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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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Appeals Court Sides with Federal Government Over States in Unclaimed Savings Bond Battle

Posted By Administration, Thursday, August 15, 2019

On Aug. 13, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of the U.S. Treasury in a dispute with Kansas and Arkansas over the handling of unclaimed savings bonds. 

 

The states sought to enforce escheat laws specifying that, if bond owners fail to redeem their savings bonds within five years after maturity, the bonds would be considered abandoned and would transfer to the states two or three years later. When the U.S. Treasury refused the states’ efforts to claim such bonds, the states filed suit. A U.S. Claims Court sided with Kansas and Arkansas, and the federal government appealed.

 

In its reversal, the Appeals Court provided two reasons for ruling in favor of the U.S. Treasury:

  1. Federal law preempts state escheat laws, meaning the bonds belong to the original bond owners rather than the states.
  2. Even if the states owned the bonds, they were not entitled to rights greater than the original bond owners, who must provide the serial number to redeem bonds six years or more past maturity. Because the states don’t have the physical bonds or serial numbers, the Treasury acted properly when denying their redemption request.

Despite the loss, states continue to pursue the estimated $25 billion in unclaimed savings bond funds. On Aug. 1, 2019, Sen. John N. Kennedy (R-Louisiana) introduced S. 2417, the Unclaimed Savings Bond Act of 2019. If passed and signed into law, the bill would give states access to information about unclaimed savings bonds for inclusion in unclaimed property databases and, ultimately, the ability to claim and redeem the bonds. 

 

Before serving in the U.S. Senate, Kennedy was state treasurer in Louisiana. His bill currently has two cosponsors, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana). S. 2417 has been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee, where it awaits further action.

Tags:  Arkansas  Kansas  legislation  litigation  savings bonds  U.S. Treasury  unclaimed property 

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Insights from the NAST Symposium, Part 2

Posted By Contribution by Christa DeOliveira and Michael Unger, Thursday, July 11, 2019
Updated: Thursday, July 11, 2019

The National Association of State Treasurers’ (NAST) Annual Treasury Management Training Symposium held during May 2019 in Providence, Rhode Island, was engaging and enlightening. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) is affiliated with NAST and led the well-attended unclaimed property track of educational workshops and sessions. This blog post is part two in a series about the topics discussed in the symposium sessions. Read part one here.

 

Legislation 

Discussion about RUUPA-inspired legislation characterized it as not following a one-size-fits-all approach. Some jurisdictions, including Colorado, the District of Columbia and Vermont, have repealed their unclaimed property statutes and enacted new versions of RUUPA that have been largely modeled after the Uniform Law Commission’s version. Others, including Maine, South Carolina and Washington, introduced amended versions of RUUPA.

 

Still other states, including Minnesota, maintained their existing statute with expansive modifications incorporating RUUPA-like designs. These bills keep significant portions of current law, including examination of records, release and holder indemnifications, associated periods of limitation, and owner claims. They also add many amended RUUPA provisions. 

 

Another approach is to limited the scope of changes by keeping existing law and incorporating RUUPA-inspired provisions. Nevada took this approach, as most of the current law remains intact, but it proposes several dormancy periods like RUUPA, allows for electronic owner outreach under specified conditions, and makes some adjustments to included property types.

 

Direct payments to owners were dubbed as the ultimate outreach. This is where the state issues a payment to the owner in the absence of a claim. Naturally, states conducting this type of direct payment have certain criteria, such as comparing the address on reported property to the address on tax records (or other state/government databases), and the dollar value of the payment. Colorado enacted this option as part of its RUUPA bill and Florida has pending legislation related to state and local governments on specified small-value claims. California, District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont were also cited for considering similar pending bills.

 

South Dakota enacted a reduction in aggregate reporting from $50 down to $10. There was pending legislation to eliminate aggregate reporting altogether in Connecticut, Nebraska and Nevada.

 

Time limits on claims was a hot topic again at this year’s symposium. Georgia has enacted narrow “pure” escheat legislation to terminate an owner’s right to claim property for unclaimed excess proceeds from the sale of abandoned vehicles. Hawaii had two such bills that failed. S.B. 978 would have property with a value of less than $250 escheat to the state, if not claimed within five years. H.B. 1130 would have had property less than $100 automatically escheat to the state upon being reported and remitted. In both Hawaii bills, the owners’ property rights would be fully terminated.

 

Notably, participants expressed concern about enacting time limits on claims. It was described as bad policy and in contrast to the purpose of unclaimed property laws existing to protect the property rights of owners. The shift from the state assuming title, rather than a custodial role, may cause due process violations and be constitutionally problematic, according to the discussion. It was also noted GASB accounting rules already have provisions for setting up reserves for the amount expected to be claimed and taking the rest into income. Again this year, NAUPA discussed drafting a resolution about preserving owner rights to claim unclaimed property from states in perpetuity.

