Category: Insolvency and Taxation

What a difference a day makes – When does the relation back period start?

Re Weston Application; Employers Mutual Indemnity (Workers Compensation) Ltd v Omni Corporation Pty Ltd [2009] NSWSC 264

In insolvency law the calculation of precise periods of time is important.  Insolvency practitioners need to know exactly when limitation periods end in order to preserve potential claims.  The “relation back period” is one of the more important time periods relevant to calculating limitations, and yet there is surprisingly little authority on exactly when the relation back period starts.

The Relation Back period

Most practitioners are familiar with what is the last day of a relation back period. It is the “relation-back day” in corporate law, and in bankruptcy it is the date of the presentation of the petition against the bankrupt.

But what is the first day of the relation-back period?  If the relation back day is 12 December, is a 6 month relation-back period taken to begin on the 12 June?  Or 13 June?  The answer has obvious practical significance because it is not uncommon for a significant payment to fall on the 12th day.

The issue is whether one includes the relation back day or not in the 6 month period. Surprisingly, there is no appellate decision which makes the answer clear, however single judge authorities indicate one does count the relation-back day. So in the example, 12 June would not be included.

In Scott v The Commissioner of Taxation [2003] VSC 50 (link),  Justice Dodds-Streeton reached the same conclusion (at paragraphs 32 and 33).  However the decision does include reasoning on that point.

In Re Weston Application; Employers Mutual Indemnity (Workers Compensation) Ltd v Omni Corporation Pty Ltd[2009] NSWSC 264 (link), calculation of time going forward from the relation-back day was discussed in an application to strike out a voidable transaction claim on the basis it was out of time.  The time for making the application expires 3 years after the relation back day, or 12 months after the appointment of the liquidator, whichever is the later: s588FF(3)(a).

In Re Weston the liquidator commenced the application for relief under s588FF(1) exactly 3 years to the date after the relation back day:  the respective dates were 16 January 2009 and 16 January 2006.

Justice Barrett considered the issue relying on two statutory provisions (at paragraphs 6 to 16):

1.Section 105 of the Corporations Act. It provides:

Calculation of time

Without limiting subsection 36(1) of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 , in calculating how many days a particular day, act or event is before or after another day, act or event, the first-mentioned day, or the day of the first-mentioned act or event, is to be counted but not the other day, or the day of the other act or event.

2.Section 36(1) of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (link).  It contains a useful table for calculating when a day should and should not be included in a time calculation.  The section states that:

A period of time referred to in an Act that is of a kind mentioned in [the table] is to be calculated according to the rule mentioned in [the table].

Based on those provisions, His Honour concluded:

  1. when a time period is expressed to end at, on or within a specified day, the period of time includes that day (item 4 of the table);
  2. when a time period is expressed to begin from a specified day, the period of time does not include that day (item 5 of the table).

The Start Date and the End Date

In Re Weston the result was that the liquidator had made his application in time, since the 16th of January 2006 was not included in calculating the 3 year limitation period after the relation-back day (applying item 5 from the table).

In calculating the start of the relation-back period, using the example above, 12 June would not be included, because 12 December would be included in the 6 month relation-back period (applying item 4 from the table).

Significance for Practitioners

The application of these principles is important:

  • for practitioners in diarising limitation periods;
  • identifying transactions at the extremes of the relation back periods under the voidable transaction provisions;
  • for third parties considering limitation defences;

for calculating the application of time periods generally where limits are strict. For an example, applied to determining whether an application was within time to set aside a statutory demand, see Autumn Solar Installations Pty Ltd v Solar Magic Australia Pty Ltd [2010] NSWSC 463.

Regards

Mark

Acknowledgement:  this post originally appeared on the Commercial Bar Association of Victoria blog, Commbar matters, at http://commbarmatters.com/2014/04/08/what-a-difference-a-day-makes-when-does-the-relation-back-period-start/

Setting aside a statutory demand – Another useful summary of the law

Last year I added a post (see http://wp.me/p1UOHK-5y) referring to a clear, brief summary of the requirements for setting aside a demand, set out in the decision in Elite Catering Equipment Pty Ltd v Seroshtan [2012] VSC 241(link).

