Chicago Bankruptcy Judge Dismisses the Complaint of a PACA Trust Creditor Who Sought to Prevent the Discharge of a PACA Trust Debt

On July 30, 2012, Judge Wedoff (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge in the Northern District of Illinois) issued a Memorandum of Decision in a personal chapter 7 bankruptcy case that addressed a very critical issue:

“Whether a person subject to the PACA trust who fails to secure payment for commodities that the trust encompasses incurs a debt excepted from discharge in bankruptcy…”

Relying heavily on Follett Higher Education Group, Inc. v. Berman (In re Berman), 629 F.3d 761, 767-69 (7th Cir. 2011)(tracing the history of decisions interpreting statutory provisions excepting debts from discharge based on a breach of fiduciary duty), Judge Wedoff said:No! See In re Jose Bolanos (N.D. IL) Adv. No. 11-A-2398.

As a prelude to this discussion, it is important to know, as Judge Wedoff pointed out, that “[a] number of courts have advanced a different interpretation of a PACA trustee’s fiduciary obligations for purposes of § 523(a)(4), holding the language of the PACA statute does impose a technical trust. See, e.g., E. Armata, Inc. v. Parra (In re Parra), 412 B.R. 99, 105 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2009); A.J. Rinella & Co., Inc. v. Bartlett (In re Bartlett), 397 B.R. 610, 620 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2008); KGB Int’l, Inc. v. Watford (In re Watford), 374 B.R. 184, 190 (Bankr. M.D.N.C. 2007).

Case Summary:

The trust imposed on purchasers of agricultural commodities is set out in § 499e(c)(2) of PACA.  It states that

[p]erishable agricultural commodities received by a commission merchant, dealer, or broker in all transactions, and all inventories of food or other products derived from perishable agricultural commodities, and any receivables or proceeds from the sale of such commodities or products, shall be held by such commission merchant, dealer, or broker in trust for the benefit of all unpaid suppliers or sellers  of  such  commodities  or  agents  involved  in  the transaction, until full payment of the sums owing in connection with such transactions has been received by such unpaid suppliers, sellers, or agents.

7 U.S.C. § 499e(c)(2). The regulations implementing PACA provide that “[t]rust assets are to be preserved as a non-segregated ‘floating’ trust” and that“[c]ommingling of trust assets is contemplated.” 7 C.F.R. § 46.46(b) (2010).  Based on this and Follett Higher Education Group, Inc. v. Berman (In re Berman), 629 F.3d 761, 767-69 (7th Cir. 2011), the Balanos court articulated two main reasons for holding that a  fiduciary capacity under § 523(a)(4) does not exist under the PACA.

First, a PACA trust does not put the purchaser in a fiduciary capacity under the 7th Circuit’s interpretation of § 523(a)(4) and PACA does not create an arrangement akin to an express trust.  The Court went on to say that, there is no property of the seller that the buyer is required to keep safely segregated, and ownership of the property is not intended to remain with the seller.  To the contrary the commodity buyer under PACA is fully expected to sell the property covered by the trust.  Under PACA, there is no requirement for segregation; the trust “floats” on all of the assets held by the purchaser. Accordingly, the PACA trust effectively functions as a lien, assuring payment for the goods shipped to and sold by the purchaser.

Second, the relationship between buyer and seller of agricultural commodities does not reflect any disparity of knowledge or power that would give rise to an implied fiduciary capacity in the buyer. Unlike lawyers and bank officers, the buyer of agricultural commodities has no particular expertise or authority relative to the seller. Indeed, the seller may be a substantial agribusiness and the buyer an individual with limited income.  The rationale for imposing the PACA trust has nothing to do with the power and knowledge of the participants in the sale transaction but rather with the nature of the commodities being sold, reflecting an intent on the part of Congress to give the seller a right to payment ahead of a buyer’s other secured creditors:

Due to a large number of defaults by the purchasers, and the sellers’ status as unsecured creditors, the sellers recover, if at  all, only after banks and other lenders who have obtained security interests in the defaulting purchaser’s inventories, proceeds, and receivables. See JSG Trading Corp. v. Tray–Wrap, Inc., 917 F.2d 75, 77 (2d Cir. 1990); H.R.Rep. No. 543, at 3, reprinted in 1984 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 406–07.  In order to redress this imbalance, Congress added Section 499e(c) to PACA, Pub.L. No. 98–273, 98 Stat. 165 (1984), which impresses a trust in favor of the sellers on the inventories of commodities.  H.R.Rep. No. 543, at 4, reprinted in 1984 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 407.

