Section 523(a)(2)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code allows a creditor to obtain a judgment denying its debtor a discharge of debts incurred by false pretenses or actual fraud. However, if the debt itself was not incurred by actual fraud, but the debtor subsequently transfers his assets with the intent prevent its creditors from obtaining payment, may the creditor still obtain a judgment denying the debtor’s discharge under § 523(a)(2)(A)? The United States Supreme Court answered that question in the affirmative in its recent decision in Husky International Electronics, Inc. v. Ritz, 2016 WL 2842452 (2016).
Chrysalis Manufacturing Corp. incurred a debt to Husky International arising from Chrysalis’s purchase from Husky of components used in electronic devices. Over a period of four years, Chrysalis incurred a debt to Husky totaling over $160,000. There was no contention that this debt was incurred as the result of false representations or actual fraud. However, during the latter part of this same period, Daniel Ritz, a director and owner of Chrysalis, caused Chrysalis to transfer virtually all its assets to other companies Ritz also controlled. Husky sued Ritz under a Texas statute which allows creditors to hold shareholders responsible for corporate debts under circumstances involving actual fraud. After Ritz filed a personal bankruptcy petition under chapter 7, Husky brought an adversary proceeding against him seeking denial of the dischargeability of its debt under § 523(a)(2)(A). The District Court concluded the Ritz was liable under the Texas statute but also concluded that the debt was not obtained by actual fraud could be discharged. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, agreeing the debt could be discharged since it was not incurred by actual fraud as required by § 523(a)(2)(A).
The Supreme Court reversed, holding the term “actual fraud” in § 523(a)(2)(A) “encompasses forms of fraud, like fraudulent conveyance schemes, that can be effected without a false representation.”
The Court commenced its analysis by first looking to the prior Bankruptcy Act, which prohibiting debtors from discharging debts obtained by false pretenses or false representations, but contained no provisions relating to situations which might constitute “actual fraud” but not fall within the meaning of false pretenses or false representations. Congress added the term “actual fraud” when it enacted the Bankruptcy Code in 1978. The addition of the words “actual fraud” were presumed by the Court to have “real and substantial effect.” The Court believed the words “actual fraud” were intended to mean something other than “false representation.” The Court then analyzed the historical meaning of the terms “actual fraud” and concluded the words have long included the type of fraudulent transfer scheme in which Ritz engaged. First, the Court noted the word “actual” has a simple meaning in the common law, and denotes any fraud that “involves moral turpitude or intentional wrong,” and stands in contrast to implied fraud or fraud in law. The Court stated “Thus, anything that counts as ‘fraud’ and is done with wrongful intent is ‘actual fraud.’”
The Court found analyzing the history of the word “fraud” to be more challenging, and although it “connotes deception or trickery generally,” was more difficult to precisely define. However, the Court noted the term “fraud” had long been used by courts to describe a debtor’s transfer of assets which impairs a creditor’s ability to collect a debt. The Court further noted that fraudulent conveyances at common law did not require a misrepresentation by a debtor to his creditor. The fraudulent conduct was not in inducing the creditor to extend credit but rather was in the act of concealment and hindrance. As a result, the Court determined the actual fraud need not be present at the inception of a credit transaction.