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If you are the subject of demand by a trustee or other party, whether in a pre-suit demand letter or in a filed adversary proceeding, for the return of money paid to you by an individual or business which is now in bankruptcy, you may be able to keep the money if you can prove that the payments at issue fall within the ordinary course of business exception for preference payments. This is one of the most, if not the most, widely used defense in preference cases, and defendants are successful with it with some frequency. (There are other defenses to preference actions in the Bankruptcy Code, which are not discussed in this post).

Unless the payments at issue are to an “insider,” as defined by the Bankruptcy Code, only payments made within the 90-day period before a debtor files bankruptcy can be attacked as preferences.  In addition to proving that the payments were made within the 90-day period, the trustee, or other party making the claim, has the burden of proving a few other elements in order to establish that the payments at issue were preferences.  Once that burden is met, the creditor who received the payments can avoid having to disgorge the money at issue if it carries its burden of proof that the payments, though preferences, fall within the ordinary course of business exception in the Bankruptcy Code (11 U.S.C.A. §547(c)(2)).

To help readers better understand this exception, this blog discusses two cases — one in which the defense was successful, and the other in which it was not. Before discussing those cases, it is helpful to understand some basic rules about this exception. Here they are:

  1. The exception can be met by a creditor (who received a preferential payment) proving either the subjective component of the exception or the objective component of the exception.
  2. The subjective component of the exception considers whether the transfer, and the debt for which it was transferred, were made in the ordinary course of business of the debtor and creditor. Like the American Camshaft case discussed below, in many cases, there will be no dispute that the debt incurred by the debtor was incurred in the ordinary course of business, but there will be a dispute about whether the payment for that debt was in the ordinary course of business of the debtor and creditor.
  3. The objective component of the exception considers whether the debt was incurred in the ordinary course of the business of the debtor and creditor and whether the transfer that was the payment for the debt was made “according to ordinary business terms,” meaning ordinary business terms in the industry of the debtor and creditor.
  4. The Bankruptcy Code does not define “ordinary course of business” or “ordinary business terms” and the Sixth Circuit (which is the Circuit in which Tennessee bankruptcy courts are located) has said that there is no “precise legal test” to apply to determine whether either term has been satisfied. Instead, each preference case in which the ordinary course of business defense is raised turns on its own, unique facts.
  5. For the subjective component of the exception, in many cases, the most important factor that a Tennessee bankruptcy court will look at is the timing of the payments made by the debtor to the creditor that occurred within the 90-day preference period compared to the timing of the payments that occurred more than 90 days before the debtor filed bankruptcy.
  6. Under the subjective component of the exception, a creditor’s chances of success will be diminished, if not foreclosed, if it engaged in collection activity during the 90-day preference window that it did not engage in prior to 90 days before the debtor filed for bankruptcy.

In American Camshaft Specialties, Inc. (Bankr. E.D. Mich. 2011), the creditor (“Creditor”) was able to avoid repayment of preferential payments under both the subjective and objective components of the ordinary course of business defense.  In that case, the Creditor supplied steel to the debtor (“Debtor”). The trustee for the Debtor filed suit against Creditor to recover a number of payments which had been made to the Creditor during the 90-day preference window.  The payments had been made for steel supplied to the Debtor by Creditor.  There was no dispute that the debt for the steel was incurred in the ordinary course of the business of the Debtor and Creditor.

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It happens sometimes that someone, or some company, which owes a debt will transfer assets that could have been used to pay the debt in order to avoid paying it. Such transfers are often to family members, related or successor businesses, or preferred creditors, and often, when the asset transferred is not cash, are made so that the debtor/transferor receives well below the value of the asset transferred.

Fraudulent transfers can come in an endless variety of forms. Some are obvious and easy to spot. (One of the first ones I ran into involved a defendant which had transferred a piece of real estate to another entity just after my client obtained a judgment against it.) Often, however, they cannot be spotted absent access to the transferor’s financial records, and perhaps even, a deposition or two or a review of financial records by a forensic accountant.

Tennessee has adopted the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (the “Act”) to allow creditors to set aside fraudulent conveyances. If the debtor/transferor transferred the asset to a bona-fide purchaser who paid a value reasonably equivalent to the asset, a court may not set aside the transfer, but, in such a situation, it may well be possible to obtain a judgment against the entities or individuals responsible for the transfer, if they are different from the transferor.

