally dubious. More often than not, preference payments are made to unsecured creditors. When money is recovered through preference actions during the preference case, significantly less than 100% of that money is paid to unsecured creditors. Usually, a substantial portion of the recovered assets are paid to administrative creditors (i.e. those that provided goods and services after the bankruptcy was filed) and priority creditors (like taxing authorities and employees).
In fairness, preference actions usually benefit more creditors than they hurt. Again, more often than not, those receiving payments during the 90-days preceding the bankruptcy filing are less in number than creditors that did not receive such payments. Consequently, the end result of preference actions is usually some benefit to unsecured creditors as a whole, but often very little.
In any event, the dual aims of preference statutes described above are rarely achieved.