So you are a vendor with unpaid invoices from a Client and receive the dreaded Notice of Commencement of Bankruptcy Case. You check your records and see that you have made a large product delivery (or series of deliveries) to the Client—now Debtor—within a short period of time prior to the filing of the bankruptcy case . Are you out of luck? Maybe not. Depending on what you delivered to the Debtor and when you made these deliveries, you may be able to assert what is called a 20-day administrative priority claim as to the portion of your claim that fits within the requirements of this section of the Bankruptcy Code. Why is this important? Well, you may be able to change a portion of your claim against the Debtor from a general unsecured claim (which are often paid pennies on the dollar in a bankruptcy case, if at all) to an administrative claim which has a higher level priority in the claim distribution process. In Chapter 11 cases, administrative priority claims are often paid in full upon confirmation of the Plan so there is a very obvious benefit for a vendor to hold a 20-day administrative priority claim.
Section 503(b)(9) of the Bankruptcy Code provides for an administrative expense status for “the value of any goods received by the Debtor within 20 days before the date of commencement of a case under this title in which the goods have been sold to the debtor the ordinary course of such Debtor’s business.” Parsing apart this provision, a vendor must establish four elements to establish such a claim—the value of goods that were sold to the Debtor in the ordinary course of the Debtor’s business and received by the Debtor within 20 days of the bankruptcy filing. The specific circumstances of a transaction or series of transactions can determine whether a claim fits within this section and will be allowed as an administrative priority.
First, the vendor’s claim will only be allowed for goods sold to the Debtor. The Bankruptcy Code does not define what “goods” are, so the Courts have come up with various decisions as to what are or are not ‘goods” under this section. In some cases the determination is clear—for example tangible supplies provided to the Debtor such as machinery, equipment or parts are goods as determined in several cases. Likewise, Courts have found chemicals provided as fertilizer to a farming enterprise and produce delivered to a restaurant supplier to be goods meeting the requirements of this section. What has proved difficult for the Courts to determine is when a vendor supplies goods and services at the same time. Let’s say the chemicals delivered to the farming operation above are also loaded by the vendor into fertilizer sprayers at the time of delivery for the farm’s use. Should the value of the fertilizer loading be part of the administrative priority claim? The decisions in this area vary between the Courts so a vendor facing an issue of this sort will likely need to contact an attorney for guidance.
The second element of an administrative priority claim requires that the goods actually be sold to the Debtor in the ordinary course of the Debtor’s business operations. There is a dearth of case law on this aspect of a 503(b)(9) claim and the Bankruptcy Code does not define what the term “sold” entails, though it appears clear that goods that are leased to the Debtor would not fit within this section. A vendor should contact counsel when it confronts a situation in this regard as certain vendor-debtor relationships can be murky. Likewise, the Bankruptcy Code does not define what is “ordinary course” for a Debtor’s business operations. What is “ordinary course” is often not an issue in an administrative priority claim determination. However, as above, a vendor confronted with an unclear situation should consult with a bankruptcy creditor’s attorney for guidance in establishing its claim.
The third element requires that the Debtor have actually received the goods in the 20 day period prior to the filing of the bankruptcy case. Vendors are cautioned to understand the difference between invoicing and actual delivery and receipt by the Debtor. Invoicing can occur before, at the same time, or after delivery and receipt so a vendor should have a clear understanding of its course of dealings with the Debtor in order to determine when the Debtor came into physical possession of the goods. Oftentimes the vendor-debtor relationship can be murky in this regard requiring a very fact-dependent analysis in order to ascertain whether a vendor’s claim fits into an administrative priority status.
Finally, the administrative priority claim would be for the value of the goods that meet all of the above requirements. The Courts will often look to the invoice and consider the value of the goods to be the invoice price of such goods though this is not always the case, especially in a situation where, as set forth above, there is a combination of goods and services provided as part of a vendor’s delivery to a Debtor or a question as to whether the goods described on the invoice or invoices were what was actually delivered to the Debtor.
Can a vendor assert a 20-day administrative priority claim in any bankruptcy case? The answer is yes—administrative priority claims under §503(b)(9) can be asserted in regards to claims under any Chapter of the Bankruptcy Code, though, effectively, they are of significant value to Vendors only in Chapter 11 cases. The reason is that the highest level of priority in cases in other Chapters of the Bankruptcy Code (such as Chapter 7 cases ) are the expenses of the costs of administration, such as the Trustee’s fee, the attorneys for the Trustee’s fees and costs and so forth. Administrative priority claims under §503(b)(9), though they retain a priority status in these cases filed in other Chapters, are a lower-level of priority and are not paid unless the costs of administration are first paid in full.
What is the process for a vendor to assert an administrative priority claim under §503(b)(9)? The short answer is that it is dependent on the process used in the Court where the case is pending, the process that may have been ordered by the Court in a particular case or the terms of a Chapter 11 Debtor’s Plan of Reorganization. The Bankruptcy Code itself does not specify the process. There is a significant variability between the Bankruptcy Courts as to how and when a vendor must make its claim, so it is easy for a vendor to get tripped up and inadvertently fail to timely make such a claim or make the claim in the “wrong” way. Therefore it is important for a vendor to contact its creditor counsel to devise the strategy for making the claim timely and in the correct way.
Brad Hissing is a Bankruptcy Attorney with over 26 years of experience in representing creditors, Trustees and other parties in bankruptcy cases. He has extensive experience in Creditors Rights and Insolvency matters in both consumer and Chapter 11 commercial cases. He can be reached at BradH@whhlaw.com or by phone at (813) 676-9075.