Under the Act, it is important to remember that you do not have to have obtained a court judgment for the amount owed to you before a transfer can be considered fraudulent and set aside. A transfer can be fraudulent as to any creditor who has a “claim” against the transferor. Under the Act, “claim” has a broad definition, and odds are, if you were owed money by the transferor, you can avail yourself of the Act.  Moreover, the definition of “claim” includes unliquidated debts, meaning debts the exact amount of which are not known, but which, at some point, can be reduced to a dollar value.

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Tennessee has a statute, T.C.A. §28-2-110, which can come into play in a lawsuit about the ownership of real estate where the party initiating the lawsuit (the “Plaintiff”) is alleged not to have paid property taxes on the property at issue for more than twenty (20) years. To paraphrase the statute, it prevents anyone making a claim to real estate, or rents or profits from it, from bringing a lawsuit where that party, and those through whom that party claims her interest, have failed to pay any state or county taxes owing on the property for more than twenty (20) years.

In my estimation, the critical thing to understand about the statute is that it is a statute of limitations and does not, and cannot, divest a party of title to property or prevent a party from defending its claim to property when it is challenged by another party who initiates a lawsuit.  Furthermore, the statute cannot prevent a party who has initiated a lawsuit from defending its claim to the property when the defendant goes beyond invoking §28-2-110 and simply denying the plaintiff’s claim.  Where the defendant, through a counterclaim or otherwise, requests that the court adjudicate it to be the owner of the disputed tract, the court cannot use the statute to bar the plaintiff’s claim of ownership.

Maybe, the best way to understand the statute beyond the abstract, is to review how it has affected real parties in lawsuits. So, the following three case summaries are provided to help with that understanding.

Kinder v. Bryant (Tenn. Ct. App. 2018):  I selected this case because it seems to be a somewhat common and fairly easy to understand fact scenario in which the statute was employed as a defense. The property at issue was a forty (40) acre tract which the plaintiffs claimed to have purchased in 1980. The plaintiffs had a deed.  The plaintiffs did not record their deed until 1995. The defendants’ predecessors in interest purchased the same property in 1994. They received a deed and recorded it before 1995.  The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit to have themselves declared the owners of the property. Obviously, since there was no indication that the defendants were not bona fide purchasers without notice of the plaintiffs’ deed, and since the defendants had recorded their deed first, the plaintiffs had no chance of being declared the owners of the property based on the superiority of their title.  So, the plaintiffs claimed that they owned the property by adverse possession. Since it was undisputed that the plaintiffs had not paid any of the county taxes due on the property for over twenty (20) years, the court dismissed their case under §28-2-110. This case is an example of the statute barring a claim based on adverse possession.

Alexander v. Patrick (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983):  In this case, the plaintiff and defendant claimed ownership of the same fifty (50) acre tract of land.  Plaintiff’s claim was based on a deed as was defendant’s, but plaintiff’s deed was prior in time to defendant’s deed. The opinion does not state if, or when, the relevant deeds were filed with the register of deeds.  The proof established that defendant, and her predecessors, had paid the property taxes for more than twenty (20) years and that plaintiff, and her predecessors, had not. The court held that the plaintiff’s claim was barred by §28-2-110 and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint. This case is an example of the statute barring a claim based on title. Continue reading →

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The “Sales” chapter of the Uniform Commercial Code (referred to as “Article 2 of the UCC”), which was adopted by Tennessee in 1963, was designed to bring uniformity and efficiency to transactions involving the sales of goods.  Article 2 is thorough, to say the least. In any breach of contract case, breach of warranty case or any other case involving goods sold, it should be reviewed carefully as it has provisions that touch on every aspect of transactions involving the sales of goods, including, contract formation, price, terms, delivery, remedies, warranties, and rejection of non-conforming goods.

There is no way, in the space for a blog such as this, to cover all of the potentially important aspects of Article 2, but the following are some observations about it that are helpful to practitioners and litigants.

The UCC – Sales Only Applies to Sales of “Goods”

Article 2 only applies to transactions involving the sales of goods. If your case involves an investment, a real estate dispute, a shareholder divorce, or some type of service, you need to look to Tennessee common law or to some other statute.  With some frequency, transactions will involve both the sales of goods and services. For example, the purchase and installation of computer software and hardware by a business will entail both the provision of goods and services (which the UCC refers to as “non-goods”).  In such cases, the UCC will apply if the predominate assets transferred were goods.  One of the leading Tennessee cases on this topic is Hudson v. Town & Country True Value Hardware, Inc., which was decided by the Supreme Court of Tennessee in 1984.

