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In re Howard's Appliance Corp.

decided: April 25, 1989.

IN RE: HOWARD'S APPLIANCE CORP., DEBTOR. SANYO ELECTRIC, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HOWARD'S APPLIANCE CORP., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal from judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Wexler, J.) affirming in part, reversing in part and remanding order of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York (Holland, J.) upon a holding that defendant-appellee properly relied upon its "strong-arm" powers as debtor-in-possession to avoid unperfected security interest of plaintiff-appellant. Reversed as to the portion of the judgment appealed from.

Pierce and Miner, Circuit Judges, and Pollack, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Miner

MINER, Circuit Judge

Plaintiff-appellant Sanyo Electric, Inc. ("Sanyo") appeals from the portion of a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Wexler, J.) that reversed an order of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York (Holland, J.). Sanyo had entered into a security agreement with defendant-appellee Howard's Appliance Corp. ("Howard"), under the terms of which Howard gave Sanyo a security interest in all Sanyo air conditioners ("collateral") possessed or thereafter acquired by Howard. As the agreement required Howard to keep the air conditioners at its store in Nassau County, New York, Sanyo perfected its security interest in New York only. Howard later began to store the air conditioners at a warehouse in New Jersey without informing Sanyo. Approximately six months after it began to warehouse the air conditioners in New Jersey, Howard filed a voluntary Chapter 11 petition with the Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of New York; Howard continued thereafter in business as a debtor-in-possession, see 11 U.S.C. § 1107 (1982 & Supp. III 1985).

Although it never filed any financing statements in New Jersey, Sanyo moved for relief from the automatic stay imposed by 11 U.S.C. § 362 (1982 & Supp. III 1985) to enable it to proceed against Howard's inventory. Invoking the doctrine of equitable estoppel, the bankruptcy court determined, inter alia, that Sanyo possessed the rights of a holder of a validly perfected security interest in the air conditioners stored in New Jersey, and that Sanyo was entitled to an order vacating the automatic stay or to adequate protection of its interest. See 69 Bankr. 1015 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 1987). The district court reversed this part of the bankruptcy court's order, holding that equitable estoppel was ineffective against Howard's "strong-arm" powers under 11 U.S.C. § 544 (1982 & Supp. III 1985) as a debtor-in-possession. See 91 Bankr. 204 (E.D.N.Y. 1988). Because we look to 11 U.S.C. § 541 (1982 & Supp. III 1985) to impress a constructive trust in Sanyo's favor, we reverse the judgment of the district court and hold that Sanyo's interest in the collateral is superior to that of Howard.

BACKGROUND

Howard, a retailer of home appliances, began purchasing appliances from Sanyo in March 1984. The parties entered into a security agreement on March 12 of that year, giving Sanyo a security interest in all of the goods possessed or acquired by Howard that were manufactured or sold by, or acquired from, Sanyo. Sanyo was given also an interest in the proceeds from the sale of those goods. The agreement provided that "the collateral will be kept at the debtor's place of business located at the address as shown at the beginning of this agreement; and that there are no other places of business of debtor." At that time, Howard operated only one store, located in Nassau County, New York, the address shown on the agreement. In order to perfect its security interest, Sanyo filed a UCC-1 Financing Statement with the Clerk of Nassau County and the Secretary of State of New York on March 30, 1984.

Howard opened a second store, in April 1984, and a third store, in November 1985, both in Suffolk County, New York. Howard then sold its Nassau County store in March 1986, and began operating exclusively in Suffolk County. The Nassau County store, however, continued to operate under the Howard logo; in fact, Howard continued to advertise the store, holding it out to the public as one of its own retail locations. Although Howard never sent Sanyo written notice of the sale, Joel Stern, an independent sales representative who sold Sanyo merchandise to Howard on a commission basis, "informally learned," either in March or April 1986, that the store had been sold; he apparently communicated this knowledge to Sanyo's credit department. Sanyo, however, never filed a financing statement with the Clerk of Suffolk County.