Endico Potatoes, Inc. v. CIT Group/Factoring, Inc., 67 F.3d 1063, 1067 (2d Cir. 1995).

Critical Note: It is important to note that the facts of this case were unique in that the Court merely dismissed an adversary complaint seeking to prevent Mr. Bolanos from discharging a PACA debt.  The Court raised this issue on its own as Mr. Bolanos apparently defaulted and otherwise failed to appear and defend himself in the adversary proceeding.  As a result, the Court’s ruling merely tested the allegations of the adversary complaint itself (as a matter of law) and is not a decision issued after a full trial on the merits.

Personal Liability Under PACA: Exposure for Non-Shareholding Officers

On August 2, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued an unpublished decision that discussed, inter alia, personal liability under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (“PACA”).  Specifically, the 6th Cir. addressed the issue of whether an individual could be held personally liable under PACA absent a showing of “active wrongdoing.”  The Court said: YES! See Arava USA, Inc. v. Karni Family Farm, LLC, 6th Cir. Case No. 11-1944.

In this case, the 6th Circuit found that an individual (who was an officer of the company, but not a shareholder) could be prosecuted personally for any shortfall in the company’s ability to fully satisfy it’s PACA trust obligations.

In so doing, the 6th Cir. agreed with the District Court (W.D. Mich.) and noted that thenon-shareholding officer at issue was not a statutory trustee of the PACA trust.  However, the 6th Cir. further held:

[b]ut that does not mean that [an individual] cannot be personally liable for interfering with [a PACA trust beneficiary’s] receipt of trust assets.  Ordinary principles of trust law apply to statutory trusts created by the Act. See Owner Operator Indep. Drivers Ass’n, Inc. v. Comerica Bank (In re Arctic Exp. Inc.), 636 F.3d 781, 798 (6th Cir. 2011).  This court has held that, where an officer causes a corporate trustee to commit a breach of trust, the beneficiary of the trust may sue the officer personally for the loss.  See Capitol Indemnity Corp. v. Interstate Agency, Inc. (In re Interstate Agency, Inc.), 760 F.2d 121 (6th Cir. 1985).  This liability arises not because the officer is a trustee or because of a piercing of the corporate veil, but rather because the officer himself has committed a tort against the trust’s beneficiary. Id. at 125.  The law of trusts is clear that “a beneficiary who is entitled to immediate distribution of . . . property may bring an action against a third party [i.e., not the trustee] who has damaged that property or interfered with its delivery to the beneficiary.” Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 107 cmt. c(1).  (emphasis added).

Every court of appeals to consider this issue has held that a corporate officer may be held personally liable under the Act.  See Coosemans Specialities, Inc. v. Gargiulo, 485 F.3d 701, 705–06 (2d Cir. 2007) (collecting cases from the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits).   We now join them and hold that “individual shareholders, officers, or directors of a corporation who are in a position to control [statutory] trust assets,” and who fail to preserve those assets, may be held personally liable under the Act. Sunkist Growers, 104 F.3d at 283. Where the officer has “fail[ed] to maintain” the assets of a § 499e trust, trust law allows an unpaid produce seller to sue that officer in his personal capacity. 7 U.S.C. § 499b(4).

Critical Point

The thrust of this case is that you do not have to be a shareholder of a produce company to be exposed to PACA trust liability.  The proper test for determining liability is control over the PACA trust assets and how your actions affected the PACA trust beneficiary’s ability to receive full payment promptly.

The Federal Court’s Current Thinking About Personal Liability Under the PACA

In a recent memorandum and opinion, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut provided the industry with an in-depth look at personal liability under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA).  This opinion addressed all of the major cases and relevant authority on this topic and is a good representation of the Court’s current thinking on the issue of personal liability under the PACA. 

  

Personal Liability

An individual who is in a position to control the assets of a PACA trust and fails to preserve those assets may be held personally liable to the trust beneficiaries for breach of fiduciary duty. See, e.g., Golman-Hayden Co. v. Fresh Source Produce, Inc., 217 F.3d 348, 351 (5th Cir. 2000); Morris Okun, Inc., 814 F. Supp. at 348. This legal framework is distinguishable from “piercing the corporate veil” doctrine, where the corporate form is disregarded because the individual has committed a fraud or because the corporation is a “shell” being used by individual shareholders to advance their own personal interests rather than the interests of the corporation. Morris Okun, Inc., 814 F. Supp. at 348. While the corporation will be held liable in the first instance for the debt owed, individuals in a position to control trust assets who breached their fiduciary duties may be held secondarily liable for whatever amount of the debt is not recoverable from the corporation. Id. at 349-50.

