Justia Summary

Kate and David Bartenwerfer remodeled the house they jointly owned. David oversaw the project. Kate remained largely uninvolved. They sold the house to Buckley, attesting that they had disclosed all material facts. Buckley discovered undisclosed defects and won a California state court judgment, leaving the Bartenwerfers jointly responsible for more than $200,000. The Bartenwerfers filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Buckley filed an adversary complaint, alleging that the state-court judgment debt was non-dischargeable as “any debt . . . for money . . . to the extent obtained by . . . false pretenses, a false representation, or actual fraud,” 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(2)(A).

The Bankruptcy Court imputed David’s fraudulent intent to Kate, citing their legal partnership to renovate and sell the property. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel held that section 523(a)(2)(A) barred Kate from discharging the debt only if she knew or had reason to know of David’s fraud. The Ninth Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court affirmed. Section 523(a)(2)(A) precludes Kate from discharging a debt obtained by fraud, regardless of her own culpability. The passive voice in section 523(a)(2)(A) removes the actor; fraud liability is not limited to the wrongdoer. The fraud of one partner should be imputed to other partners, who “received and appropriated the fruits of the fraudulent conduct.” Section 523(a)(2)(A) takes the debt as it finds it, so if California did not extend liability to honest partners, it would have no role. Fraud liability generally requires a special relationship with the wrongdoer and, even then, defenses are available.