Debtor’s Refusal to Return Electronic Data = Embezzlement – No Bankruptcy Discharge – IL ND

FNA Group, Inc. v. Arvanitis, 2015 WL 5202990 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2015) examines the tension between the bankruptcy code’s aim of giving a financial fresh start to a debtor and the Law’s attempt to protect creditors from underhanded debtor conduct to avoid his debts.

After a 15-year employment relationship went sour, the plaintiff power washing company sued a former management-level employee when he failed to turn over confidential company property (the “Data”) he had access to during his employment.

After refusing a state court judge’s order to turn over the Data and an ensuing civil contempt finding, the defendant filed bankruptcy.

The plaintiff filed an adversary complaint in the bankruptcy case alleging the defendant’s (now the debtor) embezzlement and wilfull injury to company Data.

The plaintiff asked the bankruptcy court to find that the debtor’s obligations to the plaintiff were not dischargeable (i.e. could not be wiped out).

Siding with the plaintiff, the Court provides a useful discussion of the embezzlement and the wilfull and malicious injury bankruptcy discharge exceptions.

The bankruptcy code’s discharge mechanism aims to give a debtor a fresh start by relieving him of pre-petition debts. Exceptions to the general discharge rule are construed strictly against the creditor and liberally in favor of the debtor.

Embezzlement under the bankruptcy code means the “fraudulent appropriation of property” by a person to whom the property was entrusted or to whom the property was lawfully transferred at some point.

A creditor who seeks to invoke the embezzlement discharge exception must show: (1) the debtor appropriated property or funds for his/her benefit, and (2) the debtor did so with fraudulent intent.

Fraudulent intent in the embezzlement context means “without authorization.” 11 U.S.C. s. 523(a)(4).

The Court found the creditor established all embezzlement elements. First, the debtor was clearly entrusted with the Data during his lengthy employment tenure. The debtor also appropriated the Data for his own use – as was evident by his emails where he threatened to destroy the Data or divulge its contents to plaintiff’s competitors.

Finally, the debtor lacked authorization to hold the Data after his resignation based on a non-disclosure agreement he signed where he acknowledged all things provided to him remained company property and had to be returned when he left the company.

By holding the Data hostage to extract a better severance package, the debtor exhibited a fraudulent intent.

The court also refused to allow a debtor discharge based on the bankruptcy code’s exception for willful and malicious injury. 11 U.S.C. s. 523(a)(6).

An “injury” under this section equates to the violation of another’s personal or property rights. “Wilfull” means an intent to injure the person’s property while “malicious” signals a conscious disregard for another’s rights without cause.

Here, the debtor injured the plaintiff by refusing to release the Data despite a (state) court order requiring him to do so. Plaintiff spent nearly $200,000 reconstructing the stolen property and retaining forensic experts and lawyers to negotiate the Data’s return.

Lastly, the debtor’s threatening e-mails to plaintiff in efforts to coerce the plaintiff to up its severance payment was malicious under Section 523 since the e-mails exhibited a disregard for the importance of the Data and its integrity.

Take-aways:

The bankruptcy law goal of giving a debtor fiscal breathing room has limits. If the debtor engages in intentional conduct aimed at evading creditors or furthers a scheme of lying to the bankruptcy court, his pre-petition debts won’t be discharged.

This case is post-worthy as it gives content to the embezzlement and wilfull and malicious property damage discharge exceptions.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.