Companies in financial trouble are often forced to liquidate their assets to pay creditors. While a Chapter 11 bankruptcy sometimes makes the most sense, other times a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is required, and in still other situations a corporate dissolution may be best. This post examines another of the options, the assignment for the benefit of creditors, commonly known as an "ABC."
A Few Caveats. It’s important to remember that determining which path an insolvent company should take depends on the specific facts and circumstances involved. As in many areas of the law, one size most definitely does not fit all for financially troubled companies. With those caveats in mind, let’s consider one scenario sometimes seen when a venture-backed or other investor-funded company runs out of money.
One Scenario. After a number of rounds of investment, the investors of a privately held corporation have decided not to put in more money to fund the company’s operations. The company will be out of cash within a few months and borrowing from the company’s lender is no longer an option. The accounts payable list is growing (and aging) and some creditors have started to demand payment. A sale of the business may be possible, however, and a term sheet from a potential buyer is anticipated soon. The company’s real property lease will expire in nine months, but it’s possible that a buyer might want to take over the lease.
- A Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is problematic because there is insufficient cash to fund operations going forward, no significant revenues are being generated, and debtor in possession financing seems highly unlikely unless the buyer itself would make a loan.
- The board prefers to avoid a Chapter 7 bankruptcy because it’s concerned that a bankruptcy trustee, unfamiliar with the company’s technology, would not be able to generate the best recovery for creditors.
The ABC Option. In many states, another option that may be available to companies in financial trouble is an assignment for the benefit of creditors (or "general assignment for the benefit of creditors" as it is sometimes called). The ABC is an insolvency proceeding governed by state law rather than federal bankruptcy law.
California ABCs. In California, where ABCs have been done for years, the primary governing law is found in California Code of Civil Procedure sections 493.010 to 493.060 and sections 1800 to 1802, among other provisions of California law. California Code of Civil Procedure section 1802 sets forth, in remarkably brief terms, the main procedural requirements for a company (or individual) making, and an assignee accepting, a general assignment for the benefit of creditors:
1802. (a) In any general assignment for the benefit of creditors, as defined in Section 493.010, the assignee shall, within 30 days after the assignment has been accepted in writing, give written notice of the assignment to the assignor’s creditors, equityholders, and other parties in interest as set forth on the list provided by the assignor pursuant to subdivision (c).
(b) In the notice given pursuant to subdivision (a), the assignee shall establish a date by which creditors must file their claims to be able to share in the distribution of proceeds of the liquidation of the assignor’s assets. That date shall be not less than 150 days and not greater than 180 days after the date of the first giving of the written notice to creditors and parties in interest.
(c) The assignor shall provide to the assignee at the time of the making of the assignment a list of creditors, equityholders, and other parties in interest, signed under penalty of perjury, which shall include the names, addresses, cities, states, and ZIP Codes for each person together with the amount of that person’s anticipated claim in the assignment proceedings.
In California, the company and the assignee enter into a formal "Assignment Agreement." The company must also provide the assignee with a list of creditors, equityholders, and other interested parties (names, addresses, and claim amounts). The assignee is required to give notice to creditors of the assignment, setting a bar date for filing claims with the assignee that is between five to six months later.
ABCs In Other States. Many other states have ABC statutes although in practice they have been used to varying degrees. For example, ABCs have been more common in California than in states on the East Coast, but important exceptions exist. Delaware corporations can generally avail themselves of Delaware’s voluntary assignment statutes, and its procedures have both similarities and important differences from the approach taken in California. Scott Riddle of the Georgia Bankruptcy Law Blog has an interesting post discussing ABC’s under Georgia law. Florida is another state in which ABCs are done under specific statutory procedures. For an excellent book that has information on how ABCs are conducted in various states, see Geoffrey Berman’sGeneral Assignments for the Benefit of Creditors: The ABCs of ABCs, published by the American Bankruptcy Institute.