Different Rules in Article 2 May Apply If the Sale Involves a “Merchant”

A party considered a “merchant” under Article 2, in many important situations, may find that it is subject to different rules and standards under that Article.  To generalize, under Article 2, you are a “merchant” if you are a professional in a business involving the type of goods involved with the transaction. (See T.C.A. § 47-2-104 for the precise definition of “merchant”). Keep in mind that, to be considered a merchant with respect to a transaction in goods, you have to be a professional with respect to the type of goods involved. If a lighting manufacturer buys a forklift, it will not be considered a merchant with respect to that transaction. If it buys filament for the bulbs it manufactures, it will be.

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In Thompson v. Davis, an LLC dispute case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee issued an opinion that is informative on two different fronts: (1) An LLC member’s obligation to contribute his pro rata share to repay loans taken for the benefit of the LLC, but for which all members are personally liable; and, (2)  under what circumstances a member can reduce the amount of his pro rata obligation based on alleged distributions received by the other members, but not by that member.

Before diving into the facts of, and result in, that case, it is helpful to review a couple of provisions of the Tennessee Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (the “Act”) which come into play with some frequency, as well as the Tennessee statute requiring contribution by a party who is liable on a debt. First, under the Act, when an LLC is not successful, and is dissolved and liquidated, its assets must be distributed first to creditors.  (Creditors, critically, includes members who have made loans to the LLC.) If there are any assets left to distribute after creditors are fully paid, which is infrequent in my experience, they must then be distributed to members who did not receive distributions to which they were entitled. If there are assets left over after those distributions are made, they must be distributed to members first for the return of contributions, and second, for their membership interests in the LLC.  The statute that controls distributions upon liquidation is T.C.A. §48-249-620.

The Act also has its own fraudulent transfer provision embedded in it at T.C.A. §48-249-306. That statute provides that members may be liable for distributions which left the LLC unable to pay its debts as they became due in the ordinary course of business or which left it in the red, so to speak. (The preceding is a generalization, so review the statute for the details).

Apart from the Act, and also at issue in the Thompson v. Davis case, was the Tennessee contribution statute related to instruments, T.C.A. §47-3-116.  That statute provides that a party who pays an obligation on an instrument, such as a bank note, is entitled to seek contribution from others who were also liable for the payment of the note. The statute provides that those others must contribute their pro rata share. For example, if A, B, and C borrow $750,000, interest free, and agree to be jointly and severally liable to the lender for the obligation, and A pays off the obligation, A is entitled to file suit against B and C and collect $250,000 apiece from B and C. A does not have to sue both for contribution, but A cannot collect more than $250,000 from either.

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In a recent case involving a challenge to an amendment to a revocable trust, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee upheld the trial court’s grant of a directed verdict to the defendants and against the two sons who had challenged the amendment.  The case is significant because it demonstrates that basing a challenge to a will or trust exclusively on the argument that the deceased was of advanced age, and, therefore, must have had reduced mental capacity and increased dependence on others, will not carry the day (as it should not).  Although the case was not technically a will contest, the principles and law applied were the same as those applied in will contest cases.

Based on the facts set forth in the opinion in the case, the sons who challenged the trust amendment on the grounds of undue influence and lack of mental capacity must have pretty much expected to prove both just by proving that their father was older and that one of their sisters lived with him. They had no medical proof that would support either that their father was lacking mental capacity, or that he was so physically infirm that he was susceptible to his live-in daughter establishing a dominant relationship over him.

Summary judgments and directed verdicts, both of which were granted by the trial court in this case, are pretty rare in will contest cases where undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity are at issue. That they are makes this case worth analyzing and understanding.

Here are the key facts of the case:

  • Father had six children comprised of three sons and three daughters
  • The opinion, remarkably, does not provide Father’s age, though it is clear he was elderly
  • In 2008, Father executed a will and revocable trust
  • Father appointed one of his daughters as his personal representative
  • In 2010, Father executed an amendment to the trust
  • Although the opinion does not state how Father’s assets were to be distributed under the 2010 amendment, it is clear from the opinion that, under that amendment, two sons were bequeathed less than what was bequeathed to some, or all, of the other siblings
  • After Father died in 2011, the above two sons (the “Plaintiff Sons”) filed a lawsuit challenging the 2010 amendment on the grounds that Father was unduly influenced to make the amendment and lacked the testamentary capacity to understand the consequences of the amendment

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In cases involving non-competition agreements, the battle is almost always fought, and won or lost, at the preliminary injunction stage.  Once the court rules on whether the former employer (or other party which has obtained a non-compete agreement) is, or is not, entitled to a preliminary injunction, in my experience, a trial rarely occurs. Thus, the importance of prevailing, or not, at the preliminary injunction stage cannot be overstated.

