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False Claims Act Risk for Unclaimed Property Holders

In what has become an unfortunate trend, unclaimed property holders continue to be subject to lawsuits under state false claims acts (FCA – also called a qui tam or whistleblower action) for alleged underreporting and remittance of unclaimed property obligations. More than 30 states have a false claims act with whistleblower provisions and nearly all are applicable to unclaimed property. While an honest mistake should not create liability under an FCA, a holder could be liable if its failure to report not only was done knowingly, but also if such failure to comply was done with deliberate ignorance or with reckless disregard. Actual fraud is not a necessary precursor to being subject to false claims act liability.

Potential liability under state FCA laws is far in excess of any liability under an unclaimed property audit. FCA laws impose treble damages (3x the value of the underreported property), penalties, interest and attorney’s fees. Successful claims under these laws are not just extremely punitive to the holder but also lucrative for the person bringing the lawsuit who can earn up to 30% of the ultimate recovery to the state. Liability under a FCA can turn a holder’s failure to be appropriately diligent in determining its unclaimed property compliance obligations into a multi-million dollar legal battle with long-term public relations implications. The fact that a holder has already been audited or that the State may have historically agreed with the holder’s position may not prevent a FCA case progressing.

A holder’s FCA unclaimed property horror begins with an investigation, which can be prompted by either claims by private parties (called relators) or the state attorney general’s office. A relator may be a disgruntled employee or any clever person with good research skills. The holder may not even know the claim has been filed and the investigation has been going on for years. These investigations may open closed periods and, once the holder is informed, are very interrogation-like, with the holder often knowing very little about the underlying claims until the case is unsealed. Eventually, these investigations may turn into a public court battle with a sometimes politically motivated state attorney general on the other side. Even if the state AG’s office declines to proceed with the case, the private party initiating the case may nevertheless proceed.

While frequently FCA cases are settled before becoming public, several recent cases provide some background for holders looking for FCA examples. In a series of Delaware qui tam cases, more than 25 retailers and restaurants were sued by a former disgruntled employee of a gift card issuance and management company alleging unclaimed property compliance violations. All but one settled or was dismissed by the court. In New York, a court recently dismissed claims by an audit firm against nearly a dozen life insurers in response to allegations under the false claims act that the companies failed to report life insurance policy funds – alleging more than $14.5 billion in damages. Regardless of industry, these lawsuits are a [...]

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Business Victorious in Unclaimed Gift Card False Claims Case

The Delaware Supreme Court gave Overstock.com a win in a False Claims Act (FCA) suit alleging the retailer failed to remit unclaimed gift card funds to the state. Overstock.com Inc. v. the State of Delaware and French, DE Sup. Ct., No. 327,2019 (June 25, 2020). A jury previously found Overstock liable for approximately $7.3 million. The Delaware Supreme Court, interpreting the FCA statute in effect for the years at issue, determined the trial court judge improperly instructed the jury that the knowing failure to file unclaimed property reports was the making of a false statement as required to succeed on an FCA claim. Contrary to the trial judge’s instructions, the Supreme Court determined that to meet the FCA standard in effect for the years at issue, some document incorporating the alleged false claim must have been provided to the government. Failure to file a report was by definition not a false record or statement because there was not record or statement.

Based on this interpretation of the FCA statute, the jury verdict was reversed because Overstock did not file any unclaimed property reports with Delaware. Absent a filed report, there was no false claim. The plaintiffs alleged other documents were sufficient to meet the submission of a “false record or statement” element of the relevant FCA: (a) Overstock’s books and records and (b) statements to the SEC. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments. Overstock’s books and records were not sufficient because these documents were not submitted to the State and the SEC filings were not submitted in order to avoid the alleged unclaimed property liability.

Delaware, like many states, adopts the same language as the federal FCA statute. The federal government made amendments in 2009 to include language imposing liability if someone “knowingly conceals or knowingly and improperly avoids or decreases an obligation.” Delaware amended its FCA statute in 2013 to include this language.