Another recent case following the same line of reasoning is worth noting.  The decision is Welldog Pty Ltd v World Oil Tools Inc [2013] QSC 180 (link), approving a summary of the law by Robson J in Rhagodia Pty Ltd v National Australia Bank Ltd (2008) 67 ACSR 367 at [91]–[94] (link).

Robson J’s summary has also been approved recently in a decision of Associate Justice Gardiner, in Troutfarms Australia Pty Ltd v Perpetual Nominees Ltd [2013] VSC 228 (link) and by the Victorian Court of Appeal, on appeal from Gardiner AsJ, in Troutfarms Australia Pty Limited v Perpetual Nominees Limited [2013] VSCA 176 (link).

The cited passage from Rhagodia reads as follows (emphasis added):

[91] In TR Administration Pty Ltd v Frank Marchetti & Sons Pty Ltd Dodds-Streeton JA (with whom Neave and Kellam JJA concurred) said:

‘[56] The court, in the context of an application to set aside a statutory demand, must determine whether there is a genuine dispute about the existence or amount of the debt or whether the company has a genuine off-setting claim.

[57] No in-depth examination or determination of the merits of the alleged dispute is necessary, or indeed appropriate, as the application is akin to one for an interlocutory injunction. Moreover, the determination of the “ultimate question” of the existence of the debt should not be compromised.’

[92] Dodds-Streeton JA further said:

‘[71] As the terms of s 459H of the Corporations Act 2001 and the authorities make clear, the company is required, in this context, only to establish a genuine dispute or off-setting claim. It is required to evidence the assertions relevant to the alleged dispute or off-setting claim only to the extent necessary for that primary task. The dispute or off-setting claim should have a sufficient objective existence and prima facie plausibility to distinguish it from a merely spurious claim, bluster or assertion, and sufficient factual particularity to exclude the merely fanciful or futile. As counsel for the appellant conceded however, it is not necessary for the company to advance, at this stage, a fully evidenced claim. Something “between mere assertion and the proof that would be necessary in a court of law” may suffice. A selective focus on a part of the formulation in South Australia v Wall, divorced from its overall context, may obscure the flexibility of judicial approach appropriate in the present context if it suggests that the company must formally or comprehensively evidence the basis of its dispute or off-setting claim. The legislation requires something less.’

[93] In Eyota, McClelland CJ of the Supreme Court of New South Wales said:

‘It is, however, necessary to consider the meaning of the expression “genuine dispute” where it occurs in s 450H. In my opinion that expression connotes a plausible contention requiring investigation, and raises much the same sort of considerations as the “serious question to be tried” criterion which arises on an application for an interlocutory injunction or for the extension or removal of a caveat. This does not mean that the court must accept uncritically as giving rise to a genuine dispute, every statement in an affidavit “however equivocal, lacking precision, inconsistent with undisputed contemporary documents or other statements by the same deponent, or inherently improbable in itself, it may be” not having “sufficient prima facie plausibility to merit further investigation as to [its] truth” (cf Eng Mee Yong v Letchumanan), or “a patently feeble legal argument or an assertion of facts unsupported by evidence”: cf South Australia v Wall.’

But if it does mean that, except in such an extreme case, a court required to determine whether there is a genuine dispute should not embark upon an inquiry as to the credit of a witness or a deponent whose evidence is relied on as giving rise to the dispute. There is a clear difference between, on the one hand, determining whether there is a genuine dispute and, on the other hand, determining the merits of, or resolving, such a dispute. In Mibor Investments Hayne J said, after referring to the state of the law prior to the enactment of Div 3 of Pt 5.4 of the Corporations Law, and to the terms of Div 3:

‘These matters, taken in combination, suggest that at least in most cases, it is not expected that the court will embark upon any extended inquiry in order to determine whether there is a genuine dispute between the parties and certainly will not attempt to weight the merits of that dispute. All that the legislation requires is that the court conclude that there is a dispute and that it is a genuine dispute.’

In Re Morris Catering (Aust) Pty Ltd Thomas J said:

‘There is little doubt that Div 3 … prescribes a formula that requires the court to assess the position between the parties, and preserve demands where it can be seen that there is no genuine dispute and no sufficient genuine offsetting claim. That is not to say that the court will examine the merits or settle the dispute. The specified limits of the court’s examination are the ascertainment of whether there is a “genuine dispute” and whether there is a “genuine claim”.

