Receipt of goods under the CISG: a threshold question when an American buyer is going bankrupt

I. Introduction 

In 2005, the U.S. Congress adopted the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which, among other things, incorporated an effective protection for sellers of goods when a bankrupt buyer received them without paying[1]. Less than 10 years after, two recent decisions of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania made this protection less effective when the sale is governed by the UN Convention on the International Sale of Goods (hereafter the « CISG »)[2].

In the present paper, we will first expose the general context of the litigation (I), then discuss the interpretation of this protection in US case law (II). We will after explain why the CISG applies in the cases at hand (III). Finally, we will expose why the Court went wrong in its interpretation of the CISG (IV).

II. Legal and factual framework

The effective protection incorporated under section 503(b)(9) of the Bankruptcy Code states that the unpaid seller of a bankrupt buyer should be allowed administrative expenses[3] amounting the value of the goods. The Bankruptcy Code provides two conditions for this provision to apply. On the one hand, the transaction must occur within the ordinary course of debtor’s business. On the other hand, there is a strict time limit: the debtor shall have received the goods less than 20 days before going bankrupt.

The facts under which the discussed decisions arose are common and straightforward. Chinese sellers sent goods to an American buyer[4]. The goods were shipped FOB from different Chinese harbors more than 20 days before the bankruptcy proceeding began but arrived in the United States less than 20 days before. The core issue was to determine when the goods where received in the meaning of section 503(b)(9), in order to determine the starting point of the 20 days period.

 III. The interpretation of « received» under article 2 of the U.C.C.

The term « received » is not defined in section 503(b)(9) neither in the US Bankruptcy Code itself[5], and courts agree that the definition must be found in article 2 of the Uniform Code of Commerce (the « UCC »)[6]. This statute defines the « receipt of goods » as « taking physical possession of them »[7]. Despite the express reference to physical possession in the UCC, courts stated that possession could also be constructive[8].

It is worth noting that this definition is a uniform federal interpretation. Indeed, referring to a state interpretation of section 503(b)(9) would be impracticable in the context of large bankruptcies, given that the bankruptcy judge would have to look to the conflict of law rules of each interested state to determine the law applicable to the claim, then would define the word « received » in that law and finally apply this definition to the claim at hand[9].

IV. A different definition when the CISG governs the sale of goods: two decisions of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Despite this uniform interpretation, the US Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania decided that the CISG shall provide the definition of the word « received » when this Convention governs the sale of goods[10]. Even if the Court went fast on this point, we will present the exhaustive analysis of the application criteria of the CISG.

In fact, five conditions have to be met for the CISG to apply. First, the contract shall be a sale of goods. Even if the CISG itself does not define what a sale of goods is, case law has defined this notion by interpreting articles 30 and 53: « a sales contract is a contract by which the seller is obliged to deliver goods, transfer the property in the goods and eventually hand over all the documents relating to the goods, while the buyer is obliged to pay the price and take delivery of the goods[11]. » Secondly, the object of the contract shall be tangible and movable goods[12]. Thirdly, the contract shall be international, which means, under article 1(1) of the CISG, that the parties have their places of business in different states. Fourthly, an additional applicability criteria requires that the states in which the parties have their places of business are signatories of the CISG[13] or that the international private law rules of the forum lead to the application of the law of a contracting state of the CISG[14]. Finally, the parties shall not have agreed to exclude the CISG[15].

In the cases at hand, no doubt exists on the application of the CISG. There are sales of goods between parties having their places of business in different countries. Both China and the US are signatories to the CISG, and the parties did not exclude it.

