Last November, the HHR Bankruptcy Report reported on the Supreme Court’s grant of the petition for certiorari in Husky International Electronics, Inc. v. Ritz, a case in which the Fifth Circuit had held that “actual fraud” under section 523(a)(2)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code (which limits the breadth and effect of a debtor’s discharge) required proof of a false representation. Earlier today, in a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court issued its opinion, reversing the Fifth Circuit’s holding and ruling that actual fraud encompasses “fraudulent conveyance schemes, even when those schemes do not involve a false representation.”
In holding that actual fraud “encompasses forms of fraud, like fraudulent conveyance schemes, that can be effected without a false representation,” the Supreme Court looked to congressional intent and the historical meaning of actual fraud. As to congressional intent, the Court explained that before 1978, the Bankruptcy Code prohibited debtors from discharging a debt obtained by “false pretenses or false representations.” In the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, Congress changed the statute such that a debtor cannot discharge a debt obtained by “false pretense, a false representation, or actual fraud.” As Justice Sotomayor explained, it can be presumed “that Congress did not intend ‘actual fraud’ to mean the same thing as a ‘false representation,’ as the Fifth Circuit’s holding suggests.”
Turning to the historical meaning of actual fraud, the Court began its analysis by quoting the original Elizabethan language of the one of the first bankruptcy statutes, the Statute of 13 Elizabeth, also known as Fraudulent Conveyances Act of 1571, which “identified as fraud ‘feigned convenous and fraudulent Feoffmentes Gyftes Grauntes Alientations [and] Conveyaunces’ made with “Intent to delaye hynder or defraude Creditors.’” The Court noted that the principles behind the 1571 Act, which make it fraudulent to hide assets from creditors by giving them to one’s family or friends, are still used and “embedded in laws related to fraud today.” This, the Court explained, “clarifies that the common-law term ‘actual fraud’ is broad enough to incorporate a fraudulent conveyance.” Further, the fact that, under the 1571 Act and laws that followed, both the debtor and recipient of the assets are liable for fraud, underscores the notion that a “false representation has never been a required element of ‘actual fraud.’”
The Court also rejected the debtor’s argument that the Court’s interpretation would create a redundancy with section 727(a)(2), which prevents a debtor from discharging all debts if, within the year preceding the filing of the petition, the debtor transferred or concealed its assets for the purposes of hindering, delaying, or defrauding a creditor. The Court noted that the two sections may overlap, but that section 727(a)(2) is broader in scope because it prevents an offending debtor from discharging all debt in bankruptcy, and is narrower in timing as it applies only if the debtor fraudulently conveys assets within a year preceding the filing of the petition. Therefore, unlike section 727(a)(2), section 523(a)(2)(A) is tailored as a remedy for behavior connected only to specific debts.
In dissent, Justice Thomas opined that “actual fraud” in section 523(a)(2)(A) “does not apply so expansively” to include fraudulent transfer schemes effectuated without any false representation. Although he agreed with the majority that the common law definition of “actual fraud” included fraudulent transfers, he explained that the general rule that a common law term of art should be given its established common law meaning must give way where the meaning does not fit. Here, according to Justice Thomas, “context dictates” that actual fraud does not include fraudulent transfers because that meaning fails to fit with the rest of section 523(a)(2).