Broadly speaking, one of the main types of relief typically sought in a motion for a preliminary injunction arising out of an employment agreement is that the court enter an order prohibiting the former employee from competing with his or her former employer. The exact terms of an order obtained at the preliminary injunction stage will vary according to the terms of the non-compete agreement at issue and the court’s modification of those terms, if it modifies them (which it is empowered to do).

In deciding whether to grant a motion for a preliminary injunction, a court will consider the following factors:  (1) Whether the former employer is likely to prevail on the merits at trial; (2) whether, without an injunction, the former employer will suffer irreparable harm; (3) whether the preliminary injunction will cause substantial harm to the former employee or others; and (4) the public interest. In my experience, the most important factor is (1), followed by (3).

Our firm has handled many of these cases over the years and factors (2) and (4) have mostly been inconsequential. With respect to factor (2), irreparable harm means harm which has occurred, but for which a court cannot calculate damages, and thus, for which it cannot award damages. There is a large body of case law that supports the conclusion that a former employer will suffer irreparable harm from unfair competition by a former employee.  This is so because it is almost always impossible for a former employer to prove, with any degree of specificity, the damages it will incur from lost business and lost opportunities resulting from the former employee, even when they will most assuredly occur without an injunction.  Thus, in our experience, once a court determines that the former employer is likely to prevail on the merits, it is infrequent that a preliminary injunction is not granted on the basis that the former employer did not prove irreparable harm.

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Most construction contracts, including those based on the American Institute of Architects (“AIA”) forms, contain terms requiring that any change orders be in writing and signed. Tennessee courts have, with some frequency, not enforced those provisions. Usually, the legal theory used by those courts is waiver.

Two Tennessee construction cases involving construction contracts with change order requirements, and in which the courts reached different outcomes, provide a good view of the legal landscape in which a contractor which has not strictly complied with a written change order provision will find itself.  The first case is Moore Construction Company, Inc. v. Clarksville Department of Electricity (Tenn. Ct. App. 1985).  Here are the key facts in that case:

  • The project was for the construction of a new office building
  • The owner contracted with two prime contractors, Moore and Kennon
  • Moore was to perform the site work and other exterior work
  • Kennon was to construct the building
  • All parties understood that Moore would be able to complete only part of its work before Kennon finished constructing the building, and that, it would not be able to complete its work until Kennon had finished constructing the building
  • Moore completed its initial work timely
  • Once Kennon started, it fell behind schedule due to its subcontractors
  • In September of 1981, Moore began to complain that it could not complete its work due to the delays by Kennon
  • A meeting was held among the owner, Moore and Kennon at which meeting it was agreed that the parties would have to adjust their schedules
  • No written change order was prepared after this meeting, but the owner prepared a job site memo stating that the parties had agreed to extend the time for Moore to complete its work
  • When Moore went back to work, the owner directed it to perform extra work and it did
  • The extra work was done without a change order and the owner ultimately paid Moore for that extra work without protest
  • Moore requested that the owner pay it an additional $22,000 in delay damages above the contract price which resulted to Moore from the delays caused by Kennon

The owner refused to pay Moore the delay damages. It argued that it had no obligation to do so because it had not signed a change order for an increased contract price. The construction contract in the Moore case incorporated the AIA General Conditions which provided: “If the Contractor wishes to make a claim for an increase in the Contract Sum, he shall give the Architect written notice thereof within twenty days after the occurrence of the event giving rise to such claim.”  Article 12.1 of the General Conditions also required that the contractor obtain a written change order to enlarge the scope of work.

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In a recent breach of contract case, In re Estate of John E. Mayfield, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reversed the decision of the trial court which had held that a contract for the sale of a storage facility was unenforceable because there was no mutual assent of the parties.  This opinion is a very helpful reminder to practitioners of how fundamental contract law principles can determine the outcome of a substantial transaction, and of how easy it can be to lose sight of the importance of paying attention to basic contract law principles, as the trial court did.