V. The definition of the « receipt of goods» shall be based on the CISG, but not following the reasoning adopted by the Court

As the CISG applies, the Court was correct when stating that this Convention displaces the traditional definition found in the UCC (a), but erred in its interpretation of the CISG, mixing the interpretation of the Convention itself with the interpretation of parties’ intention (b). And since the parties did not modify the CISG provisions on the receipt of goods, the general principles of the CISG provide the definition of « receipt of goods » (c).

a. Interpretation of receipt of goods under the CISG: a case of first impression

As the CISG is the applicable law, the Court noted that it displaces the UCC[16]. Therefore, it displaces the interpretation of the « receipt of goods » as stated under article 2 of the UCC, only if this concept falls within the scope of the Convention. As article 4 of the CISG does not exclude the « receipt of goods » from the scope of the Convention, the above-mentioned case law based on article 2 of the UCC shall be disregarded. The interpretation of « receipt of goods » under the CISG is a case of first impression[17].

b. The Court baldy interpreted the CISG

This word « receipt » is not defined in the CISG[18], so that the Court shall interpret this Convention to determine the meaning of this concept. The reasoning of the Court on how to interpret the CISG is unfortunately very short and confusing. The Court decided first to rely on the gap-filling analysis under article 7(2), which requires interpreting the text of the CISG in accordance with the general principles on which it is based. Then, without any explanation of the relationship between both articles, the Court referred to article 9(2) of the Convention, which deals with the implicit application of international trade practice. On such basis, the Court held that the parties have impliedly made the Incoterms FOB applicable and that, under the Incoterms provisions on transfer of risks, the receipt was concomitant to the delivery by the seller, which occurred when the risks were transferred[19].

This reasoning mixes the interpretation of the CISG itself, governed by article 7, with the interpretation of parties’ agreement, provided in articles 8 and 9. The interpretation of the CISG itself, as opposed to the interpretation of the contractual framework, is convincing when the parties did not agree to derogate from CISG’s default provisions. On the contrary, when, under article 6 of the CISG, the parties derogated from the Convention, their intention shall be interpreted. Seeing the inconsistent provisions invoked by the Court, the question is whether the Incoterms provide a definition of « receipt of the goods », so that the court wrongly referred to article 7(2), or whether the Incoterms are not dealing with the receipt of the goods, so that the court correctly referred to article 7(2) but should have analyzed the general principles surrounding the CISG. In our opinion, the answer is the latter.

c. The parties did not modify the CISG provisions on the receipt of the goods

In the present case, the Court considered that the FOB term provided a contractual definition of the « receipt of goods ». The Court, in the decisions at hand, did not explain why its reasoning is limited to the transfer of risks. In the decision of 10 September 2014, plaintiffs were challenging the use, in the first decision, of the Incoterms as an interpretation tool to define the « receipt of the goods ». The Court refused to revise its position, stating first that there is « no reason to look outside the Incoterms for a definition of « receipt[20] » », given that the seller delivers the goods when they are placed on board of the vessel, and that this event is concomitant to the receipt of the goods by the buyer. Secondly, it refused to consider that the Incoterms make a distinction between delivery and receipt of goods[21].

This focus on transfer of risk is absolutely not convincing. Indeed, the definition of « receipt of goods » is not univocal, but can revert to different moments: when the risk of loss passes, when the title passes or when a party takes possession of the goods[22]. Therefore, the Court shall first determine the definition of « receipt of goods » under the CISG. Then, if this definition reverts to a provision superseded by the Incoterms, such as article 67(1) of the CISG on the transfer of risks[23], the Court shall apply trade terms.

d. General principles of the CISG concerning the receipt of goods

Article 7(2) helps to fulfill internal gaps, by referring to general principles and, in absence of such principles, by referring to the rules of private international law of the applicable law[24]. Concerning the « receipt of goods », a general principle can be deducted from different provisions of the CISG, which distinguishes this concept from the transfer of risks and reverts to possession by the buyer.

First, article 38 deals with the examination of the goods by the buyer. The receipt of goods is very important in this context, as it fixes the point in time from which the « short period » to examine the goods runs[25]. For contracts involving the carriage of goods, article 38 states that the examination can only occur when the goods arrive at destination. When trade terms such as FOB are used, delivery occurs when the goods are transferred to the first carrier. At this time, it is impossible, or at least unreasonable, that the buyer examines the goods. Therefore, article 38(2) provides that such examination can only be performed when the goods are at destination[26]. Thus, the CISG makes a distinction between the delivery by the seller, which occurs when the goods are handled over to the first carrier, and the reception by the buyer, which occurs when the goods are at destination. In the present cases, the former reverts to transfer of risks, governed by the Incoterms. The latter concerns receipt of goods, which occurs when the buyer takes possession of them.