The courts have held that individual liability turns not on whether the individual nominally held an officer position nor even the size of his or her shareholding, but whether he or she had the authority to direct the control of the PACA trust assets. See Bear Mountain Orchards, Inc. v. Mich-Kim, Inc., 623 F.3d 163, 169 (3d Cir. 2010); see also Grimmway Enters., Inc. v. PIC Fresh Global, Inc., 548 F. Supp. 2d 840, 849 (E.D. Cal. 2008); Shepard v. K.B. Fruit & Vegetable, Inc., 868 F. Supp. 703, 706 (E.D. Pa. 1994). “The test for individual liability continues un-brightlined, as each case depends on facts found by the trier at trial.Bear Mountain, 623 F.3d at 169.

Most of the cases holding a controlling person secondarily liable have involved claims against the sole shareholder, president or principal officer, and director of the corporation. See, e.g., Coosemans, 485 F.3d at 706 (holding sole director and shareholder liable because he was in a position to control PACA trust assets); Morris Okun, Inc., 814 F. Supp. at 348 (finding sole shareholder who controlled the day-to-day operations of the company liable under PACA); Mid-Valley Produce Corp. v. 4-XXX Produce Corp., 819 F. Supp. 209, 213 (E.D.N.Y. 1993) (holding president liable but finding insufficient evidence to hold sole shareholder, who was not an officer, director, or employee of the corporation, or former directors liable); Bronia, Inc. v. Ho, 873 F. Supp. 854, 861 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) (finding sole shareholder to be “primary actor responsible” for corporation’s breach of PACA trust); see also Golden-Hayden Co., 217 F.3d 348, 352 (holding that sole shareholder manifestly had absolute control over the corporation despite his refusal or failure to exercise his right and obligation to control the corporation).

As the district court noted in a 1997 decision from the Northern District of Texas, Ideal Sales, Inc. v. McGriff, No. 3:95- CV-0991, 1997 WL 560779, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 2, 1997), “the cases reveal a willingness to hold the primary actor responsible for a breach of the trust, the sole or controlling shareholder, or the president personally liable, along with an unwillingness to hold other, less involved individuals personally liable.” However, since 1997, the cases do not draw such bright lines. As the court in Bear Mountain Orchards recognized, there is no bright line litmus test. 623 F.3d at 169. Each case turns on its own facts, and the inquiry is very fact-intensive.

Weis-Buy Farms, Inc., et al. v. Quality Sales LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11178 (Dist. CT 2012) (emphasis added).

Court’s Holding

In this case, the Court declined to enter a preliminary injunction against an officer of the Debtor produce company based upon the following facts:

FACTS IN FAVOR OF LIABILITY

FACTS AGAINST LIABILITY

  • Authorized signatory on the company’s operating account
  • No ability to control payments made from the company’s operating account
  • Possessed control over the company’s produce purchases
  • No authority to decide which vendors received payment
  • Identified as the buyer on the produce transactions
  • No authority to sign checks without direct approval from the owner
  • Possessed the title of Executive Vice President of the company
  • Not a shareholder or member of the company
  • Purchased produce from venders with knowledge of the company’s financial problems and the lack of sufficient funds to pay for said purchases
  • Not in a position to oversee the preservation of trust assets
  • Drove a company car
  • Position at the Company was not sufficient enough to establish legal responsibility for the trust assets
  • Identified in the Blue Book as an officer of the company
  • Not a manager of the LLC
 
  • Did not control from whom the company purchased produce or how much
 
  • Very little involvement in the subsequent sale of the produce once it arrived at the company
 
  • Worked as an employee
 
  • Not involved in the decision to extend credit terms with key vendors
 
  • Not involved in the company’s decision to file bankruptcy
 
  • Did not have direct access to information regarding the company’s financial situation
 
  • No responsibility for the collection of accounts receivable
 
  • No responsibility for the payment of outstanding invoices to the company
 
  • Not identified on PACA License as a principal
 
  • Not identified on the Secretary of State Documents as an owner of the Company

 The key take away here is that close attention must be paid to the company’s organizational structure and any contracts that govern the relationship between the company and the individuals who manage or own it.  PACA is a tough law and there is a significant risk for exposure to personal liability.  That risk needs to be understood and properly managed.