It is often possible to discern the spurious, and to identify mere bluster or assertion. But beyond a perception of genuineness (or the lack of it), the court has no function. It is not helpful to perceive that one party is more likely than the other to succeed, or that the eventual state of the account between the parties is more likely to be one result than another.

The essential task is relatively simple — to identify the genuine level of a claim (not the likely result of it) and to identify the genuine level of an offsetting claim (not the likely result of it).’

I respectfully agree with those statements.

[94] In TR Administration, Dodds-Streeton JA (with whom Neave and Kellam JJA concurred) cited this passage with apparent approval and noted it was also cited by the Full Federal Court in Spencer Constructions Pty Ltd v GAM Aldridge Pty Ltd.

Regards

Mark

As expected: Court finds against unregistered lessor in PPSA fight

The Supreme Court of NSW has decided a PPSA priority contest against the owner of leased Caterpillar equipment, in a fight with the receivers and managers of the equipment’s insolvent lessee.

The case is a warning to those used to ownership and title retention based forms of security.  The fact is that an owner/ lessor of equipment can lose its property to a secured creditor of a lessee upon VA or liquidation.

It also shows why it pays to get important agreements documented by a competent lawyer.

The case is Albarran and anor v Queensland Excavation Services Pty Limited & Ors [2013] NSWSC 852 (link).

The facts are available at the link in paras 1 to 10, which include at para 10 a useful statement of the issues and Brereton J’s conclusions on each of them.

Some of the more interesting facts are these:

  • the owner and lessor companies had a common shareholder, who appears to have informally financed the Caterpillar equipment and other vehicles from mainstream lenders;
  • the leases between the owner and lessor were not in writing, but were for more than one year.  There seems to have been an arrangement whereby the owner purchased the equipment on finance, and then passed possession on to the lessor in return for payment of the finance costs plus 10%;
  • the leases predated the transition to the PPSA;
  • that probably explains why the owner did not register its interest in the Caterpillars and why no written lease existed to make provision for the PPSA.

The decision is not unexpected given the circumstances:

  • the owner’s interest was a security interest in the Caterpillars – see s12(2)(i) and s12(3)(c) since the leases were PPS leases;
  • the equipment owner had failed to register its security interest, as owner;
  • lessor had executed a General Security Deed with its secured creditor which expressly gave security over the Caterpillars;
  • under s19(5) of the PPSA, leased equipment forms part of the lessor’s collateral capable of being subject of a security interest;
  • the secured creditor had registered the General Security Deed ;
  • the secured creditor prevailed because it had registered and the owner had not – s55(3).

See generally paragraphs 20 to 34 for the discussion of the nature of the security interests held by the owner and the secured creditor respectively in the Caterpillars. See generally paragraph 35 to 41 for the discussion of the priority contest.

The decision referred to many of the cases from other jurisdictions regarding priority at paragraphs 26 to 31.  The case that this reminds me of the most is Waller v New Zealand Bloodstock Ltd [2006] 3 NZLR 629, discussed and approved at paragraph 30:  just switch the horse for an excavator.

There are some other interesting points in the decision:

  • An attempt to argue that the transitional provisions applied failed, because the Caterpillar equipment was registrable in the Northern Territoty (where the vehicles were used) on a local motor vehicles register – this triggered an exception to the transitional provisions which would otherwise have protected the position of the lessor as an owner with rights under the lease predating the registration date – see paras 47 to 56 in particular;
  • The rights to possession of the owner under the lease on default by the lessee company are lost once the VA or liquidation commences, so the owner cannot repossess – see s267.  In other words, no residual rights of true ownership survive because they vest in the company – see paragraph 72 ff.

There are some useful articles discussing the decision that I have seen so far, see:

  • Carrie Rome-Sievers at this link
  • Allens at this link

Regards

Mark

ATO beaten by trust liquidator in priority battle – twice!

The Commissioner of Taxation is the most common unsecured creditor in insolvent estates and often the biggest.   That is not surprising since Federal tax revenues are currently about 21% of GDP.

In 1993 the Commissioner lost his priority over other unsecured creditors in bankruptcy or liquidation for outstanding group tax and PPS debts.