Important Features Of ABCs. A full analysis of how ABCs function in a particular state and how one might affect a specific company requires legal advice from insolvency counsel. The following highlights some (but by no means all) of the key features of ABCs:
- Court Filing Issue. In California, making an ABC does not require a public court filing. Some other states, however, do require a court filing to initiate or complete an ABC.
- Select The Assignee. Unlike a Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee, who is randomly appointed from those on an approved panel, a corporation making an assignment is generally able to choose the assignee.
- Shareholder Approval. Most corporations require both board and shareholder approval for an ABC because it involves the transfer to the assignee of substantially all of the corporation’s assets. This makes ABCs impractical for most publicly held corporations.
- Liquidator As Fiduciary. The assignee is a fiduciary to the creditors and is typically a professional liquidator.
- Assignee Fees. The fees charged by assignees often involve an upfront payment and a percentage based on the assets liquidated.
- No Automatic Stay. In many states, including California, an ABC does not give rise to an automatic stay like bankruptcy, although an assignee can often block judgment creditors from attaching assets.
- Event Of Default. The making of a general assignment for the benefit of creditors is typically a default under most contracts. As a result, contracts may be terminated upon the assignment under an ipsofacto clause.
- Proof Of Claim. For creditors, an ABC process generally involves the submission to the assignee of a proof of claim by a stated deadline or bar date, similar to bankruptcy. (Click on the link for an example of an ABC proof of claim form.)
- Employee Priority. Employee and other claim priorities are governed by state law and may involve different amounts than apply under the Bankruptcy Code. In California, for example, the employee wage and salary priority is $4,300, not the $10,950 amount currently in force under the Bankruptcy Code.
- 20 Day Goods. Generally, ABC statutes do not have a provision similar to that under Bankruptcy Code Section 503(b)(9), which gives an administrative claim priority to vendors who sold goods in the ordinary course of business to a debtor during the 20 days before a bankruptcy filing. As a result, these vendors may recover less in an ABC than in a bankruptcy case, subject to assertion of their reclamation rights.
- Landlord Claim. Unlike bankruptcy, there generally is no cap imposed on a landlord’s claim for breach of a real property lease in an ABC.
- Sale Of Assets. In many states, including California, sales by the assignee of the company’s assets are completed as a private transaction without approval of a court. However, unlike a bankruptcy Section 363 sale, there is usually no ability to sell assets "free and clear" of liens and security interests without the consent or full payoff of lienholders. Likewise, leases or executory contracts cannot be assigned without required consents from the other contracting party.
- Avoidance Actions. Most states allow assignees to pursue preferences and fraudulent transfers. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held that the Bankruptcy Code pre-empts California’s preference statute, California Code of Civil Procedure section 1800. Nevertheless, to date the California state courts have refused to follow the Ninth Circuit’s decision and still permit assignees to sue for preferences in California state court. In February 2008, a Delaware state court followed the California state court decisions, refusing either to follow the Ninth Circuit position or to hold that the California preference statute was pre-empted by the Bankruptcy Code. The Delaware court was required to apply California’s ABC preference statute because the avoidance action arose out of an earlier California ABC.
The Scenario Revisited. With this overview in mind, let’s return to our company in distress.
- The prospect of a term sheet from a potential buyer may influence whether our hypothetical company should choose an ABC or another approach. Some buyers will refuse to purchase assets outside of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy or a Chapter 7 case. Others are comfortable with the ABC process and believe it provides an added level of protection from fraudulent transfer claims compared to purchasing the assets directly from the insolvent company. Depending on the value to be generated by a sale, these considerations may lead the company to select one approach over the other available options.
- In states like California where no court approval is required for a sale, the ABC can also mean a much faster closing — often within a day or two of the ABC itself provided that the assignee has had time to perform due diligence on the sale and any alternatives — instead of the more typical 30-60 days required for bankruptcy court approval of a Section 363 sale. Given the speed at which they can be done, in the right situation an ABC can permit a "going concern" sale to be achieved.
