When sales tax threatens a business: Chapter 11 may be the answer

When I became aware of a popular local restaurant and bar recently close its doors due to unpaid sales tax and subsequent state shutdown, I had to wonder why no one suggested that the owners file a Chapter 11 business reorganization. True, I cannot be sure that the owners did not consult an attorney and make the decision not to file Chapter 11, but I have my doubts. The establishment was a long-standing popular Minneapolis hotspot, overflowing with patrons bursting out the doors even on weeknights—how could they not be making a decent profit? The zoning of the neighborhood may be to blame, which dictates a mandatory portion of receipts must be from food rather than alcohol, or the sales tax and penalties spike. Here in Minnesota, if a business that sells alcohol is delinquent in paying its sales tax, it can expect to have its liquor license posted within a month. Once a liquor license is posted, the business is not allowed to purchase liquor from wholesalers and distributors until they pay the tax in full, thereby leaving the business with a dwindling supply of inventory to sell to the public while it tries to generate enough revenue to pay the tax bill. Unlike other types of creditors that may be more negotiable, the state’s taxing authority is an unyielding force of government that demands payment under the threat of immediate adverse action. With the Minnesota Department of Revenue, you have to pay to play, and if you want to run a bar, you better pay your sales tax on time each month.

With one not-so-obvious exception: Chapter 11 business reorganization. While this means a business must file for bankruptcy, bankruptcy doesn’t necessarily mean it will go out of business. Quite the opposite—Chapter 11 is a mechanism established under federal law that provides significant flexibility for businesses to reorganize any number of liabilities so long as they can achieve future cash flow to actually stay in business. First and foremost, from the moment the Chapter 11 is filed, the state cannot post the liquor license—this is why it’s so important to head off the posting ideally before it happens. As for resolving the unpaid sales tax bill, the Bankruptcy Code generously allows businesses five years to repay federal and state tax liabilities. A five-year tax repayment plan sure beats the one month notice of liquor license posting.

Of course, other debts can also be reorganized in Chapter 11. Unsecured debt may be reduced to a fraction and paid over time while secured debts and financing agreements may likewise be restructured over more time with principal and interest reduced, and any other number of issues are given more flexibility inside a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. It should go without saying that, just as with most everything in life, it’s best to explore the bankruptcy option as early as possible and get an idea of what Chapter 11 may look like under your business’s specific circumstances.

The best general advice for a restaurant or bar struggling under sales tax liability: Talk to an attorney that does Chapter 11, and ideally before things go from bad to worse. Even if “bankruptcy” has not been part of your vocabulary before, it could be the solution that keeps your doors open and gets your business back in the black. As for the local favorite restaurant and bar I mentioned earlier in this post, I wish we had met sooner and hope you reopen soon.

Keep reading for more information about Sales Tax Obligations and Chapter 11 Business Reorganization.

Attorney Lynn Wartchow has represented Chapter 11 business reorganizations proceedings involving restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other businesses in Minneapolis since 2008.