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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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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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Litigation Update: Court Denies Motion for Summary Judgment in Card Compliant Whistleblower Case

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Delaware ex rel. French v. Card Compliant LLC et al. is a qui tam case – a suit brought when a whistleblower exposes alleged fraud against the government with the incentive of receiving a portion of the recovery as a reward. The defendants include Card Compliant LLC, a third-party company that some defendants used to issue gift cards and assume certain gift card responsibilities, and numerous other defendants. 

 

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’s allegations, the liability wasn’t truly transferred and, thus, defendants had the obligation to remit unclaimed property to Delaware but didn’t do so. 

 

On April 30, 2018, Judge Paul Wallace denied defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment seeking the dismissal of all claims.

 

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs cannot legally establish a Delaware False Claims and Reporting Act fraud claim because “the undisputed facts demonstrate the retailers had no legal obligation to pay the unredeemed balances on gift cards issued by and assigned to the card companies.” 

 

The court, however, said the defendants’ subjective beliefs regarding the validity of the giftco structure remain unresolved, and several disputed issues preclude resolution of whether the defendants knowingly acted in bad faith to avoid monetary obligations to the government. 

 

“The plaintiffs must be given the opportunity to present to a jury evidence of defendants’ actual knowledge, subjective belief, and purported bad faith,” the judge wrote.

 

The defendants also argued that a ruling by a previous judge in the case should be struck down. The ruling held that the relationship between the creditor/customer and the retailers (rather than the relationship between the card company and the retailers) is the relevant relationship for the purposes of escheat. 

 

The defendants suggested that the judge made this ruling without the benefit of reviewing documents and testimonial evidence from Delaware audits and VDAs in which the state took the position that when a gift card is assigned before dormancy, the card company is the relevant debtor for escheat purposes. 

 

Judge Wallace ruled that the defendants failed to establish that the prior ruling was clearly wrong and that extraordinary circumstances exist, thus preventing him from second-guessing the previous judge’s decision. 

 

Finally, the judge pointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s decision in the Marathon Petroleumcase. In that case, the court stated that the federal priority rules do not prevent the state from examining books and records to determine the unclaimed property holder.

 

The defendants had sought refuge through application of the DFCRA’s Administrative Proceedings Bar and took the position that if Delaware had previously engaged in the type of statutory audits (and VDA procedures) the Third Circuit spoke on to examine their giftco activities and escheat obligations, then the defendants had been subject to administrative proceedings that would preclude the court from exercising jurisdiction over the state’s case. 

 

The judge wrote, “To act as a bar, those prior administrative proceedings must have been ‘substantially based upon allegations or transactions which are subject of a civil suit or an administrative proceeding in which the Government is already a party.’ It would be indeed incongruous if the administrative proceeding meant to discover and enforce a Defendant’s true escheat obligation could cover more ground than a qui tam suit claiming fraud in the same allegations or transactions.”

 

Noteworthy issues that remain to be determined in the case include:

  • When are cards escheatable to Delaware?
  • Who is the true holder of the cards – the retailers or the third party?
  • Can cards that have already been issued be assigned to another affiliate or third party?
  • Was the giftco structure a reasonable effort to comply with the law or did the companies act with fraudulent intent?

This case is scheduled to go to trial in September. UPPO will continue to monitor and report on developments in this case.

Tags:  Card Compliant  Delaware  gift cards  litigation  qui tam  unclaimed property  whistleblower 

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The Four Phases of Delaware’s VDA Program

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 19, 2018

As part of recent changes to Delaware’s unclaimed property statute, the state must give holders the opportunity to enter into its voluntary disclosure agreement (VDA) program before initiating audits. In addition, holders that were already under examination had the option to convert to a VDA by Dec. 11, 2017. Expectedly, interest in Delaware’s VDA process is high. 

 

To provide UPPO members with insight into Delaware’s VDA process, Delaware Unclaimed Property VDA Administrator Alison Iavarone outlined the program and responded to questions during a recent UPPO webinar. 

 

“The VDA program is not an examination—it’s not an audit—but the holder is expected to conduct a comprehensive and detailed self-review of its books and records to determine whether the holder has past-due abandoned or unclaimed property reportable to Delaware,” she said.

 

Once enrolled, qualified unclaimed property holders accepted into Delaware’s VDA program will proceed through a four-phase process.

 

Phase 1: Scoping

During the initial phase of the VDA, the participating holder analyzes its organizational history, accounting functions and records to determine areas of potential unclaimed property exposure and underreporting. 

 

“The review should be customized to the holder,” Iavarone said. “In order to determine how it’s customized, you need to understand the corporate activity, whether companies were acquired during the VDA review period and how they were rolled into the company for accounting purposes, for example. Another big thing to address during the scoping phase is the compliance history—whether they have been filing and what property types they have been filing. This could help minimize the review you need to do.”