- Secured creditors with liens against the assets to be sold will either need to be paid off through the sale or will have to consent to release their liens; forced "free and clear" sales generally are not possible in an ABC.
- If the buyer decides to take the real property lease, the landlord will need to consent to the lease assignment. Unlike bankruptcy, the ABC process generally cannot force a landlord or other third party to accept assignment of a lease or executory contract.
- If the buyer decides not to take the lease, or no sale occurs, the fact that only nine months remains on the lease means that this company would not benefit from bankruptcy’s cap on landlord claims. If the company’s lease had years remaining, and if the landlord were unwilling to agree to a lease termination approximating the result under bankruptcy’s landlord claim cap, the company would need to consider whether a bankruptcy filing was necessary to avoid substantial dilution to other unsecured creditor claims that a large, uncapped landlord claim would produce in an ABC.
- If the potential buyer walks away, the assignee would be responsible for determining whether a sale of all or a part of the assets was still possible. In any event, assets would be liquidated by the assignee to the extent feasible and any proceeds would be distributed to creditors in order of their priority through the ABC’s claims process.
- While other options are available and should be explored, an ABC may make sense for this company depending upon the buyer’s views, the value to creditors and other constituencies that a sale would produce, and a clear-eyed assessment of alternative insolvency methods.
Conclusion. When weighing all of the relevant issues, an insolvent company’s management and board would be well-served to seek the advice of counsel and other insolvency professionals as early as possible in the process. The old song may say that ABC is as "easy as 1-2-3," but assessing whether an assignment for the benefit of creditors is best for an insolvent company involves the analysis of a myriad of complex factors.
An assignment for the benefit of creditors (ABC) is a business liquidation device available to an insolvent debtor as an alternative to formal bankruptcy proceedings. In many instances, an ABC can be the most advantageous and graceful exit strategy. This is especially true where the goals are (1) to transfer the assets of the troubled business to an acquiring entity free of the unsecured debt incurred by the transferor and (2) to wind down the company in a manner designed to minimize negative publicity and potential liability for directors and management.
The option of making an ABC is available on a state-by-state basis. During the meltdown suffered in the dot-com and technology business sectors in the early 2000s, California became the capital of ABCs. In discussing assignments for the benefit of creditors, this article will focus primarily on California ABC law.
The process of an ABC is initiated by the distressed entity (assignor) entering an agreement with the party which will be responsible for conducting the wind-down and/or liquidation or going concern sale (assignee) in a fiduciary capacity for the benefit of the assignor’s creditors. The assignment agreement is a contract under which the assignor transfers all of its right, title, interest in, and custody and control of its property to the third-party assignee in trust. The assignee liquidates the property and distributes the proceeds to the assignor’s creditors.
In order to commence the ABC process, a distressed corporation will generally need to obtain both board of director authorization and shareholder approval. While this requirement is dictated by applicable state law, the ABC constitutes a transfer of all of the assignor’s assets to the assignee, and the law of many states provides that the transfer of all of a corporation’s assets is subject to shareholder approval. In contrast, shareholder approval is not required in order for a corporation to file a petition commencing a federal bankruptcy case. In some instances, the shareholder approval requirement for an ABC can be an impediment to the quick action ordinarily available in the context of an ABC, especially when a public company is involved as the assignor.
The board of directors of an insolvent company (a company with debt exceeding the value of its assets) should be particularly attentive to avoiding harm to the value of the enterprise and the interests of creditors. Under Delaware law, for example, the obligation is to maximize the value of the enterprise, which should result in protecting the interests of creditors.
It is not unusual for the board of a troubled company to determine that a going concern sale of the company’s business is in the best interests of the company and its creditors. However, generally the purchaser will not acquire the business if the assumption of the company’s unsecured debt is involved. Further, often the situation is deteriorating rapidly. The company may be burning through its cash reserves and in danger of losing key employees who are aware of its financial difficulties, and creditors of the company are pressing for payment. Under these circumstances, the company’s board may conclude than an ABC is the most appropriate course of action.
