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Bankruptcy practice reminder: Complaints require “well-pleaded factual allegations,” not just legal conclusions

Moyer v Koster et al (In re Przybysz), Adv. Pro. Case No. 12-80174 (Hon. Scott W. Dales, Sept. 25, 2012).

A recent decision from the Bankruptcy Court of the Western District of Michigan serves as a lesson and reminder to attorneys that complaints must do more than recite legal conclusions – they also must allege sufficient facts to put defendants on notice of the claims and of possible defenses.

In Przybysz, the Chapter 7 Trustee filed 30 complaints against alleged Ponzi scheme investors, seeking to avoid payments received by the investors as either actually or constructively fraudulent transfers.  Most of the defendants responded by filing motions to dismiss, arguing that the Trustee failed to comply with the pleading rules applicable to federal cases.

In reviewing federal pleading standards, the Bankruptcy Court noted that “although federal courts must now insist that pleadings assert a plausible right to relief in order to survive a dismissal motion, notice pleading . . . does not require a plaintiff to prove his case in his early filings.”  Id. at *9.  However, complaints must “contain sufficient well-pleaded factual allegations – a short and plain statement of the claim, nor just legal conclusions or an echo of applicable authority[.]”

Based on that reasoning, the Bankruptcy Court held that the Trustee’s allegations of “actual fraud” were insufficiently pled because they failed to identify which defendants received which transfers, when the transfers occurred, and whether the transfers consisted of property of the debtor or certain related entities.  The complaint also sought avoidance of “at least” a particular sum, but the court held that “pleading the [t]ransfers in an ‘at least’ amount threatens to deprive the Defendants of notice and possible defenses.”  With respect to the Trustee’s constructive fraud count, the court found that the Trustee did not provide “specific details showing that the Defendants received more than they were entitled to receive,” which would indicate whether the debtor received reasonably equivalent value for the transfers.

The court, however, declined to dismiss the complaints and instead ordered a more definite statement from the Trustee concerning the transfers and reasonably equivalent value.  Thus, the Trustee was given an opportunity to amend the complaints and cure the pleading defects.

Although the complaints were not dismissed, the case makes clear that a complaint that fails to satisfy “notice pleading” standards is deficient.  Attorneys drafting complaints should take care to allege sufficient facts to put defendants on notice of the claims and defenses.

Categories: Chapter 7, Western District of Michigan

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practice focuses on bankruptcy, municipal law, collections, and trial-level and appeals litigation. In the bankruptcy arena, she represents primarily Chapter 7 trustees. Laura has handled a wide range of trial and appellate matters for individual and business clients and has appeared before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Michigan, as well as Michigan circuit and district courts across the state.

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