Extending time for convening the second meeting of creditors

In January Gardiner AsJ delivered his reasons for orders made in December 2016 granting an extension of time for the convening of the second creditors’ meeting in Re Southern Riverina Dairy Group Pty Ltd (Administrators appointed) [2017] VSC 4. The case provides a handy reminder of when such orders are likely to be made, and the judgment includes a useful summary of the key legal principles and the reasons for which the courts tend to grant such extensions.

Facts

Southern Riverina Diary Group Pty Ltd operated a 320 hectare dairy farm in southern New South Wales, and milked about 750 cows. In 2016 Souther Riverina experienced financial difficulties. It reached a point where it was unable to meet its financial obligations, became the subject of various court judgments in 2016 and was facing a pending wind up application. (There was evidence that the petitioning creditor’s issues with the Company had been resolved, but that another creditor had applied to be substituted as petitioning creditor.) The Company had seven employees and it appeared the ATO may be owed unpaid Superannuation Guarantee Charges. There were multiple secured creditors owed a total amount of approximately $2.7 million, and a preliminary assessment of the total of unsecured debts was in excess of $4.569 million.

The Administrators of Southern Riverina – Glenn Franklin, Jason Stone and Petr Vrsecky – had been appointed by secured creditors of the Company under s 436C of the Corporations Act on 6 December 2016. If not extended, the convening period for the second meeting of creditors was to expire on 12 January 2017, pursuant to s 439A(5)(a) (see [2]).

The Administrators’ application for extension of time was heard on 19 December 2016. There was evidence of several DOCA proposals in the process of being formulated, but not yet submitted . One of the directors had asked for more time to formulate a DOCA proposal, and requested the second creditors meeting be held after 7 February 2017. Another potential investor was interested in putting forward a DOCA proposal but required until February 2017. There was a further complication in that one potential investor would need to go through the Foreign Investment Review Board process, which was said to take six weeks.

The Administrators submitted that they needed the further time to complete their investigations into the Company’s affairs, and to prepare a proper and informative report to creditors. The report is required to contain their opinions and the reasons for those opinions pursuant to s 439A(4) of the Act, as to whether it would be in the creditors’ interests for the Company to execute a proposed DOCA, for the administration to end, or for the Company to be wound up. This is difficult to do when the DOCA proposals were not yet received and able to be considered as to merit, and comparisons reached as to likely returns under those proposals as compared with a liquidation.

Unusually, the Administrators filed the application prior to holding the first creditors meeting (at [24]). This was because of the timing of the administration and the looming interruption of the Christmas period. The meeting was held several days before the hearing, and the evidence was that all creditors in attendance had indicated their support of the extension of time (including the creditor who had applied to be substituted as petitioning creditor in the wind up application). No objection was raised. The secured creditors who were owed the majority of secured debt had informed the Administrators they had no objection. Other secured creditors had not attended the first meeting nor given their proxy. His Honour observed that presumably, given the attitude of the proposed substituted creditor, it would assent to an adjournment of the winding up application, which would be a powerful factor in the exercise of the Court’s discretion under s 440A(2) of the Act when that matter returned to Court on 25 January 2017.

On 19 December 2016 his Honour made the orders extending the convening period under s 439A(6). The primary reasons (cited at [5]) for the Administrators’ seeking the extension were –

(a) to facilitate the progression and consider the proposals intended to be made for a DOCA,

(b) so the Administrators could be in a position to prepare a report to creditors in advance of the second meeting containing the requisite opinions as to the three options referred to in s 439A(4).

Legal Principles and Key Factors 

The principles to be applied in these applications have been summarised by Judd J in Algeri; Re Colorado Group Ltd [2011] VSC 260 and by Dodds-Streeton J in Re FEA Plantations Ltd [2010] FCA 468.

In Re Colorado Group, Judd J observed at [24] –

When an application is made for an extension of time to convene a meeting, the court will attempt to strike a balance between the expectation that the administration will be conducted relatively speedily and summarily, and the need to ensure that undue speed will not prejudice sensible and constructive actions directed towards maximising the return for creditors and shareholders. Where the relevant business group is large and complex, or there is a prospect of successful realisation of assets through negotiations with third parties, as in the present case, the administration process is often given more time. There is no place for a predisposition against granting an extension.

In Re FEA Plantations Ltd (quoted with approval by Judd J in Re Colorado Group), Dodds-Streeton J observed at [19] –

Relevant authorities recognise that strict compliance with the tight timeframes for convening the second meeting (statutorily imposed to avoid the prolongation of the voluntary administration procedure and its concomitant moratorium and impact on rights) may not be feasible in large and complex administrations, if the administrators are to produce informed recommendations based on adequate investigations, and a sufficiently comprehensive and detailed report capable of providing meaningful assistance to the creditors in deciding the fate of the company.”

