First Position: Priority in Security Interests

As the global COVID pandemic continues to substantially crimp air travel, we continue to see operators and other industry partners succumb to the economic realities of bankruptcy. As an industry, we’ve seen this before, and we will see it again. But that also means we know that we will come out the other side stronger than ever. One important way to make sure we do is to protect our interests when we extend credit to sell parts.

Last month we discussed steps to attach and perfect our security interest to guard against a customer’s bankruptcy. Perfecting a security interest gives us priority to the asset over any other later-perfecting creditors. Priority is important in deciding who takes proceeds of assets first when more than one secured party has a perfected security interest in the same goods or other assets. The goal is always to be first in priority with respect to the asset.

Generally, security interests are subject to a “first to file” rule (see UCC 9-322(a)), so whoever perfected their security interest first is first in line to the proceeds of those specific debtor assets in the event of bankruptcy. In many commercial instances this means that a bank or other lender that provided financing for the company will have a perfected security interest over not just the business’s assets at the time of the loan, but over all after-acquired assets as well. This so-called “floating lien” is a common way to secure loans to businesses.

Obviously, this sort of “all future assets” perfected security interest is problematic for a distributor who seeks to sell inventory to a customer on net 30 (or other credit) terms, because the inventory sold by the distributor, even upon perfection of a security interest by the distributor, would mean the distributor was secondary (or “junior”) to the lender even with respect to its own goods sold. As we have previously discussed, when assets are liquidated to satisfy all a business’s creditors there is generally not going to be enough money to go around. Securing first priority is therefore very important to a distributor seeking to protect against insolvent customers.

As you might have guessed, knowing that they could be subordinate to a previously secured lender (with the mega-resources to fight for its position in bankruptcy court) could easily discourage a business’s suppliers from selling to that business on anything other than a cash basis if the business hits a bumpy patch or the entire economy takes a negative turn. Reticence on the part of suppliers worried about getting paid can hurt a struggling business’s ability to continue in its ordinary course, creating a feedback loop that can doom the already struggling business, which likely does not have the cash on hand to buy inventory on cash terms.

Fortunately, the UCC anticipates this problem and has built in provisions to encourage suppliers to a struggling business to continue supplying (on credit) without sacrificing to a large lender priority in the goods they sell. Enter: the Purchase-Money Security Interest (“PMSI”).

Remember, to have a security interest we need attachment and perfection. And as we just discussed, perfection is generally subject to the first-to-file principle. A PMSI allows a seller of goods that sells on credit terms to gain a first-priority security interest—essentially jumping ahead of all other creditors regardless of when they perfected their security interests—in specific goods sold when the customer/debtor incurs a purchase money obligation to the seller of the goods in order to purchase the goods.

There are several variations on PMSIs, but for our purposes we are concerned with PMSI in inventory sold. (PMSI in equipment may also be important.) PMSIs in inventory sold can be slightly complex, so it is important to pay attention to the details and make sure each step is taken to secure your interests in your goods sold.

The key complication in a PMSI for inventory is the requirement that the security interest be perfected before the goods are received by the debtor. Ordinarily, perfection allows for the filing of a financing statement (usually the UCC-1) after the debt is incurred. This is also true of PMSIs in consumer goods, which allow a PMSI to be perfected if a financing statement is filed within 20 days. Distributors, however, are not generally viewed as selling consumer goods. Distributors sell inventory to their customers. Thus, special rules for PMSI must be followed (see UCC § 9-324).

As we said, for the PMSI in inventory to be effective we must perfect prior to the goods being delivered to the customer. This means filing our UCC-1 before delivery. Ideally, this will occur before the goods even leave our facility.

Next, we need to notify any other higher priority secured party in writing. So, if a lender has provided financing for our customer and has a floating lien over all of the customer’s assets, we are required to notify that lender in writing of our PMSI in the specific inventory (more on this in a moment).  You can find previously secured lenders and other parties with security interests by searching the UCC-1 filings in the state where the customer is incorporated or headquartered. (It is generally best to search both locations to ensure all your bases are covered, as well as, for companies with locations in multiple states, the state in which the actual destination facility is located.)

The notice to other secured parties should be sent by a secure, trackable system, like certified mail, return-receipt requested and—like PMSI perfection—the notice must be received before the goods are delivered to the customer. (Notice must also be renewed every five years in the event the security interest is held that long.)

Finally, the notice must state that the distributor has or expects to acquire a purchase-money security interest in inventory of the debtor (again, this is your customer) and describe specifically the inventory affected. This can be done directly in the notice, or by referencing and attaching a copy of the commercial invoice if it provides enough specificity to identify the inventory secured.

A PMSI in non-consumer goods takes much more effort than perfecting an ordinary security interest, so factors like the value of the credit extended, customer payment history, and current financial strength of the customer (or the economy more broadly) will all factor in deciding whether the additional steps to a PMSI are worthwhile.

Remember, priority of security interest is key to payment when a customer becomes insolvent. When the economy is rocky it is important to pay attention to the financial health and track record of your customers and the customers of your customers. Our industry has and will continue to see its fair share of liquidations and restructurings. By monitoring the health of your customers and taking the steps to meticulously secure your interests, you put your company in the strongest position to fight through troubling times.

As always, these things can be complex. When in doubt, contact your lawyer.

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