A decision rendered during the sometimes peaceful interlude between Christmas and New Year’s is worth reading, and heeding. Hurston v. Anzo (In re Hurston), Adv. Proc. No. 15-2026 (Bankr. N.D. Ga. Dec. 27, 2016) is a helpful reminder to anyone representing lenders or creditors which are hell-bent-for-leather to pursue a non-dischargeability claim against a debtor that submits a false written statement (e.g., a personal financial statement) to obtain credit. Often, in the fervor of the start of a bankruptcy case, the creditor (and its lawyer) will make great hay from the fact that a debtor may have lied in a pre-petition credit application, or forbearance agreement, or other written medium. However, the facts of Hurston show that a creditor (and its lawyer) should pause, take a breath, and critically evaluate whether the creditor actually relied on the pre-petition writing from the debtor, and whether that creditor’s reliance was also, in fact, reasonable. If not, then the creditor deserves a serious challenge from its own counsel on the wisdom of pursuing a expensive, and likely unsuccessful, non-dischargeability claim.
We don’t need to go in detail on the debtor’s alleged falsehoods – that is not the point of Hurston. Instead, Judge Sacca of the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia covered in great detail how the creditor didn’t not rely on the allegedly false statements, and even if it did, its reliance was not reasonable. The key takeaways from the opinion – and helpful advice for any lawyer that is thinking about taking on a “false statement” non-dischargeability action under 11 U.S.C. sec. 523(a)(2)(B) – are what the creditor in Hurston did and didn’t do.
First, where the creditor does not perform any material diligence on the false statement (here, a personal financial statement), then the creditor will have a difficult or impossible time showing that it “reasonably relied” on the allegedly false financial statement. The creditor should ask for bank statements, tax returns, information from accountants, or other, third party evidence to back up information form a debtor. If the creditor didn’t perform any follow up diligence, you should advise the creditor (right at the outset) that its claim may fail.
Second, this is especially true where the creditor and debtor do not have a prior relationship. A prior relationship might (we emphasize, might) provide indicia of reliability of the debtor and its financial wherewithal to overcome a lack of diligence. But if there is no prior relationship, the creditor should be ready to show that it did more diligence.
Third, where a financial statement (or other writing on which the non-dischargeability claim is based) contains “red flags,” including matters a reasonable creditor would question or that the specific creditor should know to question, the creditor must show that it followed up on those “red flags.”
Fourth, a debtor with an alleged strong financial reputation, or that appears to be wealthy based on appearance and community activity, does not excuse the creditor’s obligation to perform diligence on any written statement or financial statement. In short, an argument based on “the debtor was a pillar of the community” will not go to show reasonable reliance by the creditor on an otherwise questionable financial statement or other writing.
Fifth, the creditor should be able to show it had established criteria to evaluate the credit being extended – and that those criteria were used and evaluated as a critical part of making any decision to extend credit. A lack of rules and procedures to evaluate financial statements or other written submissions, or a failure to follow those procedures, will be very harmful to the creditor’s claim.
When you read 11 U.S.C. sec. 523(a)(2)(B), and in particular its requirement that the creditor “reasonably relied” on any alleged false statement, the Hurston decision is not surprising. But Hurston remains a very helpful reminder for any creditor’s lawyer to critically examine the creditor’s case at the start of the matter. The lawyer must cross-examine the creditor to get past the allegations of the debtor’s falsehoods (which the creditor will trumpet as much as you let it), and spend a great deal more time on whether the creditor did any diligence on the allegedly false written statements. This can be an awkward conversation with your client – and perhaps perceived as blaming the victim – but it will be far more awkward to later explain to your client why the non-dischargeability action did not succeed.