At one time or another, many of our commercial litigation clients have been sued by an “assignee for the benefit of creditors.” When our clients receive a summons and complaint notifying them they are being sued by an assignee, it may be unclear to them why they are being sued. The answer is often that our client’s former customer has made an "assignment for the benefit of creditors." The former customer has authorized a person or entity, often an attorney, to collect and liquidate the customer’s assets and sue our client in an attempt to obtain payments that the former customer previously made to our client. In other words, having been paid for goods sold or services performed, our client now faces the possibility of having its money earned taken away. This post aims to explain why this is a possibility and the potential defenses to such an action.
In layman’s terms, an “assignment for the benefit of creditors” is when a company, usually suffering from financial difficulties, can sell off its assets to pay its creditors. It functions much like a bankruptcy proceeding, except it is based upon state law. In New Jersey, assignment for the benefit of creditors proceeding are governed by the Assignment for Benefit of Creditors Statute (the statute), N.J.S.A. 2A:19-1 to 50. The statute's purpose is to treat all creditors equally and avoid disproportionately favoring any single creditor. N.J.S.A. 2A:19-2.
An “assignee” is an independent third party to whom the business distributing its assets, known as the “assignor”, conveys or assigns, all of its assets in trust.
The assignee is empowered with two roles. Subject to certain exceptions, the assignee has the power to dispose of all of the property that the assignor owned at the time of the assignment. The assignment is the document that establishes the transfer of property from assignor to assignee. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:19-13, the assignee
[M]ay sue for and recover in his own name everything belonging or appertaining to the estate. He may compromise, settle and compound all claims, disputes and litigations of the assignor, refer the same to arbitration, agree with any person concerning the same, redeem all mortgages and conditional contracts, and generally act as and do whatsoever the assignor might have lawfully done in the premises.
In short the assignee may do anything with the property of the assignor that the assignor could do. The second role of the assignee is to represent all of the assignor’s creditors.
The answer to this question lies in the second role of the assignee. Because the assignee is obligated to represent all of the assignor’s debtors equally, the assignee has a limited right to recover payments made by the assignor to third parties within 4 months of the general assignment. N.J.S.A. 2A:19-3. In short, if your former customer is the assignor, and your former customer paid you, then made a general assignment less than 4 months later, the assignee can sue you in an attempt to force you to return the money. The reasoning behind this is that in making the original payment to you prior to making the assignment, the assignor has given you preferential treatment in comparison to the other creditors. This type of payment is known as a “preference.”
Whether or not you can stop an assignee from taking your money boils down to the whether you received the money as a preference. The statute governing assignment for the benefit of creditors is vague and there is a limited amount of case law interpreting the statute. There is no definition of “preference” in the assignment for the benefit of creditors statute. One must look elsewhere for answers to this question.
The New Jersey statutory scheme governing corporations does define “preference.” In addition, New Jersey’s Rules of Court provide that "The practice relating to assignments for the benefit of creditors under N.J.S.A. 2A: 19-1 et seq. shall conform as nearly as practicable to the procedure relating to insolvent corporations." Thus, the definition of “preference” in the statute governing corporations is a good place to look. There, a preference is deemed to arise when:
(a) a corporation which, while insolvent, and within four months of the commencement of a receivership action by or against it, transfers any property to or for the benefit of a creditor for or on account of an antecedent debt; and
(b) the effect of such transfer will be to enable such creditor to obtain a greater percentage of his debt than some other creditor of the same class; and
(c) the creditor receiving or to be benefited by the transfer, or his agent acting with reference thereto, has, at the time when the transfer is made, reasonable cause to believe that the corporation is insolvent.
N.J.S.A. 14A:14-14(1). Payments made to satisfy pre-existing debts within 4 months of an assignment would constitute preferences under this definition if the effect is to prefer the recipient of the payment to other creditors and the creditor has reasonable cause to believe the debtor is insolvent. By contrast, payments not meeting this description would not be recoverable by an assignee. This suggests that bankruptcy defenses to a preference, like a contemporaneous exchange for new value, where payment is made to the creditor not to satisfy a pre-existing debt, but to pay for newly delivered goods or services, are also valid defenses against an assignee.
When the payment at issue is obviously a preference, it is likely not possible to stop the assignee from taking money that was made as part of a preferential transfer. In such situations, a careful analysis should be made as to whether or not it is more cost effective to fight a lawsuit filed by the assignee or agree to a settlement. However, where a payment is not clearly a preference, you may be able to stop the assignee from taking your money and there may be good reason to fight the assignee’s lawsuit.
The New Jersey business lawyers at the Law Office of Bart J. Klein advise clients on issues relating to New Jersey a broad range of business disputes and commercial disputes, including breach of contract and commercial collection cases. We represent both creditors and debtors and are well versed in the law governing judgment collection. We welcome you to call us at (973) 763-6060, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or complete our online contact form for more information.
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