Priorities: this is the money question. Who gets what when a debtor defaults? Depending on how the priorities in the collateral were established, even a secured creditor may walk away with the collateral or with nothing. Here we take up the general rule and the exceptions.
The general rule regarding priorities is, to use a quotation attributed to a Southern Civil War general, the one who wins “gets there firstest with the mostest.” The first to do the best job of perfecting wins. The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) creates a race of diligence among competitors.
Application of the Rule
If both parties have perfected, the first to perfect wins. If one has perfected and one attached, the perfected party wins. If both have attached without perfection, the first to attach wins. If neither has attached, they are unsecured creditors. Let’s test this general rule against the following situations:
- Rosemary, without having yet lent money, files a financing statement on February 1 covering certain collateral owned by Susan—Susan’s fur coat. Under UCC Article 9, a filing may be made before the security interest attaches. On March 1, Erika files a similar statement, also without having lent any money. On April 1, Erika loans Susan $1,000, the loan being secured by the fur coat described in the statement she filed on March 1. On May 1, Rosemary also loans Susan $1,000, with the same fur coat as security. Who has priority? Rosemary does, since she filed first, even though Erika actually first extended the loan, which was perfected when made (because she had already filed). This result is dictated by the rule even though Rosemary may have known of Erika’s interest when she subsequently made her loan.
- Susan cajoles both Rosemary and Erika, each unknown to the other, to loan her $1,000 secured by the fur coat, which she already owns and which hangs in her coat closet. Erika gives Susan the money a week after Rosemary, but Rosemary has not perfected and Erika does not either. A week later, they find out they have each made a loan against the same coat. Who has priority? Whoever perfects first: the rule creates a race to the filing office or to Susan’s closet. Whoever can submit the financing statement or actually take possession of the coat first will have priority, and the outcome does not depend on knowledge or lack of knowledge that someone else is claiming a security interest in the same collateral. But what of the rule that in the absence of perfection, whichever security interest first attached has priority? This is “thought to be of merely theoretical interest,” says the UCC commentary, “since it is hard to imagine a situation where the case would come into litigation without [either party] having perfected his interest.” And if the debtor filed a petition in bankruptcy, neither unperfected security interest could prevail against the bankruptcy trustee.
To rephrase: An attached security interest prevails over other unsecured creditors (unsecured creditors lose to secured creditors, perfected or unperfected). If both parties are secured (have attached the interest), the first to perfect wins.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-322(a)(2). If both parties have perfected, the first to have perfected wins.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-322(a)(1).
Exceptions to the General Rule
There are three immediate exceptions to the general rule, and several other exceptions, all of which—actually—make some straightforward sense even if it sounds a little complicated to explain them.
We call the following three exceptions “immediate” ones because they allow junior filers immediate priority to take their collateral before the debtor’s other creditors get it. They all involve purchase-money security interests (PMSIs), so if the debtor defaults, the creditor repossesses the very goods the creditor had sold the debtor.
(1) Purchase-money security interest in goods (other than inventory or livestock). The UCC provides that “a perfected purchase-money security interest in goods other than inventory or livestock has priority over a conflicting security interest in the same goods…if the purchase-money security interest is perfected when debtor receives possession of the collateral or within 20 days thereafter.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-324(a). The Official Comment to this UCC section observes that “in most cases, priority will be over a security interest asserted under an after-acquired property clause.”
Suppose Susan manufactures fur coats. On February 1, Rosemary advances her $10,000 under a security agreement covering all Susan’s machinery and containing an after-acquired property clause. Rosemary files a financing statement that same day. On March 1, Susan buys a new machine from Erika for $5,000 and gives her a security interest in the machine; Erika files a financing statement within twenty days of the time that the machine is delivered to Susan. Who has priority if Susan defaults on her loan payments? Under the PMSI rule, Erika has priority, because she had a PMSI. Suppose, however, that Susan had not bought the machine from Erika but had merely given her a security interest in it. Then Rosemary would have priority, because her filing was prior to Erika’s.
What would happen if this kind of PMSI in noninventory goods (here, equipment) did not get priority status? A prudent Erika would not extend credit to Susan at all, and if the new machine is necessary for Susan’s business, she would soon be out of business. That certainly would not inure to the benefit of Rosemary. It is, mostly, to Rosemary’s advantage that Susan gets the machine: it enhances Susan’s ability to make money to pay Rosemary.
(2) Purchase-money security interest in inventory. The UCC provides that a perfected PMSI in inventory has priority over conflicting interests in the same inventory, provided that the PMSI is perfected when the debtor receives possession of the inventory, the PMSI-secured party sends an authenticated notification to the holder of the conflicting interest and that person receives the notice within five years before the debtor receives possession of the inventory, and the notice states that the person sending it has or expects to acquire a PMSI in the inventory and describes the inventory.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-324(b). The notice requirement is aimed at protecting a secured party in the typical situation in which incoming inventory is subject to a prior agreement to make advances against it. If the original creditor gets notice that new inventory is subject to a PMSI, he will be forewarned against making an advance on it; if he does not receive notice, he will have priority. It is usually to the earlier creditor’s advantage that her debtor is able to get credit to “floor” (provide) inventory, without selling which, of course, the debtor cannot pay back the earlier creditor.