Practice Note:
This win does not provide any guidance on the substantive issue asserted by the plaintiffs at trial regarding whether and under what facts contracting with another entity to issue gift cards imposes unclaimed property obligations on the issuer rather than the retailer. This is a narrow victory as it applies to a prior version of Delaware’s FCA statute. However, companies confronted by FCA suits – for both unclaimed property and tax liability, should look at when or if the state at issue amended the FCA to adopt the modern version and whether they have a filing history. It is interesting that a company that did not file any report is potentially better off under the historic FCA language than one who did. While this a victory based on a narrow issue, a victory is a victory.




Delaware Starts Unclaimed Property “Compliance Reviews” (Different from Audits)

If the Delaware Office of Unclaimed Property believes that a person may have filed an “inaccurate, incomplete, or false report,” the State Escheator may authorize a “compliance review” under Del. Code Ann. tit. 12, § 1170(b). This is not a standard audit and as a result, the target is not entitled to the option of entering the state’s voluntary disclosure program rather than being subject to the audit. Nevertheless, the compliance review can result in a finding of liability.

Correspondence between the Unclaimed Property Professionals Organization and the Delaware State Escheator’s Office acknowledges that several holders have been selected for this review. According to the Escheator’s Office, if a holder has no report or a negative report, the state will typically request a copy of the holder’s unclaimed property policies and procedures that would support the lack of property due to the state. By statute, the state may review the filed reports and “all supporting documents related to such reports.” The scope of the concept of “supporting documents” is not clear.

Practice Note: Companies, particularly those domiciled in Delaware, not filing Delaware unclaimed property reports or filing reports showing no liability, should review their policies and procedures related to unclaimed property, including how voided checks and unidentified remittances are handled. Furthermore, recent audits have included an expanded Automated Clearing House (ACH) payment review request, so a company should also review its treatment of failed ACH payments. Such a review should take place in an environment that will protect the attorney-client privilege – so, including internal counsel and/or external counsel is critical. Such an internal review should: (a) verify that the holder is in compliance with its policies and procedures; and (b) provide any necessary policy or operational changes. Conducting such a review and maintaining attorney-client privilege for appropriate elements of the review is especially important given recent false claims act developments in the unclaimed property space.




Finishing SALT: Inside SALT’s Monthly Recap

Wrapping Up October – and Looking Forward to November

As we wrap up October, you can view all of the topics we discussed over the last month and take a look at the State and Local Tax events where our lawyers will be speaking in November.

SALT Activities in November:

November 1, 2017: Jane May presented “State Conformity with Federal Income Tax Laws — Especially in Light of Possible Sweeping Federal Income Tax Legislation?” at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the California Tax Bar and California Tax Policy Conference.

November 2, 2017: Peter Faber presented an Update on SALT Developments at the Philadelphia Tax Conference. (more…)




Get Ready for the Countdown: Final Delaware Unclaimed Property Regulations Published

On October 1, 2017, the Delaware Department of Finance published final regulations in the Register of Regulations repealing its former unclaimed property regulations and promulgating a new reporting and examination manual.  See 21 DE Reg 336 (Oct. 1, 2017).  The final reporting and examination regulation contains no substantive changes from the revised version that was re-proposed on August 1, 2017.  As published, the regulations are set to be adopted and take effect on October 11, 2017. (more…)




Wrapping Up August – and Looking Forward to September

Upcoming McDermott Will & Emery SALT Activities in September:

September 14, 2017: Robin Greenhouse, Kristen Hazel, Sandra McGill and Alysse McLoughlin will be speaking at McDermott Will & Emery’s Tax in the City®: A Women’s Tax Roundtable meeting in New York City about local tax updates and ethics.

September 15, 2017: Jane Wells May is speaking in Austin, TX at the ABA Tax Section Meeting about “False Claims Acts and State Taxes.”

