Does the Mayor’s Safer at Home Order Trigger Business Interruption Coverage? It’s a Billion Dollar Question.

On Sunday morning, Nashville Mayor John Cooper took bold action in response to the coronavirus spread: He entered the Safer at Home Order, which ordered Nashvillians to, generally, stay at home and ordered the closure of non-essential businesses.

Because the Order requires businesses that are “non-essential” to close, did the Mayor do those businesses a big favor, in the event that they decide to make a claim under a business interruption insurance policy?

Business interruption insurance is insurance coverage that replaces income lost in the event that business is halted for some reason, such as a fire or a natural disaster.

This coverage seems like it’d be very helpful to a business that was ordered by the government to shut down during a pandemic, right? Well, it depends on the specific language in the insurance policy.

Remember, insurance companies write these policies, so most will contain text that is as narrow as possible.

Duration of Shutdown? It will be narrow in duration (i.e. only as long as needed to re-establish operations).  As an example, after 9/11, one case held that, once the business owner could physically return to their building, the coverage ended (on 9/18).

But what about coronvirus, when we are prohibited from leaving the house by express order of the government and we definitely can’t go to our business? Seems like a coverable event. Again, though, look the the text of the policy.

Is it a shutdown or a “slow down”? Courts generally require a complete shutdown. Again, good for a Nashville business.

Some interesting questions:

  • If the entirety of your business activities cease; probably a suspension
  • If an entire portion of your business closes but another portion remains
    open?
  • If your normal business activities close, but you convert your business into a
    new but less profitable activity?

So, if you’re a bar that focuses on, let’s say, axe throwing but also serves nachos, and, after the coronavirus, you offer home delivery nachos, are you really shut-down?

Does your policy require the shutdown to be caused by a physical loss or property damage (like a tornado)? Is contamination from a deadly, contagious virus “damage to property”? Maybe…there are cases on dangerous levels of gases that are found to be damage to property.  But, do you have to show documented instances of COVID-19 at your business to get coverage? Also, maybe.

Is there text referencing an Order of Civil Authority? Some policies actually reference shutdowns when access to real or personal property is prohibited by order of civil or military authority.  Here, is the Safer at Home Order a recommendation or an order? Is your businesses clearly not an “essential” business that can stay open?

As a bankruptcy lawyer who rarely gets to fight the exciting fights, I really appreciate the interesting days and arguments that await the insurance lawyer bar over the next few weeks, months, and years.

My advice, today, is to: Pull a copy of your businesses’ insurance policy, and see if it includes business interruption coverage. If it’s a close call, make a claim and see what happens.

 

Is a foreclosure during a global pandemic an "irregular" and invalid sale? (Maybe)

During the coronavirus shut-down, there has been a lot of talk about there being no evictions in Davidson County, based on the Sheriff’s announcement that the Sheriff will not be serving non-essential service of process for the foreseeable future.

But, keep in mind, that announcement doesn’t stop landlord from using a private process server to serve the process.

In fact, the most critical obstacle to detainer proceedings is that the General Sessions Judges have cancelled court hearings through April 10. If there’s no court, then there’s no judgments for possession.

What about foreclosures?

Tennessee is a non-judicial foreclosure sale, so a foreclosing lender doesn’t need a court date, a judge’s approval, or an open courthouse. When they talk about a foreclosure “on the courthouse steps,” they are being literal.

So, as a practical matter, foreclosures can still take place in Tennessee over the next few weeks.

But, is a creditor wise to continue a foreclosure sale to a more stable time? Probably.

That’s because Tenn. Code Ann. §  35-5-118 allows courts to scrutinize the mechanics of a specific foreclosure, with an emphasis on whether a sale is “irregular.”

As I discussed in a blog post last year, pursuant to the Tennessee Supreme Court in Holt v. Citizens Central Bank, 688 S.W.2d 414 (Tenn. 1984), a conscience-shocking foreclosure sale price standing alone, absent some irregularity in the foreclosure sale, is not sufficient grounds for setting aside a lawful foreclosure sale.

What else did Holt say? “If a foreclosure sale is legally held, conducted and consummated, there must be some evidence of irregularity, misconduct, fraud, or unfairness on the part of the trustee or the mortgagee that caused or contributed to an inadequate price, for a court of equity to set aside the sale. ”

So, there remains a question: If a foreclosure sale occurs when the country is facing unprecedented restrictions in public interaction, when we are under orders from local government to “stay home,” is this an irregular sale? Did the unique conditions chill the attendance of competitive bidders?

These are unprecedented times, but we know that the economy is going to take a hard hit and issues like this are going to be litigated. A lender foreclosing on somebody’s business or home in this crazy time may be opening itself up to scrutiny and, yes, a legal challenge.

This would be a great time to continue a sale to a more stable sale date, which is expressly allowed under Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-101(f).