In Re Riviera Group Pty Ltd [2009] NSWSC 585; (2009) 72 ACSR 352 at [13] Austin J had noted that extensions had been granted for the following broad categories of reasons –

  1. The size and scope of the business,
  2. Substantial offshore activities,
  3. Large number of employees with complex entitlements,
  4. Complex corporate group structure and intracompany loans,
  5. Complex transactions entered into by the company (for example securities lending or derivatives transactions),
  6. Complex prospects of recovery proceedings,
  7. The time needed to execute an orderly process of disposal of assets,
  8. The time needed for thorough assessment of a proposal for a deed of company arrangement,
  9. Where the extension will allow sale of the business as a going concern,
  10. More generally, that additional time is likely to enhance the return for unsecured creditors.

(See the passages set out at [26] of Gardiner AsJ’s judgment and the cases there cited for each of these categories.)

Application of Principles

Gardiner AsJ noted that in Re Colorado Group Judd J had pointed to the administrators’ inability to prepare and circular a meaningful report to creditors so as to comply with their obligations under s 439A(4) of the Act. Similarly here, Gardiner AsJ found that the preparation of such a report in the absence of receipt and analysis of the foreshadowed DOCA proposals, would be premature.

His Honour also noted that in Re Diamond Press Australia Pty Ltd [2001] NSWSC 313, Barrett J considered that the Court’s function was to strike a balance between the expectation that the administration would be speedy, and the requirement that undue speed should not prejudice sensible and constructive actions directed towards maximising the return to creditors.

Based on the evidence in this case, Gardiner AsJ identified the following factors as prominent and in favour of the grant of the extension sought (at [29]) –

  1. the time needed for a thorough assessment of DOCA proposals,
  2. additional time was likely to enhance the return for unsecured creditors, and
  3. it would enable the preparation of a report which complied with the requirements of s 439A(4) of the Act.

Gardiner AsJ also took into account in this case the following factors (note there is some overlap between these factors set out from [31] and summarised below, and those his Honour identified as prominent at [29]) –

  1. the fact that the extension proposed was modest and was focussed around information received as to the timing of DOCA proposals – at [31]. (As to the former, without the extension the report to creditors would need to be issued by 23 December 2016 and the second meeting held by 10 January 2017 – see [21].)
  2. the intervention of the Christmas holiday period – at [32]-[33]
  3. the need for there to be fully formed proposals capable of proper analysis, in order for administrators to form opinions and produce a proper report to creditors in accordance with their statutory obligations – see discussion at [34]
  4. whether the creditors generally support the extension – they did – see [35]
  5.  if no extension were granted, the administrators would be forced to convene the second creditors meeting and recommend it be adjourned and held at a later time, with the associated wasted expenditure – see [36]
  6. there was evidence of a potential better return to creditors on a DOCA as opposed to an immediate winding up, a matter that has been recognised as relevant to the balancing exercise the Court undertakes on an extension application – [37] & [39]
  7. the significant factor of any material prejudice to those affected by the moratorium imposed by administrations, including lessors of property. Here those owners, although informed, had not taken objection to the proposed extension. There was no evidence of likely prejudice to them, and indeed the potential for benefit. The majority secured creditors supported the extension – [38].

His Honour held there were substantial grounds for making the order sought for extension of time under s 439A(6) of the Act. His Honour also made several ancillary orders, including a Daisytek order, permitting the administrators to convene the second meeting at any time during the extended convening period or within 5 business days thereafter.  (see [40]-[44])

Comment

This decision provides a handy reminder of the key legal principles that apply and the categories of factors which will tend a Court to favour the granting of an application for extending the convening period of a second meeting of creditors in a voluntary administration.

Practitioners should take care when it comes to preparation of the affidavit evidence . Note that even where there may be an apparently good case with factors favouring an extension of time, practitioners should also be mindful of matters tending against. It is important to consider the impact of an extension, and to inform the Court with evidence of any prejudice that an extension may occasion, as well as the attitude of creditors to the proposed extension. Without this evidence properly put before it, the Court cannot weigh up reasons to extend against the consequences of an extension, and may be less likely to grant the order sought. As Gardiner AsJ observed at [30], the Court will be mindful as to whether –

  1. the evidentiary case has been properly prepared,
  2. there is no evidence of material prejudice to those affected by the moratorium imposed by an administration, and
  3. the Court is satisfied that the administrators’ estimate of time has a reasonable basis.

(These remarks of his Honour at [30] set out the matters drawn from the judgment of Austin J in Re Riviera at [14].)