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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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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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Court Rules California Unclaimed Property Guidance Are Invalid Regulations

Posted By Administration, Thursday, September 6, 2018

Judge Harold Kahn with the California Superior Court in San Francisco ruled two California unclaimed property regulations invalid on July 18, 2018, saying the state controller had improperly adopted them. 

 

According to the court order granting summary judgment in the case of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans v. Betty T. Yee, et al., Case No. CGC-15-548384, the California controller imposed two pieces of “guidance” as regulations without following state requirements for adopting regulations.

  • The state’s “External Database Regulation” required life insurers to compare its insureds’ life insurance policies or other records against the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File or similar database to determine whether any insureds were deceased in order to comply with California Unclaimed Property Law obligations.
  • The “Dormancy Trigger Regulation” required that a life insurance policy is reportable as unclaimed property under the California Unclaimed Property Law no later than three years after the insured had died, even if less than three years had elapsed since the insurer’s records disclosed that the insured had died. 

The regulations appeared in the September 2013 Holder Handbook, issued by the controller’s office. Insurer Thrivent Financial filed suit in 2015, arguing that they were improperly adopted. Defendant Betty Yee, in her role as California controller, responded that the Holder Handbook was intended to provide best practices and was not intended as regulations.

 

The court disagreed with the defendant and ordered the controller’s office to remove reference to the regulations from any materials it disseminates to life insurance companies “unless accompanied by a conspicuous disclaimer that the purported requirements of the two regulations are merely defendants’ views and do not have any legal effect.”

 

The ruling also allows the defendant to take steps to comply with the state’s Administrative Procedure Act in order to properly enact the regulations. 

 

In addition to the immediate effect on life insurers complying with California laws, the ruling raises issues about guidance published by other state and federal agencies. Treatment of such guidance as requirements rather than informal opinions could be problematic, and could be subject to scrutiny as a result of the Thrivent decision. 

Tags:  California  dormancy  life insurance  litigation  thrivent financial 

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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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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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Marathon Decision Signals Big Win for Holders

Posted By Administration, Thursday, January 4, 2018

Marathon Petroleum Corporation et al. v. Secretary of Finance, State of Delaware et al.

 

On Dec. 4, 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s dismissal of Marathon Petroleum’s lawsuit against Delaware. The appeals court decision is exciting for holders for multiple reasons:

  1. It provides holders reassurance that they can sue for violations of federal common law.
  2. It limits states’ ability to look at subsidiaries only to confirm that they’re legitimate and not simply alter egos of the parent company.
  3. It reassures holders that they can “just say no” when faced with unreasonable information requests.

Background

Marathon uses a gift card management company incorporated in Ohio, a state that exempts such property from escheatment. After Marathon objected to an $8 million estimated liability for gift certificates for which the company said it had issuance and redemption records, third-party auditor Kelmar – on behalf of Delaware – requested records related to the gift card company’s creation and operations. 

 

Among the information requested were contracts, meeting minutes, vendor agreements and accounting records. Marathon refused, arguing that such a request is outside of Delaware’s jurisdiction. Again, Kelmar suggested it would turn over the issue to the attorney general for enforcement action. 

 

In February 2016, Marathon filed suit. arguing violation of the federal priority rules and the Fourth Amendment. The Marathon case also took issue with the state’s estimation practices. 

 

Delaware argued that Texas v. New Jersey applies only to disputes between states, not audits of private entities. The defendants also argued that Marathon’s claims were premature, as they would have their chance to make their case in state court if they continued to resist turning over requested documents. Attorneys for Marathon took issue with the state’s interpretation of federal law and compared the nine-year audit of the company to a “fishing expedition.”

 

The Decision

On Sept. 23, 2016, a U.S. District Court agreed with Delaware’s arguments and dismissed the case. In overturning the District Court ruling, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “…we disagree with [the] conclusion that private parties cannot invoke federal common law to challenge a state’s authority to escheat property.”

 

The Appeals Court, however, agreed with the earlier court’s ruling that the case was not yet “ripe.” “To the extent the companies are challenging the scope or means of the examination in this case, the claim is not ripe, since the state has taken no formal steps to compel compliance with the audit,” the court wrote.

 

The case has been referred back to the District Court to clarify that the case’s dismissal is without prejudice, giving the plaintiffs time to refile the lawsuit at a later date.

 

Effects of the Decision

Through its decision, the appeals court confirmed that holders can rely on the federal common law priority rules from Texas v. New Jersey. The decision tells holders that the priority rules apply to all relationships involving the remittance of unclaimed property to a state, not just disputes between states.

 

“To finally have confirmation that holders have standing to sue under the federal common law rules for violations and potential alleged violations is a really big win for holders,” said Jameel Turner, attorney at Bailey Cavalieri LLC. “It forces the states to negotiate audit settlements in good faith because any audit or audit dispute could lead to a federal lawsuit.”

 

Looking at the holder-subsidiary relationship, the court tackled the long-standing question of what extent the state can investigate subsidiaries incorporated in in another jurisdiction as part of an audit examination. The court confirmed that states have the ability to conduct an inquiry into subsidiaries to determine if they are legitimate and not just alter egos of the parent.

 

“If the holder asserts that its gift card subsidiary is incorporated in Virginia and holds the company’s gift card liabilities, then producing a certificate of good standing, the articles of organization and a sample journal entry to show how liabilities are booked should be sufficient,” Turner said. “Beyond that, there’s no need to go down a rabbit hole with the state and look at voluminous card-level detail and other irrelevant documents that are typically requested. To receive some clarity about what records holders need to produce relative to their gift card subsidiaries is a significant win for the holder community.”

 

These limits reassure holders of the ability to “just say no” to information requests outside states’ audit authority. If the state disagrees, it would need to sue and let a court decide.

 

“I think this case will embolden holders to stand firm in their legal rights,” Turner said. “When they think a state is making information requests that are outside the scope of the state’s audit authority, holders will be more apt to just say no. Marathon provides holders with legal authority to say no to unlawful information requests and force a state to file an enforcement action.”

 

Disclaimer: This case summary contains a general description of the case. It is not intended as business, financial, legal, tax, reporting or compliance or other professional advice or services. This summary blog is not a substitute for such professional advice.

Tags:  gift cards  litigation 

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