Insight from a Bank Attorney: How to ask a banker for help.

By 10am yesterday morning, one of my bank clients had already received five calls from worried borrowers.

These weren’t high risk consumer loans; these were commercial borrowers whose business has been impacted by the pandemic. A fitness studio who can’t have in person classes. Two AirBnB owners who have empty houses. Two restaurants. And that was just by 10am.

(Sidenote: Yes, I just referred to a fitness studio, AirBnBs, and restaurants as not “high risk” borrowers. This is 2020 Nashville, people. It was a different world until a week ago.)

In yesterday’s Tennessean, I told nervous borrowers to call their banker and talk about their concerns.

But what do you say? Here’s an idea of what banks are looking for:

Have a Plan. Don’t just call and ask to not pay for 90 days. Instead, explain to the banker how you are going to use that extra cash in the next 90 days to strengthen your recovery and maximize your chances of survival (and your chances to repay the bank).

Are there easy expenses that you can cut? Are you changing your operations in response? What are you going to do with “the bank’s money” during this time?

Do your Homework. Experts suggest that we’re going to be dealing with coronavirus for weeks and, maybe, months. Even though we have no idea how long this will last, can you give the banker a detailed forecast of your operations during this time?

Show them the bad news (i.e. the projected income), show them the easy and hard cuts you’ve decided to make, show them the fixed costs you can’t avoid (rent, costs of supplies), and show them that you’re trying.

Can you get more capital from other sources? Can you give the bank more collateral? If you can (or can’t), let them know you’ve explored that before asking the bank for help.

The banker probably wants to help you, because your success helps their bottom line too. Here, your goal is to make it easy for her to help you. Provide a roadmap that relies on numbers, solid projections, and is something that your banker can show his bosses when he advocates for you (or, months later, explains why he said “yes” to you).

Have a clear request. If you’ve done your homework and have a detailed plan, you should also be prepared to have a specific “ask” of the banker.

Do you need an extension of your line of credit amount? How much? How did you get that figure?

Do you need a 90 day payment forbearance? Why 90 days?

Do you need a re-amortization of your debt or to make interest-only payments for a few months? How does the lowered payment fit into your budget?

Be a pessimistic optimist. When you call your bank, you’ll be inclined to ask for as little relief as possible, because you’ll want your “ask” to be granted. Maybe you’ll commit to a reduced payment that’s still a little too high.

Here, if you’ve done your homework and come up with a detailed plan, you’ll have a good idea of what you really need from your bank. Ask for that, but maybe a little lower (give yourself some wiggle-room).

You don’t want to get some relief from your bank, but, then, a few weeks later, realize that you can’t perform and need more adjustments.

Long story short, err on the side of being a pessimist, and give yourself some room to under-perform (or over-deliver).

Again, I encourage immediate contact. In my experience, bankers appreciate transparency and dislike surprises (in this context, because these are generally “bad” surprises). Call them, talk to them, and let them know you’re fighting to protect your business.

What's Good for Bankruptcy Lawyers Probably Isn't Good for America.

During my third year of law school, I signed up for “Intro to Bankruptcy” at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

It wasn’t a popular course, and that’s why I chose it. After a summer clerkship where my supervising attorneys couldn’t spell the word “bankruptcy,” I thought it would be a good niche area to know in a tough job market.

Of course, I never imagined that, 21 years later, I’d have spent nearly every working day of my life spelling the word.

My class was taught by Professor Tom Plank, who really loved bankruptcy law. Passionately. When he got really excited in class, he had a thing he’d say: “What’s good for bankruptcy lawyers is good for America.”

Over the years, though, I’ve wondered what he meant. In my 20 plus years of bankruptcy practice, honestly, when I’ve been the busiest in Bankruptcy Court, it’s been a pretty awful time for Americans.

Sort of like the time we are entering right now…

https://twitter.com/tamburintweets/status/1240332869962207232

This article in tomorrow’s Tennessean will discuss the the financial impact of the coronavirus. Spoiler alert: It’s not good.

The article, Bankruptcy lawyers’ warning as coronavirus crisis mounts: Act Now, has good practical advice for people wondering how they are going to pay their bills.

Nashville bankruptcy attorney Griffin Dunham and I were both consulted for the article.

Griffin’s first piece of advice? “Act now. Waiting to address financial concerns would only exacerbate problems.”

My advice? “People who are out of work or losing income because of the crisis shouldn’t wait until they’re out of money…If they feel like they’re in the pinch now, reach out to the landlord, reach out to the bank now.”

Dunham also advocates having a very deliberate plan when deciding to allocate limited cash resources. “The people and businesses that devise a plan, store cash, and think strategically are in the best position to weather the storm.”

It’s going to be bad. For many people, it’s already bad. Act now. Be proactive. Call your lender, call your landlord.