In the same way, article 58 states that, unless otherwise agreed, the buyer must pay the price when the seller places the goods, or documents controlling their disposition, « at the disposal » of the buyer[27]. The threshold question to determine disposal of the goods is « the right to possession of the goods[28] ». When a sale of goods involves a carriage, the disposal takes place when the goods are at the place of destination, i.e. when the carrier passes the goods to the buyer[29]. This reverts to the possession of the goods by the buyer. This focus on possession has been confirmed by the CISG Advisory Council in its opinion no. 11, which stated, in analyzing which documents constitute a constructive possession, that the buyer may not be left in the position of having to pay for goods when the right to possession can still be transferred[30].

Hence, it arises out of these articles that the CISG distinguishes the transfer of risk from the receipt of goods by the buyer. And definition of « receipt of goods » reverts to the possession of the goods by the buyer. As the Incoterms deal with transfer of risks, the agreement of the parties does not change this definition in the present case. Concretely, this means that the American buyer received the goods when they arrived in the US harbor, and the Chinese sellers are entitled to an administrative expense.

VI. Conclusion

Two principles govern the interpretation of article 503(b)(9) of the US Bankruptcy Code in the context of an international sale of goods under the CISG. First, the CISG provides the definition of the word « received », dismissing the uniform federal interpretation found in article 2 of the UCC.  Secondly, the general principles surrounding the CISG distinguish the receipt from the transfer of risks, and state that the receipt occurs when the buyer takes possession of the goods.

Concerning the first principle, one may regret that this conclusion sounds the death knell of uniform federal interpretation of section 503(b)(9). However, from a practical perspective, the unmanageable burden of various states’ definitions, which was the rationale for uniformity, is not relevant, as every case governed by the CISG will use the same interpretation, unless the parties otherwise agree.

On the second one, the proposed solution reconciliates the CISG with US law. Indeed, shortly after the issue of the commented decisions, some law firms advised, among other tools, to exclude the CISG when contracting with a US buyer, in order to enjoy the broader protection of article 503(b)(b) interpreted under article 2 of the UCC[31]. If US courts adopt the interpretation proposed in this paper, the CISG will continue to be an interesting legal framework for international sales of goods when the buyer is American.

 

Alexandre Hublet

The author is a Class of 2015 LL.M student in the International Business Regulation, Litigation and Arbitration program at the New York University School of Law. He obtained his law degree at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in 2012, after which he took the oath at the Brussels’ bar and worked for two years in a major Belgian law firm. In the mean time, he collaborated with the Perelman Center for Legal Philosophy at the ULB, focusing his research on global justice.

____________________________

[1] See section 503(b)(9) of the US Bankruptcy Code; In re Momenta, Inc., 455 B.R. 353 (2011)

[2] In re World Imps., Ltd., 511 B.R. 738 (18 June 2014) and In re World Imps., 2014 Bankr. LEXIS 3858 (10 September 2014)

[3] An administrative claim is « a first priority claim that is much more likely than a general unsecured claim to be paid in full or substantially in full upon any distribution to creditors. » See Michael A. Tessitore, The U.N. Convention on International Sales and the Seller’s Ineffective Right of Reclamation Under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, 35 Willamette L. Rev. 367 (1999), p. 383

[4] In fact each case concerns two Chinese exporters. In the June 18’s case, one exporter sent all the goods to the buyer, the second one sent a part directly to the buyer’s consumers, the other to the buyer. As the Court dismissed the case because of the 20 days limitation, it made no distinction between the goods sent to the buyer and the goods sent to the consumers. In the September 10’s case, one of the exporter sent all the goods directly to the buyer’s consumers. The other exporter sent a part of the goods directly to the buyer’s consumers, the other to the buyer. The Court dismissed the claim of the first corporation because the buyer never received the goods. The goods sent directly to the buyer were shipped less than 20 days before the bankruptcy, so that there was no time issue. However, the Chinese exporters contested the reasoning of the June 18’s case, but the court affirmed its position. See In re World Imps., Ltd., op. cit. (18 June 2014) and In re World Imps., op. cit. (10 September 2014)

