Bullock v. BankChampaign, N.A., No. 11-1518; U.S. Supreme Court; opinion by Breyer, J.; decided May 13, 2013. On certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Petitioner’s father established a trust for the benefit of petitioner and his siblings, and made petitioner the (nonprofessional) trustee. The trust’s sole asset was the father’s life insurance policy. Petitioner borrowed funds from the trust three times; all borrowed funds were repaid with interest. His siblings obtained a judgment against him in state court for breach of fiduciary duty, though the court found no apparent malicious motive. The court imposed constructive trusts on certain of petitioner’s interests — including his interest in the original trust — in order to secure petitioner’s payment of the judgment, with respondent serving as trustee for all of the trusts.

Petitioner filed for bankruptcy. Respondent opposed discharge of petitioner’s state court-imposed debts to the trust, and the bankruptcy court granted respondent summary judgment, holding that petitioner’s debts were not dischargeable pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(4), which provides that an individual cannot obtain a bankruptcy discharge from a debt "for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement, or larceny." The federal district court and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The latter court reasoned that "defalcation requires a known breach of fiduciary duty, such that the conduct can be characterized as objectively reckless."

Held: The term "defalcation" in the bankruptcy code includes a culpable state-of-mind requirement involving knowledge of, or gross recklessness in respect to, the improper nature of the fiduciary behavior. Pp. 4-9.

(a) While "defalcation" has been an exception to discharge in a bankruptcy statute since 1867, legal authorities have long disagreed about its meaning. Broad definitions of the term in modern and older dictionaries are unhelpful, and courts of appeals have disagreed about what mental state must accompany defalcation’s definition. Pp. 4-5.

(b) In Neal v. Clark, 95 U.S. 704, this court interpreted the term "fraud" in the bankruptcy code’s exceptions to discharge to mean "positive fraud, or fraud in fact, involving moral turpitude or intentional wrong, as does embezzlement; and not implied fraud, or fraud in law, which may exist without the imputation of bad faith or immorality." Id. at 709. The term "defalcation" should be treated similarly. Thus, where the conduct at issue does not involve bad faith, moral turpitude or other immoral conduct, "defalcation" requires an intentional wrong. An intentional wrong includes not only conduct that the fiduciary knows is improper but also reckless conduct of the kind that the criminal law often treats as the equivalent. Where actual knowledge of wrongdoing is lacking, conduct is considered as equivalent if, as set forth in the Model Penal Code, the fiduciary "consciously disregards," or is willfully blind to, "a substantial and unjustifiable risk" that his conduct will violate a fiduciary duty. Pp. 5-7.

(c) Several considerations support this interpretation. First, statutory context strongly favors it. The canon noscitur a sociis argues for interpreting "defalcation" as similar to its linguistic neighbors "embezzlement," "larceny" and "fraud," which all require a showing of wrongful or felonious intent. See, e.g., Neal, 95 U.S. at 709. Second, the interpretation does not make the word identical to its statutory neighbors. "Embezzlement" requires conversion, "larceny" requires taking and carrying away another’s property, and "fraud" typically requires a false statement or omission; while "defalcation" can encompass a breach of fiduciary obligation that involves neither conversion, nor taking and carrying away another’s property, nor falsity. Third, the interpretation is consistent with the longstanding principle that "exceptions to discharge ‘should be confined to those plainly expressed.’" Kawaauhau v. Geiger, 523 U.S. 57, 62. It is also consistent with statutory exceptions to discharge that Congress normally confines to circumstances where strong, special policy considerations, such as the presence of fault, argue for preserving the debt, thereby benefiting, for example, a typically more honest creditor. See, e.g., 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(2)(A). Fourth, some circuits have interpreted the statute similarly for many years without administrative or other difficulties. Finally, it is important to have a uniform interpretation of federal law, the choices are limited, and neither the parties nor the government has presented strong considerations favoring a different interpretation. Pp. 7-9.

670 F.3d 1160, vacated and remanded.