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Unclaimed Property Focus
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UNCLAIMED PROPERTY FOCUS is a blog written by and for UPPO members, featuring diverse perspectives and insights from unclaimed property practitioners across the U.S. and Canada. We welcome your submissions to Unclaimed Property Focus. Please contact Tim Dressen via tim@uppo.org with any questions about submitting a blog post for consideration and refer to our editorial guidelines when writing your blog post. Disclaimer: Information and/or comments to this blog is not intended as a substitute for legal advice on compliance or reporting requirements.

 

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Whistleblower Trend Raises Concerns for Unclaimed Property Holders

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 10, 2019
Updated: Saturday, October 5, 2019

Government politics aren’t the only place whistleblowers are making news these days. Several recent whistleblower lawsuits aimed at unclaimed property practices signal a concerning trend for holders. 

 

Typically, whistleblower, or qui tam, cases under the False Claims Act come about when a company’s employee or former employee (referred to as the “relator”) alleges the company defrauded the government by intentionally paying the government less than what is owed. Allegations usually involve falsifying documents to mislead the government into thinking less money is due. 

 

“Unclaimed property cases don’t fit into the usual False Claims Act mold,” said Ethan Millar, partner with Alson & Bird LLP. “False claims statutes were not intended to apply to regulatory disputes between a state and a holder about when states’ unclaimed property laws apply. They were designed to be quasi-criminal anti-fraud statutes, which is why they impose severe penalties, including treble damages and attorneys’ fees.”

 

Unfortunately, recent qui tam cases have been based on mere regulatory disputes. Given the direction such cases have taken, it’s possible that any noncompliance with unclaimed property statutes could result in accusations of False Claims Act violations. 

 

Decided last September, The State of Delaware ex. rel. William Sean French v. Overstock.com Inc. represents a turning point for False Claims Act cases related to unclaimed property compliance. At issue in the lawsuit was Overstock’s relationship with CardFact (later acquired by Card Compliant LLC), a third-party company used to issue gift cards and assume certain gift card responsibilities. 

 

The case came about when a former CardFact employee filed a qui tam lawsuit, alleging that CardFact and dozens of its retail clients (including Overstock) had violated the Delaware False Claims and Reporting Act by failing to escheat unredeemed gift cards to the State of Delaware. 

 

Among the various allegations, the plaintiffs claimed that the contracts between CardFact and its clients were shams and that the retailers rather than CardFact were the true issuers of the cards, and were required to report them to Delaware, as their states of incorporation. All of the defendants in the case other than Overstock were dismissed or settled. 

 

“I don’t think anybody in the holder community believes that Overstock acted with knowledge or reckless disregard for the law,” Millar said. “Overstock’s actions were perfectly reasonable and consistent with what dozens of other retailers were doing in terms of structuring their operations to reduce unclaimed property risks. These structures were not hidden from Delaware. They were openly discussed at conferences, in Delaware audits and in Delaware voluntary disclosures, and nobody ever said you can’t do this kind of thing or have to do it a particular way. To the contrary, Delaware approved very similar structures for well over a decade prior to this case.” 

 

However, a jury decided the third-party “cardco” structure in this case was improper and that Overstock knowingly or recklessly disregarded the law and should have reported its unredeemed gift card balance, less related profits, to Delaware. Along with the decision came a hefty judgment for $7.2 million, including civil penalties, treble damages and other costs. In addition, the state is entitled to attorneys’ fees, though the amount of such fees is still in dispute. Overstock has appealed the decision.

 

This decision leaves the unclaimed property community wondering, if a company can be held liable under the False Claims Act under those circumstances, what other circumstances could be used to hold businesses liable.

 

Relators are motivated by the prospects of a huge financial windfall of 15-25% of any judgment or settlement resulting from their lawsuits. Unfortunately, their self-interests are advancing aggressive enforcement positions regarding unclaimed property laws that not even state administrators are promoting.

 

In another recent case, New York ex. rel. Raw Data Analytics LLC v. JPMorgan Chase & Co., the relator alleges that JPMorgan is liable under New York’s False Claims Act for failing to self-assess interest on late reported unclaimed property. Although the New York Office of Unclaimed Funds does not require holders to self-assess interest, the court ruled that, under New York’s Abandoned Property Law, such self-assessment is mandatory. JPMorgan takes the position that nobody in the industry self-assesses interest and that the states don’t expect or ask holders to do so.

 

“We’re now seeing these sorts of cases where relators are making novel legal arguments about what is required under state unclaimed property laws, and then trying to use this alleged violation of the escheat statutes as the basis for False Claims Act liability,” Millar said. “False Claims Act complaints are no longer confined to scenarios when a company is committing what looks like fraud.”