The Alternative of Voluntary Federal Bankruptcy Cases
Chapter 7 bankruptcy provides a procedure for the orderly liquidation of the assets of the debtor and the ultimate payment of creditors in the order of priority set forth in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Upon the filing of a Chapter 7 petition, a trustee is appointed who is charged with marshaling all of the assets of the debtor, liquidating the assets, and eventually distributing the proceeds of the liquidation to the debtor’s creditors. The process can take many months or even years and is governed by detailed statutory requirements.
Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code provides a framework for a formal, court-supervised business reorganization. While the primary goals of Chapter 11 are rehabilitation of the debtor, equality of treatment of creditors holding claims of the same priority, and maximization of the value of the bankruptcy estate, Chapter 11 can be used to implement a liquidation of the debtor. Unlike the traditional common law assignment for the benefit of creditors (assignments are governed by state law and may differ from state to state), Chapter 7 and Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases are presided over by a federal bankruptcy judge and are governed by a detailed federal statute.
Advantages of an ABC
The common law assignment by simple transfer in trust, in many cases, is a superior liquidation mechanism when compared to using the more cumbersome statutory procedures governing a formal Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation case or a liquidating Chapter 11 case. Compared to bankruptcy liquidation, assignments may involve less administrative expense and are a substantially faster and more flexible liquidation process. In addition, unlike a Chapter 7 liquidation, where generally an unknown trustee will be appointed to administer the liquidation process, in an ABC the assignor can select an assignee with appropriate experience and expertise to conduct the wind-down of its business and liquidation of its assets. In prepackaged ABCs, where an immediate going concern sale will be implemented, the assignee will be involved prior to the ABC going effective. Further, in states that have adopted the common law ABC process, court procedures, requirements, and oversight are not involved. In contrast, in bankruptcy cases, the judicial process is invoked and brings with it additional uncertainty and complications, including players whose identity is unknown at the time the bankruptcy petition is filed, expense, and likely delay.
In situations where a company is burdened with debt that makes a merger or acquisition infeasible, an ABC can be the most efficient, effective, and desirable means of effectuating a favorable transaction and addressing the debt. The assignment process enables the assignee to sell the assignor’s assets free of the unsecured debt that burdened the company. Unlike bankruptcy, where the publicity for the company and its officers and directors will be negative, in an assignment, the press generally reads “assets of Oldco acquired by Newco,” instead of “Oldco files bankruptcy” or “Oldco shuts its doors.” Moreover, the assignment process removes from the board of directors and management of the troubled company the responsibility for and burden of winding down the business and disposing of the assets.
From a buyer’s perspective, acquiring a going concern business or the specific assets of a distressed entity from an Assignee in an ABC sale transaction provides some important advantages. Most sophisticated buyers will not acquire an ongoing business or substantial assets from a financially distressed entity with outstanding unsecured debt, unless the assets are cleansed either through an ABC or bankruptcy process. Such buyers are generally unwilling to subject themselves to potential contentions that the assets were acquired as part of a fraudulent transfer and/or that they are a successor to or subject to successor liability for claims against the distressed entity. Buying a going concern or specified assets from an assignee allows the purchaser to avoid these types of contentions and issues and to obtain the assets free of the assignor’s unsecured debt. Creditors of the assignor simply must submit proofs of claim to the assignee and will ultimately receive payment by the assignee from the proceeds of the assignment estate. Moreover, compared to a bankruptcy case, where numerous unknown parties (e.g., the bankruptcy trustee, the bankruptcy judge, the U.S. trustee, an unsecured creditors’ committee, and possibly others) will become part of the process and where court procedures and legal requirements come into play, a common law ABC allows for flexibility and quick action.