 

The holder determines the entities and property types where unclaimed property exposure exists and submits a Scoping Worksheet and Information Request to the VDA administrator assigned by the secretary of state’s office—either Drinker Biddle or TL2Q. 

 

The administrator reviews the holder’s submission and responds to any questions the holder may have about the process. The Delaware Department of State communicates with the administrator throughout the VDA process and remains available to address holder concerns. 

 

At the conclusion of this phase, the administrator and holder will agree on the scope of the VDA and establish a timeline for completion of the other phases. 

 

Phase 2: Quantification

During the second phase, the holder will review its books and records to quantify past-due unclaimed property reportable to Delaware for the entities and property types established during the scoping phase. The methodology for the quantification of amounts due to Delaware will generally be based on whether an entity is domiciled in Delaware and the records availability for each entity and property type. 

 

The holder and administrator periodically complete status updates to ensure the process is proceeding. The holder provides preliminary quantification schedules or other documentation for the administrator’s review and feedback. 

 

Phase 3: Submission and Validation

During the third phase, the administrator reviews the holder’s work and conclusions with the goal of establishing a settlement agreement, including the amount reportable to Delaware. The holder presents its VDA Submission to the administrator. It should include:

  • Entity or company background information (in narrative form). 
  •  Summary of the work performed (in narrative form). 
  •  Summary of findings (in narrative form). 
  •  Supporting schedules. 
  •  Supporting documents. 
  •  Other applicable documentation (e.g., legal opinions, management representation letters, etc.).

“This is the nuts and bolts of the VDA,” Iavarone said. “It should include is a summary of what was done in narrative form and then quantification schedules summarizing how you came up with the numbers, along with supporting documentation.” 

 

Upon receipt and review, the administrator responds with questions and follow-up items needed to proceed. Depending on the request, the holder may respond with supporting documentation and/or edits and updates to calculation spreadsheets. The holder also provides a management representation letter from its chief financial officer, describing what records are available for property types and for which years. 

 

The administrator presents the VDA Submission to the secretary of state’s office for review and approval. The Department of State reviews the VDA Submission and the administrator’s recommendations.

 

Phase 4: Closing and Documentation

Upon acceptance of the VDA Submission, the holder and secretary of state’s office work together to close the VDA. An officer or authorized representative completes and submits Form VDA-2 – Voluntary Self-Disclosure Agreement, along with several attachments:

  • Exhibit A: List of Entities: This attachment includes a list of entities include in the VDA and their federal identification numbers. Dates and states of incorporation are also requested but not required.
  • Exhibit B.1: Summary of Amounts Due: This attachment includes a table summarizing reportable amounts by property type. 
  • Exhibit B.2: Line Item Owner: This attachment, provided in a printable format should include the name, address, property type and amount that will be included in the NAUPA file that will be uploaded by the holder after receiving the VDA Demand Letter. 
  • Exhibit C: SOS VDA Submission: This attachment may consist of many documents and should include: the narrative summarizing the VDA analysis; a summary and detailed schedules quantifying amounts; copy of VDA-1 and any applicable amendments; management representation/records availability letter; legal opinions/memoranda related to the VDA; and any other relevant documents. 

After the holder and secretary of state have signed Form VDA-2, the Department of State will issue a Demand Letter, requesting payment and providing instructions for uploading the necessary NAUPA file. The holder will have 10 days to make payment of the amount due. 

 

Following completion of the VDA process, the holder is required to file unclaimed property reports electronically to the Department of Finance for the next three years. 

 

For additional information regarding Delaware’s VDA program, including forms, sample documents and answers to frequently asked questions, visit http://vda.delaware.gov.

Tags:  Delaware  VDAs  voluntary disclosure agreements 

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Unclaimed Property Trends Shape Annual Conference Sessions

Posted By Administration, Monday, January 8, 2018

For better or worse, this is not a dull time to be an unclaimed property professional. In recent years, numerous state legislatures have considered (and often approved) updating their unclaimed property statutes. Courts continue to look at state unclaimed property practices, including controversial audit practices. And companies from coast to coast and border to border face the ongoing challenge of minimizing their unclaimed property risk.

 

Throughout 2017, UPPO helped members keep up with the trends affecting unclaimed property professionals. Many of these same trends shape the agenda for the 2018 UPPO Annual Conference, March 4-7, 2018, in Tampa, Florida.

 

Delaware

In February 2017, Delaware Gov. John Carney signed S.B. 13 into law, triggering significant changes to the state’s unclaimed property practices. Since then, the state has adopted new audit rules and encouraged holders currently under audit to convert to the state’s VDA program.

 

As we approach the one-year mark since S.B. 13, its effects continue to unfold. The Delaware Reforms: One Year Later session at the 2018 UPPO Annual Conference will examine the status of changes in Delaware and their ramifications. The Advocacy Efforts in the Age of Reform session will shine a light on UPPO’s work to promote fair unclaimed property requirements not only in Delaware, but in all states.