(3) Purchase-money security interest in fixtures. Under UCC Section 9-334(e), a perfected security in fixtures has priority over a mortgage if the security interest is a PMSI and the security interest is perfected by a fixture filing before the goods become fixtures or within twenty days after. A mortgagee is usually a bank (the mortgagor is the owner of the real estate, subject to the mortgagee’s interest). The bank’s mortgage covers the real estate and fixtures, even fixtures added after the date of the mortgage (after-acquired property clause). In accord with the general rule, then, the mortgagee/bank would normally have priority if the mortgage is recorded first, as would a fixture filing if made before the mortgage was recorded. But with the exception noted, the bank’s interest is subordinate to the fixture-seller’s later-perfected PMSI. Example: Susan buys a new furnace from Heating Co. to put in her house. Susan gave a bank a thirty-year mortgage on the house ten years before. Heating Co. takes back a PMSI and files the appropriate financing statement before or within twenty days of installation. If Susan defaults on her loan to the bank, Heating Co. would take priority over the bank. And why not? The mortgagee has, in the long run, benefited from the improvement and modernization of the real estate. (Again, there are further nuances in Section 9-334 beyond our scope here.) A non-PMSI in fixtures or PMSIs perfected more than twenty days after goods become a fixture loses out to prior recorded interests in the realty.
We have noted the three immediate exceptions to the general rule that “the firstest with the mostest” prevails. There are some other exceptions.
Think about how these other exceptions might arise: who might want to take property subject to a security agreement (not including thieves)? That is, Debtor gives Creditor a security interest in, say, goods, while retaining possession. First, buyers of various sorts might want the goods if they paid for them; they usually win. Second, lien creditors might want the goods (a lien creditor is one whose claim is based on operation of law—involuntarily against Debtor, and including a trustee in bankruptcy—as opposed to one whose claim is based on agreement); lien creditors may be statutory (landlords, mechanics, bailees) or judicial. Third, a bankruptcy trustee representing Debtor’s creditors (independent of the trustee’s role as a lien creditor) might want to take the goods to sell and satisfy Debtor’s obligations to the creditors. Fourth, unsecured creditors; fifth, secured creditors; and sixth, secured and perfected creditors. We will examine some of the possible permutations but are compelled to observe that this area of law has many fine nuances, not all of which can be taken up here.
First we look at buyers who take priority over, or free of, unperfected security interests. Buyers who take delivery of many types of collateral covered by an unperfected security interest win out over the hapless secured party who failed to perfect if they give value and don’t know of the security interest or agricultural lien.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-317(b). A buyer who doesn’t give value or who knows of the security interest will not win out, nor will a buyer prevail if the seller’s creditor files a financing statement before or within twenty days after the debtor receives delivery of the collateral.
Now we look at buyers who take priority over perfected security interests. Sometimes people who buy things even covered by a perfected security interest win out (the perfected secured party loses).
- Buyers in the ordinary course of business. “A buyer in the ordinary course of business, other than [one buying farm products from somebody engaged in farming] takes free of a security interest created by the buyer’s seller, even if the security interest is perfected and the buyer knows [it].”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-320(a). Here the buyer is usually purchasing inventory collateral, and it’s OK if he knows the inventory is covered by a security interest, but it’s not OK if he knows “that the sale violates a term in an agreement with the secured party.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-320, Comment 3. It would not be conducive to faith in commercial transactions if buyers of inventory generally had to worry whether their seller’s creditors were going to repossess the things the buyers had purchased in good faith. For example (based on example 1 to the same comment, UCC 9-320, Official Comment 3), Manufacturer makes appliances and owns manufacturing equipment covered by a perfected security agreement in favor of Lender. Manufacturer sells the equipment to Dealer, whose business is buying and selling used equipment; Dealer, in turn, sells the stuff to Buyer, a buyer in the ordinary course. Does Buyer take free of the security interest? No, because Dealer didn’t create it; Manufacturer did.
- Buyers of consumer goods purchased for personal, family, or household use take free of security interests, even if perfected, so long as they buy without knowledge of the security interest, for value, for their own consumer uses, and before the filing of a financing statement covering the goods. This—again—is the rub when a seller of consumer goods perfects by “mere attachment” (automatic perfection) and the buyer of the goods turns around and sells them. For example, Tom buys a new refrigerator from Sears, which perfects by mere attachment. Tom has cash flow problems and sells the fridge to Ned, his neighbor. Ned doesn’t know about Sears’s security interest and pays a reasonable amount for it. He puts it in his kitchen for home use. Sears cannot repossess the fridge from Ned. If it wanted to protect itself fully, Sears would have filed a financing statement; then Ned would be out the fridge when the repo men came.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-320(b). The “value” issue is interestingly presented in the Nicolosi case (Section 11.5).
