Contumacious Case of Coercion or Merely Rude? Fifth Circuit Judges Debate the Meaning of Section 523(a)(6)

The case of a former corporate officer who demanded to be bought out for an alleged ownership interest and said some really nasty things resulted in a split decision with Fifth Circuit Judges Edith Jones and Catharina Haynes on opposite sides. Matter of Shcolnik, No. 10-20800 (5th Cir. 2/8/12), which can be found here [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers].

What Happened

This statement of facts is synthesized from the two opinions in the case. Each judge referenced facts that the other did not. I am taking both opinions at face value.

Scott Shcolnik was Vice-President of Capstone Associated Services, Limited and President of Rapid Settlements, Ltd. Though the owners of the Companies occasionally referred to him as a partner, he allegedly rejected an offer to become an owner of Rapid. Nevertheless, he claimed to be a partial owner and was fired. At this point, things got colorful. Shcolnik allegedly absconded with corporate documents. He threatened to disclose alleged criminal and regulatory violations by the two Companies if they did not "buy out" his "ownership interests." He threatened a "doomsday plan" if Stuart Feldman, the primary owner of the Companies did not "properly compensate" him for his ownership interests "which appear to be worth in excess of $1,000,000." He threatened a "massive series of legal attacks . . . which will likely leave you disbarred, broke, professionally disgraced, and rotting in a prison cell." He also expressed his hope that Feldman would be raped in prison.

The nasty grams* were sent on May 25 and 27, 2005. The Companies swiftly moved for a TRO, which they obtained on May 27, 2005. The TRO, which was later extended by agreement, prohibited Shcolnik from carrying out his campaign of mass destruction.

*--Nasty gram is a term of art in the Austin Division of the Western District of Texas referring to a particularly vituperative communication. While I am not completely certain, I believe I first heard the expression from Joe Martinec.

Six months later, the Companies instituted an arbitration proceeding against Shcolnik, seeking a declaration that he was not an owner. The Companies prevailed on the ownership issue, although the arbitrator noted that the Companies had held Shcolnik out as a partner, which was characterized as "excusable mistakes."

The Companies requested attorney's fees of $70,000 and received an award of $50,000. The fees were awarded as "equitable and just," which is apparently a low standard.

Shcolnik filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy four days after the state court confirmed the arbitration award. The Companies filed a non-dischargeability complaint under 11 U.S.C. sections 523(a)(4)( and (a)(6). Both parties moved for summary judgment. Bankruptcy Judge Karen Brown granted summary judgment to Shcolnik on both claims. She conducted a trial on the creditors' objection to discharge and ruled in favor of Shcolnik as well. The Companies appealed the dischargeability findings to the District Court which affirmed.

The Majority Opinion-Contumacious and Coercive

The majority opinion, written by Chief Judge Jones and joined in by District Judge Crone, affirmed the lower court holdings that the claim under section 523(a)(4) was properly denied. Although the Debtor was an officer of the Companies and owed them a fiduciary duty, the debt for attorney's fees did not arise out of a fraud or defalcation in a fiduciary capacity. Judge Haynes concurred in this ruling.

However, the majority opinion found that summary judgment on the willful and malicious claim under section 523(a)(6) was premature. The District Court had found that the Debtor's behavior was not "willful" as a matter of law because he did not intend to impose litigation expenses on the Companies, a contention they did not dispute.

However, Judge Jones pointed out that under Fifth Circuit precedent, an act can be considered "willful" if there was subjective bad intent or "an objective substantial certainty of harm." The Court noted that "it would seem peculiar to deem an action causing injury not 'willful' when the tortfeasor's action was in fact motivated by a desire to cause injury." Judge Jones also noted In re Keaty, 397 F.3d 264 (5th Cir. 2005), where sanctions for baseless litigation were found to be a willful and malicious injury.