Since then,  the Commissioner has looked for other ways to gain de facto priority over unsecured creditors.  One method has been to recover tax from directors personally – the “directors penalty notice” provisions of the tax law was also introduced in 1993 partly to compensate the Commissioner for the loss of priority (an excellent paper explaining these provisions in clear terms can be found here, published by Worrells).

Another device given a try by the Commissioner was to garnishee debts owed by third parties to the insolvent company, by notice under section 260-5 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 (TAA), after a company had gone into liquidation.   A notice under s 260-5 gives the Commissioner the right to recover from a third party an amount that the third party owes or may later owe to a taxpayer who is indebted to the Commonwealth for tax. The remedy given to the Commissioner by s 260-5 is available in respect of revenue obligations, which are given the character of “debts” by force of the TAA itself and without the need for a judicial determination.  The third party must pay the amount demanded in the notice; failure to comply with the notice is a criminal offence.  Upon payment the Commissioner has the right to give to the third party a valid receipt and discharge for money paid in compliance with the notice.   In these respects, a notice under s 260-5 operates in the same manner in which a garnishee order issued by a Court operating to attach a debt.

In effect the Commissioner was issuing notices to round-up debts owed to the insolvent company that would otherwise be collected by the liquidator, putting the proceeds of the debts exclusively to payment of the Commissioner’s debt.   If the debtor responded to the notice and its validity were upheld, then the Commissioner would then restore an effective position of priority, at least as far as proceeds of third party debtors recoveries are concerned.

The Commissioner’s efforts ended badly.

First, the use of garnishee notices in this way was held to be invalid by the High Court (Bruton Holdings Pty Ltd (in liquidation) v Commissioner of Taxation (2009) 239 CLR 346).   In a fairly extraordinary display of litigation muscle by the Commissioner (no doubt because of the potential precedent value of a favourable outcome), no less than six related proceedings were fought in the Federal Court and High Court, over about $470,000 held in a solicitor’s trust account, the debt in question.

Second, the outcome of the final Full Federal Court appeal – Bruton Holdings Pty Ltd (in liq) v Commissioner of Taxation (austlii link) (2011) 193 FCR 442 (FCFCA) (Bruton (no 2)) was that Bruton, the insolvent corporate trustee, was allowed its full indemnity costs of the entire sequence of litigation from the trust’s funds even though it was a bare trustee of the assets.   The Commissioner had argued, unsuccessfully, that a bare trustee is restricted to a “passive role” and that Bruton had no authority to conduct the litigation over the validity of the garnishee notice because, in effect, the ATO was the only unsecured creditor and would get the proceeds of the debt one way or other (no evidence to support this latter assertion was led).  The Full Court rejected that argument – first on the basis that there was some evidence suggesting the existence of other creditors, and secondly by reference to the general duties of any trustee to preserve and protect trust assets when threatened, by litigation.  See in particular paragraphs 19 to 27.

There has been no special leave application:  just an even half-dozen cases on this occasion then!

The introduction to the  joint judgment of Stone, Jacobson & Edmonds JJ in Bruton (no 2) sets out the extraordinary sequence of the litigation:

……….In 1997, by deed of trust, the appellant (Bruton) was appointed as trustee of the Bruton Educational Trust (educational trust). On 10 October 2005, Bruton applied to the respondent (Commissioner) for endorsement as a tax exempt entity as from 1 July 2006. The application was refused, as was Bruton’s objection to the Commissioner’s decision. An appeal from the Commissioner’s decision (objection appeal) was also dismissed.

Piper Alderman was the solicitor for Bruton in the objection appeal. Between October 2005 and February 2007 it was paid $470,000 by Bruton to be held in its trust account in respect of costs and disbursements of the proceedings including the endorsement application to the Commissioner. On 28 February 2007 administrators were appointed to Bruton and on 30 April 2007 the company’s creditors resolved that it should be wound up. By virtue of ss 513B(b) and 513C(b) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) the winding up was taken to have commenced on 28 February 2007.

