Dealing with Accusations of Business Fraud through Bankruptcy

When a small business fails, its owner or employer is sometimes accused of causing or hastening that failure through fraud or intentional bad behavior. If that person is already considering filing a bankruptcy to deal with the financial fallout of the closing of the business, how are those accusations going to be handled in that bankruptcy case?

A bankruptcy filed after the failure of a business tends to be more acrimonious than in a straight consumer bankruptcy because:

• The relationship between debtor and creditor is often more personal and intense—such as between business partners, between a key employee and the owner, or between the owner and investors who were friends or a relatives. So the failure is taken more personally, and the person who lost money is more likely to feel a sense of betrayal.

• The business context often provides many all-too-convenient opportunities for the debtor to bend the rules or behave underhandedly, especially “when desperate times call for desperate measures.” On the other hand, actions that the debtor took in good faith at the time may simply look inappropriate in hindsight.

• There is often more money at stake, money which these kinds of creditors can less afford to lose than a conventional commercial creditor. So it’s harder for these creditors to just write it off and walk away.

So if you have been accused by a former business partner, investor, or similar business creditor of some sort of business fraud, or fear that you will be so accused, does this mean that you should avoid filing bankruptcy? Of course you will want to discuss a serious matter like this very thoroughly with your bankruptcy attorney, perhaps in consultation with your business or litigation attorney if those accusations have already ripened into a lawsuit against you. But, interestingly, there are a set of practical reasons why those kinds of accusations often go away, or at least are reduced in seriousness, when you file a bankruptcy.

1. Automatic stay

The filing of your bankruptcy case stops, at least temporarily, any litigation against you already in process, and prevents a lawsuit from being filed or any other collection action to be taken against you. This pause in the action at least gives your adversary the opportunity to consider whether continuing to pursue you would truly be worthwhile.

2. More difficult to make a case against you

That pause is valuable because your bankruptcy filing changes the rules of the game, mostly in your favor. When you file your bankruptcy, you make it harder for your creditor to win against you. It’s no longer enough to merely establish that you owe him or her some money. Once you file bankruptcy, for the debt not to be discharged the creditor must also establish that the debt is based on one of a relatively narrow set of facts involving fraud, misrepresentation, embezzlement or theft, fraud in a fiduciary capacity, or an intentional and malicious injury to person or property.

3. Proof of your true finances

The documents you are required to file under oath in your bankruptcy case should show your angry creditor, and maybe more importantly his attorney, that even if the case against you was successful, you have no pot of gold with which to pay a judgment. Most sensible people do not like “spending good money after bad”—paying thousands of dollars to their attorney only to get a judgment that could never be collected, or only so slowly that the additional expense would simply not be worth all the risk and effort.

So, notwithstanding the tendency for small business-spawned bankruptcies to be more contentious, filing such a bankruptcy can create decisive advantages for you if you are being pursued for an alleged business fraud—you decrease your opponent’s odds of winning and increase his costs of pursuing you.