Having laid out this background, Judge Jones reached the penultimate point of her opinion:

Shcolnik allegedly engaged in a course of contumacious conduct that required the Appellants to file meritorious litigation against him, resulting in the instant fee award; whereas in Keaty, the debtors pursued the burdensome suit that provoked a sanctions award against them. This is a distinction without a difference, however. It would make no sense for the infliction of expense in litigating a meritless legal claim to constitute willful and malicious injury to the creditor, as in Keaty, while denying the same treatment here to the infliction of expense by a debtor's attempt to leverage an equally baseless claim through a campaign of coercion. That Texas law may allow the arbitrator to assess attorneys' fees in favor of a party without specifically finding a willful and malicious injury is not conclusive. If the facts are as Appellants allege, Shcolnik either had the motive to inflict harm or acted so as to create "an objective substantial certainty of harm" to the Appellants. Id.

Viewed in light of our precedents, there is a genuine, material fact issue for trial. Shcolnik's behavior resulted in willful and malicious injury if his claims of ownership were made in bad faith as a pretense to extract money from the Appellants. See Keaty, 397 F.3d at 273 (willful and malicious injury to intentionally "pursu[e] meritless litigation for the purpose of harassment[.]"). The litigation costs he forced upon them are different from the million dollar claim he made against them, but they were neither attenuated nor unforeseeable from his alleged intentionally injurious conduct. (emphasis added).

Opinion, pp. 6-7.

The Dissent-Insulting and Demeaning Is Not Enough

Judge Haynes concurred in the ruling on section 523(a)(4), but dissented with regard to willful and malicious injury. She cited three grounds for dissent:

The effect of the majority opinion is to transform all litigation precipitated by aggressive demand letters into potential "malicious" acts for purposes of nondischargeability. Additionally, the effect of the majority opinion is to allow an end-run around an arbitration proceeding in which both parties willingly participated. Finally, the majority opinion glosses over the lack of connection between the allegedly malicious acts and the arbitration award of attorneys' fees now sought to be rendered non-dischargeable. Because the bankruptcy and district courts reached the correct result under our existing precedents, I would affirm.

Haynes Dissenting, p. 9.

Judge Haynes elaborated on her first point as follows:

Debtors often come to bankruptcy with judgments against them. It is certainly not an unusual occurrence for parties to make claims in litigation or arbitration that do not carry the day. Nonetheless, the majority opinion transforms the ordinary litigation loser into one who has caused "willful and malicious injury" to another. It does so, apparently, because of the colorful language used by Shcolnik, without the assistance of legal counsel, in his emailed demand letters that preceded litigation which in turn was followed by the arbitration proceeding in question. So, I start there.

No doubt the e-mail letters Shcolnik wrote are insulting and demeaning. I would not write such a document nor countenance another to do so. However, we are not here to teach a course in professionalism or civility. The majority opinion transforms incivility into "a campaign of coercion" or "contumacious conduct" by ipse dixit. The question arises - were these "nasty demand letters," in fact, "coercive" or "contumacious?" We do not have a case setting out a test for where the quintessential demand letter ends and the parade of horrible suggested by the majority opinion begins. Wherever that line is, it is not crossed here, and I disagree with transforming the regrettable unpleasantness and aggressiveness that often attend the prelude to litigation into "coercive" or "contumacious" conduct so easily. Shcolnick's e-mail letters, however reprehensible they undeniably are, do not. (emphasis added).

Haynes Dissenting, p. 10.

Between judges, "ipse dixit" is a strong term. Known as the "Bare Assertion Fallacy," it literally translates as "he himself said it." It is used to refer to an argument that is made without any support. The terms that were said to be ipse dixit were "coercive" and "contumacious." "Contumacious" is defined as stubbornly defiant or rebellious, while "coercive" means serving or intending to coerce. While contumacious is closely associated with contempt of court, Shcolnik's words were no doubt stubbornly defiant, but the question is "So what?" There does not seem to be a logical connection between stubbornly defiant and willful and malicious. Coercive is a more difficult question and I will return to that later.

Next, Judge Haynes turned to the results of the arbitration proceeding. Noting the strong federal policy of deferring to arbitration, she pointed out that the arbitrator had only awarded fees as "equitable and just" rather than for wrongdoing, malice or bad faith. She also noted that the arbitrator implicitly found that Shcolnik's position had some merit when he found that the references to Shcolnik as a partner were "excusable mistakes."

