In Re John G. Micka.john G. Micka, Plaintiff-appellant, v. Ruth Ellen Pearce, Defendant-appellee, 826 F.2d 1060 (4th Cir. 1987)

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US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 826 F.2d 1060 (4th Cir. 1987)

Argued May 6, 1987. Decided Aug. 7, 1987

Charles Thomas Vekert (Vekert & Laskin, on brief), for appellant.

Stephen Larios Prevas (Prevas & Prevas, on brief), for appellee.

Before MURNAGHAN and CHAPMAN, Circuit Judges, and HAYNSWORTH, Senior Circuit Judge.


Here is a case requiring a determination of whether a legal malpractice judgment is dischargeable in bankruptcy.

The appellee, Ruth Ellen Pearce, hired John Micka to defend her in a breach of contract action. Despite several meetings during which Micka assured Pearce that everything would be fine and that he would take care of everything, Micka failed to: (1) file answers to interrogatories within the allotted time; (2) answer a motion for default judgment; (3) file a counterclaim on behalf of Pearce; (4) move to set aside the default judgment; and (5) defend Pearce at a damages hearing.

Pearce filed a malpractice suit against Micka and obtained a judgment in the amount of $96,000 in compensatory damages and $17,500 in punitive damages.

Thereafter Micka filed for bankruptcy, and Pearce filed a complaint to determine the dischargeability of the malpractice judgment. The United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland found that Micka's conduct was willful and malicious and that the portion of the debt arising from the award of compensatory damages was therefore not dischargeable. The United States District Court for the District of Maryland affirmed the Bankruptcy Court's decision and Micka now appeals.

Under the bankruptcy code, a discharge in bankruptcy does not discharge an individual debtor from any debt "for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity." 11 U.S.C. 523(a) (6). Micka argues that his conduct at most constituted negligence and was not "willful and malicious" within the meaning of section 523(a) (6) of the bankruptcy code because he lacked a specific intent to harm Ms. Pearce.

In Tinker v. Colwell, 193 U.S. 473 (1904) the Supreme Court defined willful and malicious injuries as those resulting from acts done intentionally and without justification or excuse. In Tinker, the court held that in order to declare a debt non-dischargeable, the trial court need not find specific or special malice on the part of the debtor towards an individual. When Congress revised the bankruptcy code the Tinker decision was overruled to an extent. The House report states:

"willful" means deliberate or intentional. To the extent that Tinker v. Colwell, 139 U.S. 473 (1902) (sic), held that a looser standard is intended, and to the extent that other cases have relied on Tinker to apply a "reckless disregard" standard they are overruled. S.Rep. No. 95-989, 95th Cong., 2d Sess. 79 (1978); H.R.Rep. No. 95-595, 95th Cong., 1st Sess. 365 (1977), reprinted in 1978 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 5787, 6320.

We have stated that:

Congress did not intend to overrule Tinker in toto.


[T]here is no need to show specific malice under Sec. 523(a) (6) of the Code on the part of the debtor. Something implied is no less true than something expressed. Only the method of proof of the truth is different. Implied malice, which may be shown by the acts and conduct of the debtor in the context of their surrounding circumstances, is sufficient under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a) (6).

St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Vaughn, 779 F.2d 1003, 1008-09 (4th Cir. 1985).

The Bankruptcy Court found that the "acts and conduct" of Micka "in the context of their surrounding circumstances" indicated that his conduct was intentional and, as a result "willful and malicious." The Court's ruling cannot be said to be legally erroneous because, according to St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., specific intent on the part of the debtor to harm the creditor need not be shown. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Bankruptcy Court.