California law describes a broad definition of fiduciary, involving trust, confidence, and good faith between a principal and their agent. In a recent case, however, the federal bankruptcy court construed fiduciary capacity in a different and significantly narrower manner, with dramatic results.
In a holding at odds with other bankruptcy cases, a bankruptcy court recently held that a debtor’s status as a California real estate agent was insufficient to show that she stood in a ‘fiduciary capacity.” That holding allowed the agent, who had filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, to discharge a $356,000 state court judgment, awarded to her client, a potential real estate buyer. The California state court jury had found that the agent negligently and intentionally breached here fiduciary duty to the buyer, by misrepresenting the purchase agreement and falsely informing the seller that the buyer could not satisfy the financing requirements. While the jury found that the buyer was entitled to the $356,000 damage award, the bankruptcy court said no; under the federal bankruptcy statues, the agent was not acting in a fiduciary capacity because she did not hold property in trust for her client, the buyer. Thus, a damage award that may otherwise have been nondischargeable in bankruptcy because of the debtor’s fraud was found to be dischargeable.
Real Estate Agents in Bankruptcy
Under this holding, California real estate agents who negligently or intentionally breach their fiduciary duties may find refuge in bankruptcy court, where they may be able to avoid and discharge judgments against them. Even if no judgment is rendered, the settlement of high value disputes concerning brokers and agents may be influenced by the possibility that the insolvent wrongdoer will seek to discharge the debt in bankruptcy. In the future, the holding may extend to other types of fiduciaries as well.
Attorney’s Advice Can Maximize Outcomes
Conflicts in the law sometimes arise between federal and state courts. The law is sometimes more fluid than solid. An aggrieved party must look beyond the mere fact that they were wronged and, with competent counsel, broadly evaluate the chances of achieving and collecting a monetary judgment.
Leslie Baxter is a Partner, practicing Real Estate and Business Law at Randick, O’Dea & Tooliatos, LLP; she is an author of “California Real Estate Brokers Law and Litigation,” published by Continuing Education of the Bar.