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Jury Rules Against Overstock in Qui Tam Lawsuit

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 25, 2018

On Sept. 20, 2018, a Delaware Superior Court jury ruled in The State of Delaware ex. rel. William Sean French v. Overstock.com Inc. that Overstock.com violated the state’s False Claims and Reporting Act by failing to escheat unredeemed gift card balances as unclaimed property. 

 

At issue in the lawsuit was Overstock’s relationship with Card Compliant LLC (previously CardFact), a third-party Ohio-based company used to issue gift cards and assume certain gift card responsibilities. The case came about when a former Card Compliant employee filed a qui tam(whistleblower) lawsuit, alleging fraud against the government. Dozens of other defendants were dismissed from the lawsuit or settled, leaving Overstock as the only defendant.  

 

Among the various allegations, the plaintiffs claim that some defendants didn’t account for the transfer of liability in the manner its contracts specified. According to the state, the liability wasn’t truly transferred and, thus, defendants had the obligation to remit unclaimed property to Delaware but didn’t do so.

 

“It’s unusual in this line of business to have a jury verdict,” said Diann Smith, counsel with McDermott Will & Emery LLP. “Usually we get an opinion from the judge that will provide the facts and explain how the law applies to those facts, but that’s not the case with a jury verdict. We don’t really know why they came to this conclusion, leaving some mystery about what it means for other holders.”

 

Although the decision against Overstock has no precedential value, it certainly could have a ripple effect, encouraging Delaware to pursue similar actions against other retailers who use the giftco structure to shift unclaimed property liability. 

 

“Given this verdict, one would expect that Delaware will continue to take the position that the CardFact structure, as least in its current form, doesn’t work,” said Ethan Millar, partner with Alston & Bird LLP. “Although jury verdicts have no precedential value, it is also possible Delaware may use the verdict as an excuse to become more aggressive about challenging other types of gift card structures.”

 

This decision should encourage other companies with third-party giftco arrangements to review their practices to ensure the structures have substance and avoid the issues alleged by the whistleblower and Delaware. 

 

“Holders should consider carefully not just what was at issue in this case but also how it was brought – as a qui tam action, “Smith said. “They should think about what their compliance positions are and whether they are at risk for this type of action. The Delaware decision could raise the profile for people who are inclined to bring this type of action, and you want to avoid being a target.” 

 

Because whistleblowers receive a portion of the settlement/recovery for actions they bring, the incentive to report a former employer, for example, is high. A lawsuit that results in a multi-million dollar decision or settlement can provide a life-changing windfall for the whistleblower. 

 

One complaint that Delaware had in this case was that companies didn’t reach out to the state to ask whether the structure was valid. That raises the question whether companies with ambiguous issues related to their escheat practices, such as giftcos, should consult with the states. 

 

“In the Overstock case, Delaware argued that Overstock should have asked the state for guidance regarding the structure.  Technically, of course, there is no requirement to do so,” Millar said. “Consulting with counsel should be sufficient. Nonetheless, it would be helpful to understand what Delaware believes is necessary for a gift card structure to be effective. Accordingly, there could be something to gain from dialogue with the states on this and other issues.”

 

Even if the state’s response doesn’t affirm a specific practice, documenting the interaction and demonstrating that the state’s response wasn’t backed by a compelling argument or specific reasoning could prove useful if a dispute arises later. 

 

If Overstock appeals or if this decision leads to further action by Delaware, UPPO will continue to monitor and report on any noteworthy developments.  

Tags:  card compliant  Delaware  litigation  overstock  qui tam  unclaimed property 

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