Here are the key facts:

  • Clayton worked for Mr. Mayfield as a housekeeper and manager of his rental storage facility
  • At some point, she heard Mr. Mayfield say that someone had offered him $1 million for the facility
  • Realizing that Mr. Mayfield might be interested in selling the facility, Ms. Clayton contacted Mr. Saltsman, whom she thought might be interested in purchasing it
  • Saltsman was interested in the facility and wanted to see it
  • The day that Mr. Saltsman was scheduled to visit the facility, Mr. Mayfield could not make it because he had been moved to Alive Hospice, so Ms. Clayton met Mr. Saltsman at the facility
  • The day of the visit to the storage facility, Mr. Saltsman told Ms. Clayton that he would like to buy the property and that he would start with an offer “around” $900,000
  • Clayton did not make an offer of $900,000 to Mr. Mayfield on behalf of Mr. Salstman, but instead, she made an offer on his behalf of $950,000
  • Clayton explained that she made the offer of $950,000, instead of $900,000, because she knew that Mr. Mayfield already, as he had told her, had received an offer of $1 million. So, she decided to make an offer in the middle.
  • When Ms. Clayton informed Mr. Mayfield that Mr. Saltsman would buy the property for $950,000, he said “I’ll take it.”
  • Saltsman testified that, when Ms. Clayton came back to him and told him that Mr. Mayfield was willing to sell the property for $950,000, he said: “Sounds good to me. Send me a contract.”
  • Mayfield asked Ms. Clayton to go to his lawyer’s office to have a contract prepared
  • Clayton testified that, before those instructions, Mr. Mayfield had accepted Mr. Saltsman’s offer
  • Once Ms. Mayfield had the written contract from Mr. Mayfield’s lawyer, she went to Alive Hospice where Mr. Mayfield was
  • Mayfield signed the contract
  • Since Mr. Saltsman was traveling, he told Ms. Clayton to take the signed contract to his house and told her that he would sign it when he returned home
  • After Ms. Clayton dropped off the signed contract at Mr. Saltsman’s house, Mr. Mayfield’s lawyer’s assistant called and told her that it was the “wrong” contract, was “invalid,” and would need to be re-written
  • Clayton informed Mr. Saltsman of the conversation she had had with Mr. Mayfield’s lawyer’s office. Mr. Saltsman said “okay” and that the name of the buyer would need to be changed to another entity than was on the current contract
  • Before a new contract could be drawn up, Mr. Mayfield died
  • Saltsman did not return to town and see the contract Mr. Mayfield had signed until after Mr. Mayfield had died

Mr. Saltsman filed a claim with the estate of Mr. Mayfield. To support the claim, he attached the contract signed by Mr. Mayfield, but it was not signed by Mr. Saltsman. Several months after filing his initial claim, Mr. Saltsman signed the contract and filed an amended claim with a copy of the contract bearing his signature and Mr. Mayfield’s.

Mr. Mayfield’s estate took the position that no enforceable contract existed. The trial court held that no enforceable contract existed because there was no mutual assent.  The trial court held that there was no mutual assent because, first, Ms. Clayton had testified that someone from Mr. Mayfield’s lawyer’s office had told her the contract was not valid and would have to be redrafted. Second, the trial court found that there was no mutual assent because Mr. Saltsman had not signed the contract until seven months after Mr. Mayfield had signed it.

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The economic loss doctrine prohibits a party, which is seeking only damages for economic loss, from recovering those damages pursuant to a tort cause of action.  Under the doctrine, economic losses are the damages suffered by a party, other than damages for personal injury or property damage to “other” property.  Here is an example of the application of the economic loss doctrine:

  • Plaintiff bought 1,000 widgets from Defendant
  • The widgets all malfunctioned and were virtually useless because Defendant defectively manufactured them
  • Plaintiff’s losses include the cost of the widgets and profits it lost from the anticipated resell of the widgets
  • Under the economic loss doctrine, the Plaintiff can recover under breach of contract and breach of warranty causes of action, but cannot recover under tort causes of action for misrepresentation or products liability

If, in the above example, one of the widgets, because of a defect, had caused personal injury to a warehouse worker of Plaintiff or had burned down Plaintiff’s warehouse, Plaintiff could recover, under tort theories, for the damages caused by that widget because they were for personal injuries or to “other property” (property other than the widgets).

The purpose of the doctrine is to preserve the boundaries between tort and contract law, or, as it has been put: To keep contract law from drowning in a sea of tort law.  Another principle underpinning the doctrine was stated as follows by a Tennessee court: “Courts should be particularly skeptical of business plaintiffs who – having negotiated an elaborate contract or having signed a form when they wish they had not – claim to have a right in tort.”

The economic loss doctrine, as it exists in Tennessee, took a new twist based on a recent decision of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in the case of Milan Supply Chain Solutions, Inc. v. Navistar, IncIn that case, the trial court held that Tennessee’s economic loss doctrine did not apply to fraud claims.  The court of appeals, at least on the facts before it, disagreed and reversed.  The case is a very significant case dealing with a very significant defense that is sure to become even more litigated in commercial disputes in Tennessee courts in the coming years.

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