 

Relief for the unclaimed property community from False Claims Act lawsuits that exceed the law’s intent requires a court to address one big question: Should False Claims Act statutes even apply to unclaimed property? The False Claims Act is intended to apply when money is owed to the government. However, unclaimed property is owed to the property owner. The government acts merely as a custodian of the property. 

 

“I suspect any major False Claims Act case in the future will raise this issue,” Millar said. “There is strong authority in the False Claims Act that a custodial interest alone is not sufficient to trigger the False Claims Act. After all, the False Claims Act statutes were intended to apply to government funds, not to money owed to individuals.”

 

Until such a decision, unclaimed property holders can take steps to protect themselves. First, they should ensure their unclaimed property compliance policies, procedures and practices are current, well documented and thoroughly followed. Next, address “gray areas” where holders and states have differing perspectives. 

 

“There will always be gray areas because no unclaimed property law directly deals with every specific situation,” Millar said. “These gray areas may be exploited by relators. However, holders can protect themselves by obtaining legal opinions to support their positions. Even if a court later disagrees with the holder’s position, the fact that the holder reasonably relied on legal counsel can demonstrate that the holder did not act with the knowledge or recklessness for False Claims Act liability.”

 

Finally, respond to issues raised by employees. Companies should have policies and procedures in place for addressing employee complaints. Don’t retaliate against employees who raise potential issues, and always investigate credible complaints. Giving employees a meaningful complaint process and remediating problems early may reduce the likelihood of issues rising to the level of a full-blown qui tam lawsuit. 

Tags:  JPMorgan  litigation  Overstock  qui tam  trends  unclaimed property  whistleblower 

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Litigation Update: Judge Puts Univar Case on Hold

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Univar Inc. v. Geisenberger, et al.

 

In the ongoing dispute between Univar Inc. and the state of Delaware, U.S. District Court Judge Maryellen Noreika ruled on Sept. 17, 2019, that many of the plaintiff’s claims lack “ripeness.” As such, she dismissed the majority of claims, keeping just two alive, pending a decision from the Chancery Court whether to enforce a Delaware subpoena.  

 

Although the plaintiff in Univar argued that, because Delaware subpoenaed Univar to provide records, the complaint’s claims were ripe. The subpoena and formal enforcement action filing set the case apart from the similar Plains All American case, which was brought before the state had formally taken steps to request records or force Plains to comply with an audit.  

 

The judge, however, disagreed. “While the state has subpoenaed documents from Plaintiff under the 2017 amendment to the UPL and has filed suit in state court to compel compliance, Univar cannot meet the adversity prong of the ripeness test until it is actually compelled to participate in the audit,” she wrote in her ruling. 

 

The court declined to dismiss two of Univar’s claims. The complaint argues that the state’s contingent fee arrangement with its third-party auditor violates Univar’s right to due process. It also asserts that audit subjects are selected based on their likelihood to produce large amounts of money for the state, constituting an equal protection violation. 

 

While the court agreed that two of the claims are ripe for consideration, it put the case on hold, pending a Chancery Court decision whether to enforce the state’s subpoena. 

 

“If the Chancery Court does not enforce the Subpoena, this action may no longer be necessary,” the judge wrote. “On the other hand, if the Subpoena is enforced, certain issues may become ripe and an amended complaint may be appropriate.” 

 

UPPO will continue to monitor and report on the progress of the Univar case as noteworthy developments occur.  

 

 

 

Tags:  audits  Delaware  estimation  litigation  Plains All American  Univar 

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UPPO Advocacy Update: September 2019

Posted By Administration, Thursday, September 26, 2019
Updated: Thursday, September 26, 2019

To help members remain aware of UPPO’s advocacy activities, the Unclaimed Property Focus blog presents the recurring Advocacy Update when legislatures are active or significant advocacy activity has occurred. Following are recent activities and trends from UPPO’s Government Relations and Advocacy Committee (GRAC).

 

Whistleblower Litigation

Among the issues GRAC has been closely monitoring is the increase of whistleblower court cases related to unclaimed property. Bloomberg Law recently covered one such case, which involves allegations surrounding JPMorgan Chase’s unclaimed property liability in New York. 

 

UPPO is concerned that the case could result in unintended consequences affecting unclaimed property compliance: 

  • The outcome of the case could diminish the incentive to voluntarily come into compliance. 
  • The case also raises issues regarding multiple state agencies interpreting the same statute differently.
  • The case could result in new operational burdens for both holders and administrators.

Please watch the UPPO blog in the coming weeks for more information about whistleblower cases and steps holders can take to protect themselves. 