As to the first ground, Judge Haynes is probably wrong. Where a court makes a finding on a lesser standard but does not expressly negate the higher standard, the parties are free to establish whether the higher standard could have been met. Archer v. Warner, 538 U.S. 314 (2003) is not completely on point, but it allowed a plaintiff who had received a promissory note in settlement of a fraud claim to go behind the note and prove fraud in the original transaction. However, Judge Haynes is closer on the second point. If the arbitrator found that the Debtor did not assert a baseless claim, then the Companies would be precluded from relitigating that point in bankruptcy court. Here, the finding is implicit so that it is a close call.

Finally, Judge Haynes found that the connection between the nasty emails and the arbitration proceeding was to remote to connect them. She wrote:

Indeed, even if the e-mail letters were "coercive" or "contumacious" and even if we ignore the lack of arbitration findings to support the majority opinion, the undisputed facts show that any burden imposed on Appellants by the e-mail letters was quickly removed - the purportedly wrongful documents were sent on May 25 and 27, 2005. On May 27, 2005, the state district court granted a temporary restraining order that was later extended and continued by agreement throughout the litigation and arbitration, barring Shcolnik from taking the actions Appellants claimed put them in immediate fear. It was not until six months later that the matter was referred to the arbitration at issue here, breaking any purported causal connection between the claimed wrongful behavior and the fee award here at issue.

Moreover, the lack of causal connection is precisely why the arbitrator made no specific finding of wrongfulness. Indeed, the allegedly wrongful acts caused the arbitration of the ownership/partnership dispute, in which case, the arbitrator's lack of a specific finding to that effect (and findings inconsistent with that) is meaningful, or they did not, in which case, the alleged "campaign of coercion" or "contumacious conduct" did not cause the attorneys' fees award.

The majority opinion concludes that "Shcolnik's behavior resulted in willful and malicious injury if his claims of ownership were made in bad faith as a pretense to extract money from the Appellants." Maj. Op. at 7. The opinion rests on a misconstruction of Keaty. Moreover, it is undeniable that the majority opinion's conclusion is not supported by the record, the arbitrator's decision, or, indeed, the events that actually transpired below. As we gave effect to the sanctions in Keaty, we should give effect to the arbitrator's ruling here. The attorneys' fees awarded as equitable and just in the arbitration were for resolution of the ownership/partnership dispute, not for anything else.

Haynes Dissenting, pp. 13-14.

What It Means

This case is significant for several reasons. The fact that two bright, articulate and conservative judges reached diametrically opposite results shows both the independence of the judges involved and the difficulty of the question.

The opinions by Judge Jones and Judge Haynes recall the story of the blind men and the elephant. They are both describing the same thing, but they are describing different parts of it. Judge Jones focused on the apparent intent of the original emails. It is not unreasonable to construe the emails as a blatant attempt at extortion. It would be illegal to demand money in exchange for not releasing damaging information, so the debtor demanded a buyout instead. However, the fact that he demanded a buyout under the threat of destroying his former employer says volumes about his intent.

On the other hand, Judge Haynes focused more on the disconnect between the "nasty" emails and the arbitration proceeding. Yes, the emails were reprehensible. However, the campaign was brought to a half within two days and the arbitration was not even commenced for another six months. The Companies would have had a good claim for a willful and malicious injury if the Debtor had actually used the purloined documents to wreak havoc. The Companies probably would have had a good claim for their costs in obtaining the TRO. However, the Companies sought to recover their attorney's fees for what Judge Haynes characterized as "resolution of the ownership/partnership dispute, not for anything else." While the ownership dispute may have been commenced for sinister reasons, unlike the sanctionable conduct in Keaty, it was not baseless.

I think Judge Haynes has the better argument. While the opening salvos of the campaign clearly could have resulted in willful and malicious injury, they did not. It is like someone who threatens to shoot but after considering the consequences puts the gun down. The conduct could be characterized as a terroristic threat, but it is not murder. Both judges are right to focus on Keaty. However, the important question is whether the legal position taken was baseless. If the position taken, although asserted for ulterior motives, was not baseless, then it should not give rise to a nondischargeable debt.

It will be interesting to see whether the en banc court steps in to resolve the dispute.

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