In a case of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit, the Circuit Panel addressed the dischargeability of debts incurred by a produce buyer who is acting as a trustee under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (“PACA”). In re Forrest, 2022 WL 3908803 (11th Cir. August 31, 2022)(click here for .pdf). The court concluded that debts incurred by a produce buyer acting as a PACA trustee are not excepted from discharge pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(4), which excepts debts “for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity…”
The basic, undisputed facts are:
The Forrests [Debtors] are owners and officers of Central Market of FL, Inc. (Central Market), which buys and sells produce. [Spring Valley Produce, Inc. (“SVP”)] sold $261,504.15 worth of produce to Central Market for which Central Market never paid. During the transactions at issue, SVP and Central Market were licensed under PACA. SVP preserved its right as a PACA trust beneficiary by including the required statutory statement on its invoices to Central Market. Upon receiving and accepting SVP’s produce shipments, Central Market became a PACA trustee of a trust res consisting of that produce… On May 15, 2020, the Forrests filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition hoping to discharge their business debts, including the debt owed to SVP. On August 14, 2020, SVP commenced this adversary proceeding, seeking a declaration that the debt is nondischargeable under § 523(a)(4). That statute excepts from discharge debts “for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity[.]”
The Panel noted that the “Fiduciary Capacity Exception” had existed since 1841, and reviewed U.S. Supreme Court cases on the Exception.
These early Supreme Court cases thus give us the following rules. First, the Fiduciary Capacity Exception does not apply to trusts implied by contract but applies to technical trusts or trusts in the technical sense. [Chapman v. Forsyth, 43 U.S. (2 How.) 202, 208, 11 L.Ed. 236 (1844)]. Second, the debtor must be acting in a fiduciary capacity before the act of defalcation creating the debt for the exception to apply. [Upshur v. Briscoe, 138 U.S. 365, 378, 375, 11 S.Ct. 313, 34 L.Ed. 931 (1891)]. Third, the substance of the transaction, rather than its form, controls in determining whether a transaction fits the “strict and narrow” definition of a technical trust. [Davis v. Aetna Acceptance Co., 293 U.S. 328, 333-34, 55 S.Ct. 151, 79 L.Ed. 393 (1934)].
The Panel next addressed the core issue of “what type of trust-like duties are sufficient to create a technical trust under the Fiduciary Capacity Exception,” stating that “[o]ur precedent has generally emphasized two duties: the duty to segregate trust assets and the duty to refrain from using trust-assets for non-trust purposes.” After reviewing case law, the court created the following test:
But synthesizing all of these cases, we hold that the following test applies in determining whether a debtor is acting in a “fiduciary capacity” under § 523(a)(4). First, the fiduciary relationship must have (1) a trustee, who holds (2) an identifiable trust res, for the benefit of (3) an identifiable beneficiary or beneficiaries. This tracks the traditional and narrow definition of trusts in early Supreme Court cases as well as our own approach and the approach taken by bankruptcy courts in this Circuit. Second, the fiduciary relationship must define sufficient trust-like duties imposed on the trustee with respect to the trust res and beneficiaries to create a technical trust. Based on our caselaw, the two most important trust-like duties, and the ones that we have held create a technical trust, are the duty to segregate trust assets and the duty to refrain from using trust assets for a non-trust purpose. Third, the debtor must be acting in a fiduciary capacity before the act of fraud or defalcation creating the debt.
(emphasis added). Getting to the facts of this case, the Panel held that PACA creates a trustee, identifiable beneficiaries and an identifiable trust res, and thus the first requirement is met. However, PACA does not meet the second requirement of imposing “trust like duties.” There is no requirement the trust assets be segregated, or not used for non-trust purposes. There is a requirement of keeping accurate records, but while a “typical “trust like duty” that alone is insufficient to create a technical trust. A PACA Trust is closer to a “constructive” or “resulting” trust.
The Panel, therefore, concluded that debts incurred by a produce buyer acting as a PACA trustee are not excepted from discharge pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(4).
Image: SBR (Market in Barcelona, Spain).
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