- Buyers of farm products. The UCC itself does not protect buyers of farm products from security interests created by “the person engaged in farming operations who is in the business of selling farm products,” and the result was that sometimes the buyer had to pay twice: once to the farmer and again to the lender whom the farmer didn’t pay. As a result, Congress included in its 1985 Farm Security Act, 7 USC 1631, Section 1324, this language: “A buyer who in the ordinary course of business buys a farm product from a seller engaged in farming operations shall take free of a security interest created by the seller, even though the security interest is perfected; and the buyer knows of the existence of such interest.”
There are some other exceptions, beyond our scope here.
Persons (including bankruptcy trustees) who become lien creditors before the security interest is perfected win out—the unperfected security interest is subordinate to lien creditors. Persons who become lien creditors after the security interest is perfected lose (subject to some nuances in situations where the lien arises between attachment by the creditor and the filing, and depending upon the type of security interest and the type of collateral).Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-317(a)(2)(B) and 9-317(e). More straightforwardly, perhaps, a lien securing payment or performance of an obligation for services or materials furnished with respect to goods by a person in the ordinary course of business has priority over other security interests (unless a statute provides otherwise).Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-333. This is the bailee or “material man” (one who supplies materials, as to build a house) with a lien situation. Garage Mechanic repairs a car in which Owner has previously given a perfected security interest to Bank. Owner doesn’t pay Bank. Bank seeks to repossess the car from Mechanic. It will have to pay the Mechanic first. And why not? If the car was not running, Bank would have to have it repaired anyway.
To what extent can the bankruptcy trustee take property previously encumbered by a security interest? It depends. If the security interest was not perfected at the time of filing for bankruptcy, the trustee can take the collateral.11 United States Code, Section 544 (Bankruptcy Act). If it was perfected, the trustee can’t take it, subject to rules on preferential transfers: the Bankruptcy Act provides that the trustee can avoid a transfer of an interest of the debtor in property—including a security interest—(1) to or for the benefit of a creditor, (2) on or account of an antecedent debt, (3) made while the debtor was insolvent, (4) within ninety days of the bankruptcy petition date (or one year, for “insiders”—like relatives or business partners), (5) which enables the creditor to receive more than it would have in the bankruptcy.United States Code, Section 547. There are further bankruptcy details beyond our scope here, but the short of it is that sometimes creditors who think they have a valid, enforceable security interest find out that the bankruptcy trustee has snatched the collateral away from them.
Deposit accounts perfected by control. A security interest in a deposit account (checking account, savings account, money-market account, certificate of deposit) takes priority over security interests in the account perfected by other means, and under UCC Section 9-327(3), a bank with which the deposit is made takes priority over all other conflicting security agreements.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-327(1). For example, a debtor enters into a security agreement with his sailboat as collateral. The creditor perfects. The debtor sells the sailboat and deposits the proceeds in his account with a bank; normally, the creditor’s interest would attach to the proceeds. The debtor next borrows money from the bank, and the bank takes a security interest in the debtor’s account by control. The debtor defaults. Who gets the money representing the sailboat’s proceeds? The bank does. The rationale: “this…enables banks to extend credit to their depositors without the need to examine [records] to determine whether another party might have a security interest in the deposit account.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 9-328, Official Comment 3 and 4.
Who among competing creditors gets the collateral if the debtor defaults? The general rule on priorities is that the first to secure most completely wins: if all competitors have perfected, the first to do so wins. If one has perfected and the others have not, the one who perfects wins. If all have attached, the first to attach wins. If none have attached, they’re all unsecured creditors. To this general rule there are a number of exceptions. Purchase-money security interests in goods and inventory prevail over previously perfected secured parties in the same goods and inventory (subject to some requirements); fixture financers who file properly have priority over previously perfected mortgagees. Buyers in the ordinary course of business take free of a security interest created by their seller, so long as they don’t know their purchase violates a security agreement. Buyers of consumer goods perfected by mere attachment win out over the creditor who declined to file. Buyers in the ordinary course of business of farm products prevail over the farmer’s creditors (under federal law, not the UCC). Lien creditors who become such before perfection win out; those who become such after perfection usually lose. Bailees in possession and material men have priority over previous perfected claimants. Bankruptcy trustees win out over unperfected security interests and over perfected ones if they are considered voidable transfers from the debtor to the secured party. Deposit accounts perfected by control prevail over previously perfected secured parties in the same deposit accounts.
- What is the general rule regarding priorities for the right to repossess goods encumbered by a security interest when there are competing creditors clamoring for that right?
- Why does it make good sense to allow purchase-money security creditors in (1) inventory, (2) equipment, and (3) fixtures priority over creditors who perfected before the PMSI was perfected?
- A buyer in the ordinary course of business is usually one buying inventory. Why does it make sense that such a buyer should take free of a security interest created by his seller?