De Facto Director Ordered to Compensate Unpaid Supplier Following Insolvent Trading

Tremco Pty Ltd ACN 000 024 064 v Thomson & Ors [2018] QDC 101

Case Facts
The plaintiff (Tremco) was the principle supplier of waterproofing materials to a waterproofing business (Kadoe). The defendant (Thomson) was the wife of the formally appointed director of this business. In this proceeding, Tremco sought to recover compensation from the wife under s 588M(3) Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) for losses suffered in relation to unpaid debts.

The debt arose from unpaid invoices beginning in March 2010. In November 2010, the defendant’s account was put on hold. By December 2010, the amount owing to the plaintiff totalled $146,410.20.

In 2015 Tremco brought proceedings against Kadoe for the outstanding debts and obtained a judgment in their favour. Subsequently, Kadoe failed to comply with a statutory demand based on the judgement and was wound up in insolvency on 29 April 2015. The defendant’s husband was made bankrupt in June 2015. Tremco sought compensation for the expenses incurred in this process.

Legal Principles
Section 588M(1) sets out several conditions which must be satisfied before compensation under section 588M(3) can be recovered. The condition in dispute in this case was s 588M(1)(a), which imposes a requirement that, in order to recover compensation, a person (a director) has contravened s 588G(2) or (3) in relation to the incurring of a debt by a company. The key question was therefore whether the defendant was a director within the meaning of director as defined in s 9 of the Act during the alleged period of insolvent trading.

Tremco argued that the defendant was a de facto director of the company due to her involvement in the setting up of the company in 2009 and subsequent management position in the company. The defendant disputed this claim arguing that the company was supposed to be incorporated as a trust. The defendant’s argument was that the setting up of the trust had failed and hence the company had not been trading in its own right.

In support of their claim that the defendant was a de facto director, Tremco pointed to several factors. First, that by the defendants own account, she had been responsible for setting up the Company and the Trust. Second that the defendant had significant involvement and control over the day to day operations of the business including a self-identification as the ‘General Manager’.

In response to Tremco’s assertions, the defendant argued that she had only been a conduit on behalf of her husband in setting up the trust and in any event the incorporation of the trust had failed. In regard to her involvement the defendant relied on the case of Re Swan Services Pty Ltd (In Liquidation) [2016] NSWSC 1724, arguing that her role was only as wife who became involved in the affairs of the company to address the emergency of the invalidity of the Trust. This claim was rejected on the basis that her involvement went far beyond emergency assistance and involved conducting the dispute over the alleged invalid trust for the Company over many years.

Decision
Porter DCJ QC held that the plaintiff was entitled to recover for loss or damage under s 588M. His Honour found that the defendant was a de facto director of the company at all times due to the system of shared management; the husband was responsible for onsite activities whilst the wife was responsible for the operational and administrative affairs of the company. His Honour, in reference to the authority of Grimaldi v Chameleon Mining NL (No 2) (2012) 287 ALR 22, noted the presence of several factors leading to this decision:

  • the defendant had independent authority to negotiate and manage matters of importance on behalf of Kadoe and could go further and bind Kadoe in relation to those matters;
  • The defendant’s husband had little, if any, oversight or involvement in those matters and largely left executive decision making to her in many areas.

With the question of the defendants status settled, his Honour found that the defendant was in a position to determine the solvency of the business and had reasonable grounds to suspect the company was insolvent during the relevant time period.

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