From the perspective of a secured creditor, in certain circumstances, instead of being responsible for conducting a foreclosure proceeding, the secured creditor may prefer to have an independent, objective third party with expertise and experience liquidating businesses of the type of the distressed entity act as an assignee. There is nothing wrong with an assignee entering into appropriate subordination agreements with the secured creditor and liquidating the assignor’s assets and turning the proceeds over to the secured creditor to the extent that the secured creditor holds valid, perfected liens on the assets that are sold.
As a common law liquidation vehicle that has been around for a very long time, ABCs have been used over the years for all different types of businesses. In the early 2000s, in particular, ABCs became an especially popular method for liquidating troubled dot-com, technology, and health-care companies. In large part, this was simply a reflection of the distressed nature of those industries. At the same time, ABCs allow for quick and flexible action that frequently is necessary in order to maximize the value that might be obtained for a business that is largely dependent on the know-how and expertise of key personnel. An ABC may provide a vehicle for the implementation of a quick transaction which can be implemented before key employees jump from the sinking ship.
The liquidation process in an ABC can take many different forms. In some instances, negotiations between the buyer and the assignee commence before the assignment is made and a prepackaged transaction is agreed on and implemented contemporaneously with the execution of the assignment. This type of turnkey sale can effectively allow the purchaser of a business to acquire the business without assuming the former owner’s unsecured debt in a manner where the business operations continue uninterrupted.
In certain instances, the assignee may operate the assignor’s business post-ABC with the intent of selling the business as a going concern even if an agreement has not been reached with a purchaser. However, the assignee must weigh the risks and costs of continuing to operate the business against the anticipated benefits to be received from a going concern sale.
In many cases, the distressed enterprise has already ceased operations prior to making the assignment or will cease its business operations at the time the ABC is entered. In these cases, the assignee may be selling the assets in bulk or may sell or license certain key assets and liquidate the other assets through auctions or other private or public liquidation sale methods. At all times, the assignee is guided by its responsibility to act in a reasonable manner designed to maximize value obtained for the assets and ultimate creditor recovery under the circumstances.
Disadvantages of an ABC
As discussed above, an ABC can be an advantageous means for a buyer to acquire assets and/or a business in financial distress. However, unlike in a bankruptcy case, because the ABC process in California is nonjudicial, there is no court order approving the sale transaction. As a result, a buyer who requires the clarity of an actual court order approving the sale will not be able to satisfy that desire through an ABC transaction. That being said, the assignee is an independent, third-party fiduciary who must agree to the transaction and is responsible for the ABC process. The buyer in an ABC transaction will have an asset purchase agreement and other appropriate ancillary documents that have been executed by the assignee.
Unlike in a formal federal bankruptcy case, executory contracts and leases cannot be assigned in an ABC without the consent of the counter party to the contract. Accordingly, if the assignment of executory contracts and/or leases is a necessary part of the transaction and, if the consent of the counter parties to the contracts and leases cannot be obtained, an ABC transaction may not be the appropriate approach. Further, ipso facto default provisions (allowing for termination, forfeiture, or modification of contract rights) based on insolvency or the commencement of the ABC are not unenforceable as they are in a federal bankruptcy case.
Secured creditor consent is generally required in the context of an ABC. There is no ability to sell free and clear of liens, as there is in some circumstances in a federal bankruptcy case, without secured creditor consent (unless the secured creditor will be paid in full from sale proceeds). Moreover, there is no automatic stay to prevent secured creditors from foreclosing on their collateral if they are not in support of the ABC. The lack of an automatic stay is generally not significant with respect to unsecured creditors since assets have been transferred to the assignee and unsecured creditors claims are against the assignor.
While there is a risk of an involuntary bankruptcy petition being filed against the assignor, experience has shown that this risk should be relatively small. Further, when an involuntary bankruptcy petition is filed, it is generally dismissed by the bankruptcy court because an alternative insolvency process (the ABC) is already underway. In the context of an out-of-court workout or liquidation, there is always the risk that an involuntary bankruptcy petition may be filed against the debtor. Such a risk is substantially less, however, in connection with an assignment for the benefit of creditors because the bankruptcy court is likely to abstain when a process (the assignment) is already in place to facilitate liquidation of the debtor’s assets and distribution to creditors. A policy is in place that favors allowing general assignments for the benefit of creditors to stand.