September 18, 2017: Mary Kay Martire is speaking in San Antonio, TX at the 2017 IPT Sales Tax Symposium about “Third Party Tax Enforcement Actions.”

September 19, 2017: Arthur Rosen is speaking in San Antonio, TX at the 2017 IPT Sales Tax Symposium about sales tax nexus –“Son of Quill: The Sequel.”

September 19, 2017: Stephen Kranz is speaking in San Antonio, TX at the 2017 IPT Sales Tax Symposium about uncollectible debts – “Breaking Bad from Bad Debt.”

September 26, 2017: Cate Battin and Mary Kay Martire are presenting a “National Update on Key SALT Issues” in Rolling Meadows, IL, at the 18th Annual SALT Conference of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois.

September 28, 2017: Eric Carstens and Nick Furtwengler will be speaking at the TEI Emerging Tax Professionals Seminar, taking place in McDermott’s Chicago, IL office, about the SALT portions of “Acquiring or Expanding a Business,” “Integration and Compliance” and “The Audit Notice Arrives: Now What?”

Wrapping up August:

Our August 2017 blog posts are available on insideSALT.com, or read each article by clicking on the titles below. To receive the latest on state and local tax news and commentary directly in your inbox as they are posted, click here to subscribe to our email list.

August 1, 2017: Implications of Federal Partnership Audit Rules for State and Local Taxation

August 8, 2017: MTC Offers 18 State Marketplace Seller Amnesty Initiative

August 14, 2017: Resistance is not Always Futile: New Decision in Ongoing Delaware Unclaimed Property Audit Litigation

August 15, 2017: Illinois Court Upholds Cook County’s Beverage Tax Finding It Passes Constitutional Muster and Related Developments

August 16, 2017: Delaware (Re)Proposes Unclaimed Property Reporting and Examination Manual Regulation

August 18, 2017: MTC Marketplace Seller Voluntary Disclosure Initiative Underway




Delaware (Re)Proposes Unclaimed Property Reporting and Examination Manual Regulation

On August 1, the Delaware Department of Finance (DOF) published a revised version of its proposed reporting and examination manual regulation addressing audit procedures and method of estimation.  See 21 DE Reg 123 (Aug. 1, 2017). The revised proposed regulation is substantially similar to the first draft proposed earlier this year, but contains a dozen or so notable differences (described in more detail below). Because the former draft of the regulation was never finalized, the 60-day time period for eligible holders to convert to the Voluntary Disclosure Agreement (VDA) Program (administered by the Secretary of State) or an expedited audit has not started to run, and will not commence until the final DOF regulation is published in the monthly Register of Regulations. Based on the fact that the DOF is accepted comments through August 31, 2017 (and likely needs at least a month to take them into consideration), the final regulation is not expected to be published before October 1, 2017, giving eligible holders at least three more months before the looming conversion deadline.

Our summary of the initial regulations proposed by the DOF and Secretary of State (SOS) on April 1, 2017 is available here. The final SOS VDA estimation regulation was published on July 1, 2017, without substantive amendments. See 21 DE Reg 50 (July 1, 2017). Below is a brief summary of the key differences between the old and new proposed DOF reporting and examination manual that holder’s should be aware of.

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Resistance is not Always Futile: New Decision in Ongoing Delaware Unclaimed Property Audit Litigation

On August 9, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Third Circuit), overruling the US District Court for the District of Delaware (District Court), allowed a claim by a holder seeking to prevent an unclaimed property audit by Delaware on due process grounds to proceed. See Plains All American Pipeline L.P. v. Cook et al., No. 16-3631 (3d Cir. Aug. 9, 2017).  The procedural due process claim challenges Delaware’s use of auditors that have a stake in the assessment. Consistent with the District Court decision, the Third Circuit held that challenges to Delaware’s estimation methodology were ruled not ripe. The case has been remanded to the District Court for further proceedings.

