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GROGAN V. GARNER, 498 U. S. 279 (1991)

U.S. Supreme Court

Grogan v. Garner, 498 U.S. 279 (1991)

Grogan v. Garner

No. 89-1149

Argued Oct. 29, 1990

Decided Jan. 15, 1991

498 U.S. 279


Respondent Garner filed a petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, listing a fraud judgment in petitioners' favor as a dischargeable debt. Petitioners then filed a complaint in the proceeding requesting a determination that their claim should be exempted from discharge pursuant to § 523(a), which provides that a debtor may not be discharged from, inter alia, obligations for money obtained by "actual fraud." Presented with portions of the fraud case record, the Bankruptcy Court found that the elements of actual fraud under § 523 were proved and that the doctrine of collateral estoppel required a holding that the debt was not dischargeable. It and the District Court rejected Garner's argument that collateral estoppel does not apply because the fraud trial's jury instructions required that fraud be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, whereas § 523 requires proof by clear and convincing evidence. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the clear-and-convincing evidence standard applies in fraud cases, since Congress would not have silently changed pre-§ 523(a) law, which generally applied the higher standard in common law fraud litigation and in resolving dischargeability issues, and since the Code's general "fresh start" policy militated in favor of a broad construction favorable to the debtor.

Held: Preponderance of the evidence is the standard of proof for § 523(a)'s dischargeability exceptions. Neither § 523 and its legislative history nor the legislative history of § 523's predecessor prescribes a standard of proof, a silence that is inconsistent with the view that Congress intended to require a clear-and-convincing evidence standard. The preponderance standard is presumed to be applicable in civil actions between private parties unless particularly important individual interests or rights are at stake, and, in the context of the discharge exemption provisions, a debtor's interest in discharge is insufficient to require a heightened standard. Such a standard is not required to effectuate the Code's "fresh start" policy. Since the Code limits the opportunity for a completely unencumbered new beginning to the honest but unfortunate debtor by exempting certain debts from discharge, it is unlikely that Congress would have fashioned a proof standard that favored an interest in giving the perpetrators of fraud a fresh start over an interest in protecting the victims of fraud. It is also fair to infer from § 523(a)'s structure that

Page 498 U. S. 280

Congress intended the preponderance standard to apply to all of the discharge exceptions. That they are grouped together in the same subsection with no suggestion that any particular exception is subject to a special standard implies that the same standard should govern all of them, and it seems clear that a preponderance standard is sufficient to establish nondischargeability of some claims. The fact that many States required proof of fraud by clear and convincing evidence at the time the current Code was enacted does not mean that Congress silently endorsed such a rule for the fraud discharge exception. Unlike many States, Congress has chosen a preponderance standard when it has created substantive causes of action for fraud. In addition, it amended the Bankruptcy Act in 1970 to make nondischargeability a question of federal law independent of the issue of the underlying claim's validity, which is determined by state law. Moreover, both before and after 1970, courts were split over the appropriate proof standard for the fraud discharge exception. Application of the preponderance standard will also permit exception from discharge of all fraud claims creditors have reduced to judgment, a result that accords with the historical development of the discharge exceptions, which have been altered to broaden the coverage of the fraud exceptions. Pp. 498 U. S. 283-291.

881 F.2d 579 (CA8 1989), reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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