 

It was reported that, at the time of the symposium, DMF matching requirements exist in 33 states, in some form. Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming added this requirement since last year’s symposium, and there was pending legislation in California, D.C. and Massachusetts.

 

Litigation

Litigation was also discussed. Several cases related to disputes in holders producing records were noted: Texas v. ClubCorp Holdings Inc.Commonwealth, Treasury Department. v. PPL Corporation.Delaware, Department of Finance v. Univar Inc., and Univar Inc. v. Geisenberger. Current active cases discussed were: Faasse v. Coinbase Inc. as a cryptocurrency case; Weinbach v. Boeing Company as a case asserting wrongful escheat; and United Insurance Company of America v. Patronis, appealing a prior insurance ruling in Florida. 

 

Cases related to the treatment of class action proceeds were cited: McLeod v. Bank of America, N.A. and Rodriguez v. Danell Custom Harvesting, LLC, and Tennille et al. v. The Western Union Co. et al. Two qui tam (whistleblower) cases were touched on: Total Asset Recovery Services, LLC v. MetLife Inc. and Delaware ex rel. French v. Overstock.com Inc.         

 

More expansively, Kolton v. Frerichs and Goldberg v. Frerichs deal with not paying interest on claims. In Goldberg v. Frerichs, loss of the time value of money on property can be compensated for by giving owners the benefit of interim earnings. In Goldberg, the court cited an example of a rare coin being reported and remitted as unclaimed property. If the coin is sold, the owner loses out on the opportunity of appreciation. As such, it is insufficient to compensate the owner simply with the sale proceeds when the owner claims his property. Instead, upon claiming, the owner would be entitled to the earnings on the invested proceeds as the best substitute for the loss of appreciation. In the Goldberg case, the court made the caveat that low value properties may be treated differently and are most unlikely to be entitled to earn interest where the administrative cost exceeds the interest. In April 2019, the plaintiffs’ in Goldbergsought to renew a class certification; therefore, this litigation is ongoing.

 

Based on this case the following questions were raised in the session: Will this lead to other litigation? Will this ruling be constrained to the 7th Circuit? Will states change their unclaimed property statutes to proactively address questions about interest? If states do decide to determine what will qualify as the threshold for accounts where the interest exceeds the administrative costs to preserve the account? If new statutes on interest are enacted what proxy will be used to determine the time value of money?

 

Time Bars

Currently there is not uniformity amongst state laws regarding the period of time after which a state cannot enforce its unclaimed property law. Such time bars can encompass periods of limitation, statutes of limitation, periods of repose or lapsed periods of enforcement. 

 

The different approaches include a set number of years; the number of years contingent on filing or notice; a hybrid of both; a limitation based on years to be examined under audit; some other form of limitation; or no time bar limitation at all. Also, states enacting RUUPA have followed different approaches, including following RUUPA language, maintaining provisions in current law or following other approaches.

 

The various versions of the Uniform Law Commission’s Uniform Unclaimed Property Acts contain different time bars, with the 2016 version listing five years from the date of a report and 10 years if no report was filed. In the presentation, it was noted this approach was not required and, instead, this was promulgated as an accommodation to holders.

 

The session equated time bars to an all-encompassing reporting exemption. It was noted that time bars regularly do not receive the deliberation they merit when drafting or considering new unclaimed property legislation. Further, the importance of weighing public and private interests when setting a time bar was raised.

 

While NAUPA succeeded on many controversial issues, it did not prevail on the matter of time bars, according to the discussion. NAUPA recommendations to the Uniform Law Commission were discussed as being 10 years, generally, but 15 years for either nonreporting or underreporting. The caveat to this was that if the holder’s books and records showed acknowledged liabilities that are presumed unclaimed, even if they were reportable prior to the time bar, it would not qualify. NAUPA communicated to the ULC it strongly opposed the ULC time bar provision.

 

Panelists discussed with certainty that shorter and more absolute time bars will result in less property being collected. The following recommendations were made related to enacting or revising legislation: do not include a time bar, but rather address look backs administratively; if a time bar is included, follow the 1995 Act provisions or what NAUPA proposed to the ULC; at minimum, follow the 1981 Act of 10 years plus the corresponding dormancy period; and consider the lessons of matured, unpaid life insurance.

 

The NAST Symposium unclaimed property track included important insights on legislation, suggestions on drafting legislation, court cases and time bars. While the topics covered may not directly or indirectly impact all property type holders, it is worthwhile to remain aware of NAUPA developments. It is also important to be informed of opportunities to work together with states, where our expertise and needs are aligned, and we can share our respective unique expertise and insights, and related unclaimed property challenges or issues.  

 

More information on this symposium will be available in future blog posts.

 

Christa DeOliveira is chief compliance officer with Linking Assets Inc. Michael Unger is a senior manager with Crowe LLP’s unclaimed property practice. 

 

Tags:  legislation  litigation  NAST  NAUPA  time bars  unclaimed property 

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