 

Audits

Fueled by activity in Delaware, controversy continues to swirl around state audit practices. The use of third-party auditors incentivized by contingency fees has been the focus of litigation and advocacy efforts. As states update their unclaimed property statutes, some, such as Michigan, are enacting new audit standards. Some states also help offer a fairer playing field for holders by providing the opportunity to appeal audit assessments. The examination process, particularly that of multi-state audits, often strains holder resources, as it stretches over several years.  

 

The Audit 101, Navigating Your Audit and Mock Trial sessions, along with several of the Industry Focus sessions, at the 2018 UPPO Annual Conference will provide attendees with insight into strategies holders can employ when facing examination.

 

Litigation

The courts have provided several favorable rulings for holders in recent months. Appeals court rulings in cases brought by Plains All American Pipeline, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Marathon Petroleum have yielded positive results. Similar cases, including those brought by Office Depot and the multi-state squabble over MoneyGram official checks, continue to proceed through the courts.

 

Attendees at the 2018 UPPO Annual Conference will learn about these and other relevant litigation trends during the Legislative and Litigation Update session.

 

Operational Practices

In addition to exploring unclaimed property trends, the 2018 UPPO Annual Conference agenda is packed with sessions to provide practical knowledge attendees can apply to be more effective at their jobs. Sessions will examine a wide range of topics, including: state reporting basics, managing due diligence, self-assessments, record retention, exemptions and deductions, fraud, policies and procedures, foreign jurisdictions and much more.

 

View complete details about educational sessions and other 2018 UPPO Annual Conference events. The early-bird registration deadline is Jan. 10, so register today for the best rate.

Tags:  audits  Delaware  litigation  trends 

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Delaware Makes a Case for Converting Audits to VDAs

Posted By Contribution from Carla McGlynn, 2017/18 UPPO president, Thursday, November 30, 2017

With Delaware’s Dec. 11, 2017, deadline for converting existing audits to state’s Voluntary Disclosure Agreement Program fast approaching, the Secretary of State’s Office recently held a webinar for eligible unclaimed property holders. Alison Iavarone, Delaware’s unclaimed property VDA administrator provided background on the VDA Program and addressed frequently asked questions about the conversion option.

 

The VDA conversion option originates from S.B. 13, legislation intended to shift the state’s unclaimed property compliance efforts away from audits, while promoting voluntary and continued compliance, according to Iavarone. Holders that received an examination notice before July 22, 2015, are eligible. Those that were under audit as Feb. 2, 2017, also have the option to choose a fast-track audit, administered by state’s Department of Finance.

 

Why Convert?

Iavarone suggested several reasons why eligible holders should consider converting their audits to VDAs:

  • The VDA Program is intended to be a more business-friendly method than an audit for holders to come into compliance.
  • The VDA Program is designed to be faster and less expensive than an audit.
  • The holder manages the VDA process and presents its findings to the state for validation. After completion, holders that meet future reporting obligations are protected from audit for historic liabilities for the property types and entities reviewed under the VDA.
  • The state waives interest and penalties for holders participating in the VDA Program.
  • Holders are not expected to begin their internal VDA review from scratch. They can use any review information gathered before converting to the VDA to ensure greater efficiency.
  • Work papers from the audit will not transfer to the Department of State as part of the conversion. The only shared information pertains to the scope of the audit – a summary of entities, property types and audit population periods.

Frequently Asked Questions

Iavarone addressed several key questions related to the state’s VDAs.

 

What is the look-back period?

The look-back period is 10 report years (15 transaction years) from the date the original examination notice was sent to the holder.

 

What is the scope of the VDA from a converted audit?

The scope, for most eligible holders, was determined by the auditor. At a minimum, holders are expected to use the same scope as the audit for the VDA. If they choose, holders may expand the scope.

 

How is the state handling bifurcated audits, covering securities and general ledger items?

Under Delaware law, only the general ledger portion of the audit may be converted to a VDA. Securities are not eligible.

 

What if a holder already settled part of an examination?

If holders have settled and closed portions of the audit before conversion, only the remaining entities and property types will be covered under the VDA.

 

What is the statute of limitations?

S.B. 13 includes a 10-year statute of limitations from when the reporting duty arose. It will not be applied retroactively, as the previous six-year statute of limitations applied before S.B. 13 was effective.

 

How is estimation applied?

The estimation process continues to use second-priority or gross estimation, as it has in the past.

 

What if a settlement cannot be reached?

The audit will refer back to the Department of Finance if a settlement cannot be reached for a particular property type or some other aspect of the VDA.

 

Who is managing the VDA process for Delaware?

Drinker Biddle continues to manage the VDA Program on behalf of the Delaware VDA administrator, who ultimately has final review and approval responsibilities. 

 

Eligible holders must file Form NOI CONV with the Department of State by Dec. 11, 2017, to participate. For more information, visit http://vda.delaware.gov

Tags:  audits  Delaware  VDAs 

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