Distribution Scheme in ABCs
ABCs in California are governed by common law and are subject to various specific statutory provisions. In states like California, where common law (with specific statutory supplements) governs the ABC process, the process is nonjudicial. An assignee in an assignment for the benefit of creditors serves in a capacity that is analogous to a bankruptcy trustee and is responsible for liquidating the assets of the assignment estate and distributing the net proceeds, if any, to the assignor’s creditors.
Under California law, an assignee for the benefit of creditors must set a deadline for the submission of claims. Notice of the deadline must be disseminated within 30 days of the commencement of the assignment and must provide not less than 150 and not more than 180 days’ notice of the bar date. Once the assignee has liquidated the assets, evaluated the claims submitted, resolved any pending litigation to the extent necessary prior to making distribution, and is otherwise ready to make distribution to creditors, pertinent statutory provisions must be followed in the distribution process. Generally, California law ensures that taxes (both state and municipal), certain unpaid wages and other employee benefits, and customer deposits are paid before general unsecured claims.
Particular care must be taken by assignees in dealing with claims of the federal government. These claims are entitled to priority by reason of a catchall-type statute which entitles any agency of the federal government to enjoy a priority status for its claims over the claims of general unsecured creditors. In fact, the federal statute provides that an assignee paying any part of a debt of the person or estate before paying a claim of the government is liable to the extent of the payment for unpaid claims of the government.As a practical result, these payments must be prioritized above those owed to all state and local taxing agencies.
In California, there is no comprehensive priority scheme for distributions from an assignment estate like the priority scheme in bankruptcy or priority schemes under assignment laws in certain other states. Instead, California has various statutes which provide that certain claims should receive priority status over general unsecured claims, such as taxes, priority labor wages, lease deposits, etc. However, the order of priority among the various priority claims is not clear. Of course, determining the order of priority among priority claims becomes merely an academic exercise if there are sufficient funds to pay all priority claims. Secured creditors retain their liens on the collateral and are entitled to receive the proceeds from the sale of their collateral up to the extent of the amount of their claim. Thereafter, distribution in California ABCs is made in priority claims, including administrative expenses, obligations owing to the federal government, priority wage and benefit claims, state tax claims, including interest and penalties for sales and use taxes, income taxes and bank and corporate taxes, security deposits up to $900 for the lease or rental of property, or purchase of services not provided, unpaid unemployment insurance contribution, including interest and penalties, and general unsecured claims. Interest is paid on general unsecured claims only after the principal is paid for all unsecured claims submitted and allowed and only to the extent that a particular creditor is entitled under contract or judgment to assert such claim for interest.
If there are insufficient funds to pay the unsecured claims in full, then these claims will be paid pro rata. If unsecured claims are paid in full, equity holders will receive distribution in accordance with their liquidation rights. No distribution to general unsecured creditors should take place until the assignee is satisfied that all priority claims have been paid in full.
Assignments for the benefit of creditors are an alternative to the formal burial process of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Moreover, ABCs can be particularly useful when fast action and distressed transaction and/or industry expertise is needed in order to capture value from the liquidation of the assets of a troubled enterprise. The ABC process may allow the parties to avoid the delay and uncertainty of formal federal bankruptcy court proceedings. In many instances involving deteriorating businesses, management engages in last-ditch efforts to sell the business in the face of mounting debt. However, frequently the value of the business is diminishing rapidly as, among other things, key employees leave. Moreover, the parties interested in acquiring the business and/or assets will move forward only under circumstances where they will not be taking on the unsecured debt of the distressed entity along with its assets. In such instances, especially when the expense of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case may be unsustainable, an assignment for the benefit of creditors can be a viable solution.