 

Texas H.B. 3598 Questions

Earlier this year, the Texas legislature passed H.B. 3598. Among other things, the legislation outlines requirements for combined reporting of unclaimed property for affiliated companies. The new law raises many questions for holders and service providers. GRAC has begun compiling a list of these questions, which will be used to request clarification from the state. UPPO will email members shortly with additional information and an invitation to contribute questions to GRAC. 

 

Do You Have Ideas for GRAC?

GRAC is interested in your feedback. To make it easier for members to submit ideas and issues for the committee’s consideration, UPPO has added a form to the advocacy web page. Please use this form to share advocacy suggestions, ideas and issues for GRAC to consider. 

 

As more and more legislatures and regulatory agencies take on issues affecting unclaimed property compliance, advocacy has become an increasingly important role for UPPO.

Please take a few minutes to complete our 
Government Relations and Advocacy Survey to help us build our grassroots network. Responses will give us the ability to mobilize UPPO members when we are faced with legislative and regulatory challenges and opportunities.

Tags:  consolidated reporting  litigation  qui tam  Texas  whistleblower 

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Unclaimed Property News Roundup

Posted By Administration, Thursday, September 19, 2019

Unclaimed property often makes news headlines beyond the frequent reports of states trying to return money to their citizens. Following is a recap of some recent stories getting news coverage from local and national media outlets. 

 

Unclaimed gift cards become a gift to state budgets 

On Aug. 27, 2019, The Atlantic published an article discussing states’ use of unclaimed property – with a focus on gift cards – to strengthen their budgets. The article discusses Delaware’s unclaimed property practices, the Overstock.com case and the debate over states spending unclaimed funds. 

 

Lost items resurface at unclaimed property auction 

On Aug. 28, 2019, Orlando Sentinel reported on the strange tale of an elementary school teacher who discovered items from her safe deposit box, which her bank lost years earlier, were part of Florida’s unclaimed property auction.  

 

Consumer reporters shine the light on unclaimed property claim challenges 

On Aug. 28, 2019, ABC 7 News in San Francisco reported on a citizen’s difficulties claiming funds from an unclaimed cashier’s check after receiving notification from California’s Unclaimed Property Division. After claim denials, the state promptly returned the man’s funds when the television station’s consumer reporters sought answers. 

 

Famous people have unclaimed property too

A Sept. 4, 2019, Outline article discusses the treasure trove of unclaimed property waiting to be claimed by celebrities in California. Searching the state’s database, the website discovered nearly $100,000 available to more than 200 celebrities, escheated by an out-of-business board game manufacturer.

 

Cryptocurrency and unclaimed property 

A Sept. 11, 2019, Accounting Today article discussed the need for companies to consider the effects of cryptocurrency’s rising popularity on their practices, including unclaimed property compliance. 

Tags:  cryptocurrency  gift cards  safe deposit boxes  unclaimed property 

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Pennsylvania Reaffirms Reporting Standards for Retirement Accounts

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Brian Munley, Pennsylvania's director of the bureau of unclaimed property, recently issued a notification and reminder of the state’s Policy Guidance – Reporting Standards for Fiduciary Accounts. The notice reaffirms that Pennsylvania's guidance from September 2016 is still in effect and should be followed until further notice from the state. 

 

Following is Pennsylvania’s September 2019 notification:

 

In September 2016, in response to amendments made to the Commonwealth’s Disposition of Abandoned and Unclaimed Property Law, Treasury issued a Policy Guidance with a particular emphasis designed to ensure that IRAs and other types of retirement account owners would not be subject to negative tax treatment as a consequence of an escheatment of retirement-related assets to the Commonwealth. This Guidance protects an account owner under the age of 59 ½ by preventing the reporting/distribution of certain re-tirement accounts which my otherwise be subjected to the Internal Revenue Code’s 10-percent additional tax for early distributions. IRC §72(t)(2)(A)(i).

 

The following is a restatement of the Policy Guidance, which remains in full force and effect: 

Treasury will neither demand nor accept any retirement account that is presumed abandoned and unclaimed, except as follows:

  1. An individual retirement account (including a retirement plan for self-employed individuals) of which the beneficiary cannot be located for a period of three (3) years following the death of the owner and that is not subject to a mandatory distribution requirement; or
  2. An individual retirement account (including a retirement plan for self-employed individuals) of which the owner has attained seventy and one-half years of age and is not subject to a mandatory distribution requirement.

Accordingly, until further notice, retirement accounts are to be reported only if either of the above requirements are satisfied. It is Treasury’s objective to prevent the reporting of property that is not truly abandoned or unclaimed. In so doing, Treasury notes its authority to exercise its discretion to refuse the acceptance of certain types of unclaimed property. §72 P.S. §1301.17.

 

Questions pertaining to this notification may be directed via email to bmunley@patreasury.gov.

Tags:  Pennsylvania  retirement accounts  unclaimed property 

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