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Finishing SALT: Inside SALT’s Monthly Recap

Wrapping up July—and Looking Forward to August

SALT Activities for August:

August 2, 2017: Diann Smith is moderating a panel at the 50th Multistate Tax Commission Annual Conference in Louisville, Kentucky about “The Significance of the MTC – Past, Present, and Future – from the Outside.”

August 5, 2017: Stephen Kranz is presenting about Unclaimed Property at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) SALT Task Force Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, and will cover the following topics:

  • Lessons learned from the first legislative season in which the Revised Uniform Unclaimed Property Act was considered, and in some cases adopted in part.
  • The MoneyGram case, currently before the United States Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction to handle cases brought by one state against another, which may rewrite the rules regarding which state has priority over custody of unclaimed funds.

Wrapping up July:

Our July 2017 blog posts are available on insidesalt.com, or may be read below by clicking on the titles. To receive the latest on state and local tax news and commentary directly in your inbox as they are posted, click here to subscribe to our email list.

July 6, 2017: Connecticut Will Make You Disclose Personal Customer Data!

July 7, 2017: Tax Changes Implemented As Part of Revenue Package Supporting Illinois Budget

July 7, 2017: Illinois Unclaimed Property Law Substantially Revised As Part of Revenue Package Supporting Illinois Budget

July 12, 2017: Beverage Tax Wars Continue as Parties Head Back to Court for a Preliminary Injunction Hearing on the Cook County, Illinois Tax

July 13, 2017: What Is Minimal Substantial Nexus?

July 24, 2017: House Judiciary Subcommittee to Consider Sensenbrenner Bill Tomorrow




Finishing SALT: Inside SALT’s Monthly Recap

Wrapping Up June

Our June 2017 blog posts are available on insidesalt.com, or read each article by clicking on the titles below. To receive the latest on state and local tax news and commentary directly in your inbox as they are posted, click here to subscribe to our email list.

June 5, 2017: Nexus is Crucial, Complex Connection for State Tax Professionals

June 6, 2017: Substitute Alert – Delaware Technical Corrections Bill

June 8, 2017: Inside SALT Event in McDermott Will & Emery’s New York Office

New York, NY: The annual Inside SALT event took place on Thursday, June 8, 2017 in McDermott’s New York office. Tax lawyers Peter Faber, Todd Harrison, Stephen Kranz, Alysse McLoughlin, Art Rosen, Diann Smith and Mark Yopp presented a substantive half-day program highlighting many State and Local Tax updates, including recent changes specific to the New York area, Nexus developments in digital taxation, and news related to apportionment, transfer pricing and unclaimed property. The event had a successful turnout, with tax executives from many of McDermott’s top clients, and culminated in a networking reception.

June 8, 2017: Tax in the City® Event in McDermott Will & Emery’s Chicago Office

Established in 2014 by McDermott Will & Emery LLP, Tax in the City® is a discussion and networking group for women in tax that fosters collaboration and mentorship and facilitates in-person connections and roundtable study group events around the country.

McDermott’s second Tax in the City® meeting of the year took place on Thursday, June 8, 2017 in the Chicago office. The event began with a CLE/CPE presentation on Privilege and the Ethics of Connectivity. After a break for lunch and networking around the room, the program continued with a roundtable discussion focusing on best practices for drafting tax provisions in commercial contracts. Kristen Hazel spoke about drafting Letters of Intent, then Britt Haxton covered credit agreements, Sandra McGill covered withholding tax provisions, and Jane May wrapped up with settlement agreements.  Following that discussion, Mary Kay Martire passed our continuing discussion of the Illinois Grand Bargain over to Carol Portman, McDermott Alum and President of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois, who shared with us some insights into the Illinois budget stalemate. The event concluded with Sandra McGill offering her insights into tax reform, as well as Kristen Hazel’s thoughts on preparing for new rules effective in 2018. The roundtable event aided great networking and conversations, and saw an impressive turnout with female tax leaders from many of McDermott’s client companies.

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