Articles Posted in Fraud

In Virginia, a civil action for fraud requires more than just dishonest or unethical behavior on the part of the individual or business being sued. People lie all the time, and tort liability usually does not arise. The law of fraud is more concerned about pecuniary loss resulting from the intentional misrepresentation or nondisclosure of material facts. Several years ago, I posted a blog entry entitled “Fraud: What It Is, and What It Is Not.” There, I explained that a plaintiff bringing an action for fraud must allege and prove (1) a false representation, (2) of a present, material fact, (3) made intentionally and knowingly, (4) with intent to mislead, (5) reasonable reliance by the party misled, and (6) resulting damage. Today, I want to elaborate on the first of those elements: the requirement of a fraudulent misrepresentation.

First of all, when we talk of false or fraudulent misrepresentations, we’re not just dealing with the written word. Just as the hearsay rule can apply to nonverbal conduct intended as an assertion, the first element of fraud can apply to nonverbal conduct that amounts to an assertion of fact inconsistent with the truth. If a person acts in such a way as to suggest the existence of a fact, and that fact does not exist, a misrepresentation has occurred upon which a fraud action may potentially be based.

Continue reading

Actual fraud is defined in Virginia as a misrepresentation of a material fact, made knowingly and intentionally, with the intent to mislead another person, when the person to whom the misrepresentation was made reasonably relies on that misrepresentation and suffers damages as a result. In other words, you commit fraud when you lie to someone for the purpose of tricking that person into doing something (or refraining from doing something), and the person believes you and falls for it. The misrepresentation does not need to be expressed in words; it can be communicated through nonverbal conduct. Sometimes even silent non-communication can amount to “fraud by omission.” If you know that remaining silent would cause someone to reasonably (but erroneously) infer certain facts and you intentionally fail to speak up, that could be actionable as fraud. If the misrepresentation causes the recipient to do something he would not have done had he not heard the lie, he is said to have relied on the misrepresentation.

If you don’t want your fraud lawsuit to get dismissed at the outset, be sure to allege in the complaint that the misrepresentation was made concerning a present or past fact. A common mistake is to confuse fraudulent misrepresentations with broken promises. You can sometimes sue for a broken promise, but a broken promise is not fraud because a promise is an undertaking to take some action in the future. Assuming you’re not psychic or clairvoyant (which is an assumption the judge is going to make, I assure you), you don’t know what the future holds, so you can’t “misrepresent” the future. If you say you will do something in the future but then you don’t actually do it, you have broken a promise and perhaps breached a contract; you haven’t committed fraud.

Continue reading

To sue a business for fraud in Virginia, a plaintiff must allege (and eventually prove) (1) a false representation, (2) of a material fact, (3) made intentionally and knowingly, (4) with intent to mislead, (5) reliance by the party misled, and (6) resulting damage to the party misled. When a business breaches a contract, it is not necessarily indicative of fraud. Broken promises are covered by the law of contracts rather than the law of fraud. Some courts have recognized, however, that if a corporation, at the time of making a contractually-enforceable promise, had no intention of ever actually making good on that promise, an aggrieved party could sue for fraud on the theory that the defendant impliedly misrepresented its true intentions.

This does not mean that a plaintiff can convert any ordinary breach-of-contract case into a fraud case. It would be all to easy to simply claim, any time a contract with your company is breached, and with the benefit of hindsight, that the party breaching the contract must have never had any intention of ever performing it. Under Rule 9(b), fraud claims must be pled with particularity so that well-meaning defendants who are unable to perform contractual obligations don’t suffer undue harm to their reputations or have to defend against frivolous lawsuits. To file a fraud complaint on the mere assumption that a breaching party must have committed fraud based solely on its lack of performance is inviting the court to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim.

Continue reading

To state a cause of action for fraud in Virginia, a plaintiff must plead that there was (1) a false representation of (2) a material fact, (3) made intentionally and knowingly, (4) with intent to mislead, and that the plaintiff (5) reasonably relied on that false representation and (6) that his reliance resulted in damages. What lawyers and judges often overlook is that to survive demurrer, a plaintiff must also show (as part of the causation requirement of elements 5 and 6) that the damage was proximately caused by the defendant’s alleged misrepresentation. (See, e.g., Cohn v. Knowledge Connections, Inc., 266 Va. 362, 369 (2003); Murray v. Hadid, 238 Va. 722, 731 (1989)). Not just caused–proximately caused.