From 1981 to 1986, Howard stored all of its inventory at either its Nassau County store or at one of its retail locations in Suffolk County. Early in 1986, however, Howard began renting space in a public warehouse located in New Jersey (the "Donadio warehouse") to store its inventory. In addition, Howard had manufacturers deliver goods directly to the Donadio warehouse. Howard would not sell the products out of the warehouse; instead, it would have items re-shipped from New Jersey to its New York locations on an "as needed" basis. Significantly, Howard never told Sanyo, either orally or in writing, that goods were being stored in New Jersey; nor did Sanyo file any financing statements in that state.

Sanyo's traffic department learned of the New Jersey location in February 1986, when it shipped, via common carrier, a large supply of air conditioners from its New Jersey factory to the Donadio warehouse. Apparently, the common carrier notified Theresa O'Brien, Sanyo's traffic manager, that Howard had instructed it to deliver the goods to New Jersey. Because it was normal procedure for a customer to change the location to which goods are shipped, O'Brien customarily would change the bill of lading to reflect the new destination, but never reported such changes to any other department at Sanyo, including the credit department. O'Brien followed the customary practice here.

Howard filed a voluntary petition for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. §§ 1101-1174 (1982 & Supp. III 1985), on August 6, 1986. As a result, an automatic stay attached under 11 U.S.C. § 362, which prevented Sanyo from perfecting its security interest in the air conditioners located in New Jersey. By order to show cause dated August 14, 1986, Sanyo moved to lift the stay so that it could foreclose on certain of Howard's inventory, including property stored in Suffolk County and New Jersey, in which it claimed a security interest. Since the date of the filing, Howard has continued to run its business as a debtor-in-possession under 11 U.S.C. § 1107.

At a hearing held on September 2, 1986 before the bankruptcy court, Michael Howard, the president of Howard, testified that the decision to warehouse in New Jersey was dictated by a shortage of space at his New York locations, and that storage in New Jersey was "advantageous" financially. He testified also that he never sent Sanyo formal written notice that Howard was storing Sanyo's goods in New Jersey and never gave Sanyo such notice by telephone. He testified, however, that he advised independent sales representative Joel Stern, perhaps as early as February 1986, that Howard "probably would be warehousing in New Jersey," and that Stern was advised that the goods actually were going to New Jersey "when the merchandise was . . . shipped at a later date, two or three months later." Stern testified that he first became aware that Howard was storing Sanyo inventory in the New Jersey warehouse on approximately August 8, 1986, two days after the filing of the Chapter 11 petition. Ed Toomey, the National Home Credit Manager for Sanyo, testified that Howard never notified Sanyo's credit department. He testified further that he never was informed by Sanyo's traffic department that the goods had been shipped to the Donadio warehouse, and that he first learned of the New Jersey warehouse "two days after the filing of the [Chapter 11] petition when we sent our representatives to take an inventory."*fn1

The bankruptcy court issued its decision on February 26, 1987, concluding that "Sanyo has a validly perfected interest in the goods it supplied to" Howard that were stored both at Howard's retail locations in Suffolk County and at the Donadio warehouse in New Jersey. 69 Bankr. at 1024. As to the Suffolk County merchandise, the court looked to U.C.C. § 9-401(3)*fn2 and determined that the financing statements filed with the Clerk of Nassau County and the Secretary of State survived the "consolidation" of Howard's operations in Suffolk County. Id. at 1019.

Regarding the merchandise stored at the Donadio warehouse, the court noted that, although Sanyo should have filed a financing statement in New Jersey to perfect its security interest in the collateral, see 12 N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 9-302, 9-401(1)(c) (West Supp. 1986),*fn3 principles of equity had to be considered to determine whether Sanyo has a perfected interest despite its failure to file, see id. § 1-103. The court invoked the doctrine of equitable estoppel and, crediting the testimony of Stern and Toomey, found that: Howard "concealed the fact that it was storing the subject inventory in the Donadio warehouse in New Jersey," 69 Bankr. at 1022-23; "no highly placed official from Sanyo was ever directly told by" Howard of this fact, id. at 1023; Howard "expected that its concealment . . . would be relied upon by Sanyo in such a way as to dissuade [Sanyo] from filing a financing statement in New Jersey," id.; by concealing this information from Sanyo, Howard in fact "prevented Sanyo from protecting its security interest by filing in New Jersey," id.; and because "Sanyo did not become aware that its inventory was being stored in New Jersey until the time in which Howard[] filed its Chapter 11 petition, it had no opportunity to ...


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