Or, if it’s really bad, call a bankruptcy lawyer.

Nashville Bankruptcy Lawyers Prepare for the Inevitable Spike in Filings

During this coronavirus pandemic, lots of us aren’t working. (Don’t worry, clients, I am 100% working.)

Many of us are staying at home with the kids. We’re definitely not shopping at the mall or meeting up for drinks (well, some of us aren’t). The hotels are empty. Reservations for dinner are being cancelled. AirBNBs are vacant.

This state of affairs is historically unprecedented, and the impact it will have on all businesses, big and small, and all people people, rich and poor, will be felt for years.

One Nashville bankruptcy lawyer, Griffin Dunham, sees it coming. He’s already hearing from businesses that are struggling, and the choices they are making today can have a big impact over the next months.

Here are his quick thoughts on the decisions that people are dealing with right now.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This blog is called Creditor Rights 101, and I don’t advocate for not paying landlords or banks. But, at the same time, I know that this situation calls for tough decisions, and you’ll need somebody in your corner helping you make these decisions.

From my experience, he’s dead right about the need to act deliberately and with good counsel. These are strange times, and it’s the bankruptcy lawyers who can help you navigate these really tough decisions.

Four New Bankruptcy Filings add More Mystery…and Misery…in the Riverwood Cabins Case

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Riverwood Cabins, LLC Bankruptcy, which was notable to me because of the scope and magnitude of the amount of money that the Riverwood cabin buyers lost.

It’s a case where about 65 customers (and that number continues to grow) are asking what happened to their $4.5 million in deposits (also a growing number). The customer deposits appeared to evaporate into thin air in the months before the Bankruptcy case was filed.

One of the biggest questions was when the related companies were going to file their own bankruptcy cases (and why hadn’t they already?). The hope was that, when that happened, maybe we’d get some answers then.

Well, we know the first part: Woodtex, LLC, Woodtex of New York, LLC, Woodtex of Tennessee, LLC, and Woodtex of Texas, LLC all filed their own Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases in Nashville Bankruptcy Court late on Monday afternoon.

As far as answers beyond that, the filings don’t do much else, but add more questions.

And more aggrieved customers. These filings show that there’s at least twice as many customers who lost their deposits, with these deposits still being unaccounted for.

But, strangely, there’s not that much debt owed, relative to the deposits that the companies were constantly taking in. With this much money coming into the company (as deposits), you’d expect to see an equally staggering amount of unpaid bills.

The only good news for the Woodtex customers is that, because the Woodtex entities focused on sheds and smaller buildings, the deposits are about 10% of the money that the Riverwood Cabins customers lost.

Set Your Clocks for 12:01am: Happy New Bankruptcy Act!

How are you celebrating Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 Eve?

In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about, at 12:01am, the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 takes effect tonight.

So, if you wake up tomorrow morning and there have been a hundred or more small business and individual Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases filed overnight, this is why.

It’s because the debtors’ counsel think the new Act provides some tactical advantage for their small chapter 11 case. (And, disclaimer: by “small,” it’s a case where total debts is less than $2,725,625.)

Once upon a time, Chapter 11 was meant to be used for big cases–think K-Mart, Sears, Enron, American Airlines. Then, about 10 years ago, we started seeing more individuals and smaller “mom and pop” businesses filing bankruptcy.

Part of the reason was that these cases were “too big” for a Chapter 13. So, they got shoe-horned into an overly complex Chapter 11 case. It’s been generally a bad fit for many debtors.

In a way, the new Act makes a small chapter 11 case resemble a “big” chapter 13 case. Here’s how:

The process is accelerated, and the debtor must submit a plan within 90 days of the case being filed. Plus, the changes shave down some of the administrative requirements in a typical chapter 11, like the appointment of a creditors’ committee and the need to file a disclosure statement.

Also, there is now a “Sub-Chapter V” Trustee appointed in a case, who will oversee and, in some situations, manage the progress and implementation of a repayment plan.

Also, in the most Chapter 13 model possible, the discharge will not be granted until the debtor completes all payments due within the first three years of the plan or a longer period not to exceed five years (depending on the plan terms).

Finally, the part that gets all the attention is the elimination of the “absolute priority rule,” which requires a business owner to pay “new value” in order to retain any interest in a business unless creditors are paid in full. It used to be that creditors could object and require the debtor pay new money in order to keep a business, and, if none is paid, the creditors had to be paid in full. This is now gone.

So, if you wake up tomorrow morning and you see a lot of new Bankruptcy Cases, you may wonder why the debtor’s law firm stayed up so late to file it.

This is why.

But, creditors, please know this–there’s nothing really to do to stop or prevent this new Act’s application. Just wake up tomorrow and re-read the Act. And, be sure to re-read Chapter 13 while you’re at it.