[5] In re Wezbra, 455 B.R. 493 (2013), p. 770; In re Momenta, Inc., 455 B.R. 353 (2011), at 358

[6] In re Circuit City Stores, Inc., 432 B.R. 225, 228 (Bankr.E.D.Va.2010), at 228 ; In re Momenta, Inc., op. cit.. ; In re Wezbra, op. cit., p. 770-771

[7] Even if both statutes do not use the same wording, Courts consider both expressions as functional equivalent (see In re Circuit City Stores Inc., op. cit., at 229)

[8] The detailed reasoning can be found in In Re Momenta, op. cit., at 361; see also In re Wezbra, op. cit., p. 771

[9] In re Circuit City Stores Inc., op. cit., at 228

[10] In re World Imps., Ltd., op. cit. (18 June 2014), p.6

[11] Tribunale di Forli, 11 December 2008 at 2.2, available at http://cisgw3.law.pace.edu/cases/081211i3.html

[12] Tribunale di Forli, op. cit., at 2.3. The present cases do not mention the type of goods involved. As the issue is not raised, we will assume these are tangible and movable goods.

[13] Art. 1(1)(a) of the CISG

[14] Art. 1(1)(b) of the CISG; please note that both United States and China made a reservation under article 95 of the CISG not to be bound by article 1(1)(b)

[15] Art. 6 of the CISG

[16] In re World Imps., op. cit. (18 June 2014), p. 6

[17] In re World Imps., op. cit. (18 June 2014), p. 6

[18] In re World Imps., op. cit. (18 June 2014), p. 6

[19] In re World Imps., op. cit. (18 June 2014), pp. 6-8

[20] In re World Imps., op. cit. (10 September 2014), pp. 6

[21] In re World Imps., op. cit. (10 September 2014), pp. 5-7

[22] In re momenta, op. cit., at. 358

[23] J. CUOTZEE, The interplay between Incoterms © and the CISG, Journal of Law & Commerce, Vol 23, No. 1 (2013), p. 12

[24] H. MATHER,Choice of Law for International Sales Issues not Resolved by the CISG, 20 Journal of Law and Commerce 155 (2001), pp 156-158

[25] P. SCHLECHTRIEM & I. SCHWENZER, Commentary on the UN Convention on the International Sale of Goods (CISG), third edition, Oxford, 2010, pp. 607 et s.

[26] Id., p. 618

[27] See art. 58 of the CISG

[28] CISG Advisory Council Opinion, no. 11, at 5.3, available at http://www.cisg.law.pace.edu/cisg/CISG-AC-op11.html

[29] P. SCHLECHTRIEM & I. SCHWENZER, op. cit., pp. 847-848

[30] CISG Advisory Council Opinion, no. 11, op. cit., at 5.3

[31] See Gibson Dunn, International Shipments Deemed “Received” by Debtor When Delivered to Common Carrier “FOB Port of Origin” – Rather Than Physically Received – for Purposes of Granting an Administrative Expense Claim Under Section 503(B)(9) of the Bankruptcy Code, Aug. 18 2014 available at http://www.gibsondunn.com/publications/pages/International-Shipments-Deemed-Received-by-Debtor-When-Delivered-to-Common%20Carrier-FOB-Port-of-Origin.aspx; Montgomery McCracken, Bankruptcy and Commercial Transactions with Foreign Entities: What Law Governs?, July 8, 2014, available at http://www.mmwr.com/home/news-and-publications/alerts-and-resources/default.aspx?d=5826

The Center for Transnational Litigation and Commercial Law aims at the advancement of the study and practice of international business transactions and the way to solve related disputes either through litigation or arbitration. As commercial transactions become increasingly international, it is vital to the legal and business communities to understand and analyze the practices and legal principles that govern relationships between firms and between firms and consumers in the international arena