Clause 10.2(b) of the educational trust deed provided that the office of the trustee was “immediately terminated and vacated” if the trustee went into liquidation. Accordingly, from 28 February 2007 Bruton ceased to be the trustee of the educational trust and became the bare trustee of the assets comprising the trust fund (Fund). As a consequence Bruton was no longer entitled to exercise any power including the investment, management or payment of trust monies arising from the educational trust deed. Its powers were limited to those that under the general law or statute are the powers of a bare trustee.

On 26 March 2007, the Commissioner issued a notice of assessment directed to the trustee calling for payment in the amount of $7,715,873.73 in respect of tax and the Medicare levy for the 2004 income year. Furthermore, after Bruton was wound up, the Commissioner lodged a Proof of Debt with the liquidators of Bruton for the amount stated in the notice of assessment. On 8 May 2007, the Commissioner issued a notice to Piper Alderman pursuant to s 260-5 of Schedule 1 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 (Cth) requiring the firm to pay $447,420.20 which it held in its trust account on account of the educational trust to the Commissioner.

On 30 May 2007 Bruton instituted proceedings in this Court (primary proceeding) seeking a declaration that the s 260-5 notice was void by virtue of s 500(1) of the Corporations Act. On 2 November 2007 Allsop J declared the notice was void (see Bruton Holdings Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation (2007) 244 ALR 177). On 23 November 2007, his Honour made further orders including an order that Piper Alderman pay the $477,420.20 held in its trust account to the liquidators. The liquidators were to pay that money into an interest-bearing bank account and were restrained from spending that money except, inter alia, to pay expenses incurred by Bruton in respect of the primary proceeding and the appeal proceeding. His Honour ordered the Commissioner to pay Bruton’s costs as well as those of Piper Alderman.

An appeal from Allsop J’s judgment to the Full Court was allowed and Allsop J’s judgment was set aside (see Commissioner of Taxation v Bruton Holdings Pty Ltd (in liq) [2008] FCAFC 184; (2008) 173 FCR 472. Bruton was granted special leave to appeal to the High Court. The High Court allowed the appeal with costs (see Bruton v Commissioner of Taxation [2009] HCA 32. It set aside the orders of the Full Court and in their place ordered that the appeal to the Full Court be dismissed with costs.

A dispute followed between the Commissioner and the liquidators concerning whether the shortfall between the amount of Bruton’s solicitor and client costs and the amount of its party and party costs referable to the primary proceeding, the Full Court appeal, the application for special leave and the appeal in the High Court should be paid out of the Fund. This dispute over the payment of costs was the subject of the proceeding before Graham J (costs proceeding) and is the issue in the present appeal (emphasis added)

Regards

Mark

Liquidators and Receivers – are you sure of your personal liability for CGT on asset sales??

Readers

Recently a controversy has developed concerning whether insolvency practitioners selling CGT assets subject to mortgage security were required to remit CGT in priority to the secured creditor.  The controversy developed out of a reading of s254 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 as it relates to trustees of incapacitated entities, including liquidators, VAs and receivers.

Late last year I co-authored a paper with Helen Symon SC concerning the liability of insolvency practitioners whilst in office to a range of taxes.  The paper concentrated on CGT, Income Tax and GST.   The main issues dealt with in the paper were whether sale of post CGT assets by an insolvency practitioner gave rise to an obligation to pay CGT on the sale in priority to a secured creditor (we formed the view this was probable), and the now recognised device of appointing an agent in possession to effect a post CGT asset sale, and the circumstances and period for which practitioners are required to file tax returns for the entities to which they are appointed.

A copy of the paper is available at this link – Taxation – Common Issues.

A decision handed down since the paper contains a similar analysis of s254 in obiter (non binding) comments of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.  The decision is Goldana Investments Pty Ltd (recs & mgrs apptd) v National Mutual Life Nominees Ltd & ors [2011] NSWSC 1134.  In that decision, an application was made by the debtor company to have receivers removed on the grounds that the secured debt had been paid after the sale of a shopping centre.  The receivers of Goldana successfully resisted the application to have them removed because their potential personal CGT liability arising because of s254 had not yet been resolved.   It was therefore appropriate to allow the receivers to stay in office and in control of surplus proceeds from the sale.   According to the judgment, the receivers are in the process of seeking a private ruling from the ATO on their personal liability.

Regards

Mark McKillop

Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation

(PS Welcome to this blog!)