The Virginia Supreme Court has defined proximate cause of an event as “that act or omission which, in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by an efficient intervening cause, produces the event, and without which that event would not have occurred.” Beale v. Jones, 210 Va. 519, 522 (1970). According to the Restatement of Torts, the concept of proximate cause encompasses both (1) causation in fact, which exists where a plaintiff’s reasonable reliance is a “substantial factor in determining the course of conduct” that results in the plaintiff’s loss; and (2) legal causation, which exists where the loss might “reasonably be expected to result from the reliance.” (See Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 546, 548A). It’s this second element that is most often neglected. Proximate cause is more than simple “but for” causation, which refers only to the first element of the test (i.e., causation in fact).

Continue reading

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (commonly known as “RICO“) became effective on October 15, 1970. It was originally intended primarily to assist in the prosecution of mafia leaders, as it permitted them to be tried for crimes they ordered others to do rather than committed themselves. Congress never intended to limit RICO to organized crime, however. G. Robert Blakey, the primary author of the statute, once told Time Magazine, “We don’t want one set of rules for people whose collars are blue or whose names end in vowels, and another set for those whose collars are white and have Ivy League diplomas.” The statute includes a civil provision, found at 18 USC § 1964(c), that has proven particularly popular in business litigation as it allows for the recovery of treble damages and attorneys fees.

RICO makes it unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt. (See 18 USC § 1962(c)). Key concepts in civil RICO cases typically include whether a true “enterprise” exists, whether the defendant has engaged in “racketeering activity,” and, if so, whether such activity constitutes a “pattern.”
Continue reading

The Virginia Consumer Protection Act (“VCPA”) has long been thought of as a statute that addressed fraud in consumer transactions. But as the Supreme Court of Virginia clarified in a ruling last month, “the VCPA’s proscription of conduct by suppliers in consumer transactions extends considerably beyond fraud.”

A plain reading of the statute shows this to be the case. The VCPA, by its terms, prohibits broadly not just acts of fraud but the use of “any other deception, …false pretense, false promise, or misrepresentation in connection with a consumer transaction.” (See Va. Code § 59.1-200 (14)).
Continue reading

A common strategy for plaintiffs wishing to avoid federal court is to ensure at least one of the defendants is non-diverse. In theory at least, this would preclude the defendants from removing a case based on state-law claims from Virginia circuit court to federal court. In a ruling issued earlier this month, Judge Kiser of the Western District of Virginia clarified that this strategy will not always be effective: if the joinder of the non-diverse defendant is found to be fraudulent, the citizenship of that party will be disregarded for the purpose of analyzing whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists.

Federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction primarily in two situations: where a federal question is raised, and where “complete diversity” exists. Complete diversity refers to a situation where no plaintiff resides in the same state as any defendant, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. (See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)). If any defendant resides in the same state as any plaintiff, complete diversity is lacking and the court would lack jurisdiction to decide the case. So if Company A wants to sue Company B for breach of contract (a claim that does not involve a federal question) in state court, but the two companies are citizens of different states and the amount in dispute exceeds $75,000, Company A might be tempted to add a second defendant (such as an employee of Company B) who resides in the same state as Company A, simply for the purpose of destroying any basis for federal-court jurisdiction.
Continue reading

Although a plaintiff asserting a fraud claim in federal court may allege malice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person’s mind in general terms, he must plead the circumstances constituting the fraud with particularity, identifying the time, place, content, and maker of each alleged fraudulent circumstance. Failure to plead fraud with sufficient particularity will result in dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), as demonstrated by the recent failed case against Capella University.

Melvin Murphy had a Bachelor of Arts degree and was pursuing an M.B.A. when he received online advertisements for Capella University’s doctoral programs in business management. Capella’s “enrollment counselors” responded aggressively to Murphy’s initial inquiries with calls, emails and marketing materials. Murphy contends that Capella’s promotional materials contained misstatements and misrepresentations upon which he relied when he enrolled in the school’s Ph.D. program in Organization and Management with a specialization in Leadership. For example, one brochure featured testimonials from supposed Capella doctoral students accompanied by photographs and quotes. Murphy asserts that at least one person pictured and quoted was not a graduate of Capella, was not a current student in the Ph.D. program and did not give permission for Capella to use his image. According to Murphy, the promotional materials were false and misleading as Capella did not award doctoral degrees in the field of Organization and Management and had no plans to do so. Capella agents allegedly reemphasized these misrepresentations when speaking with Murphy.

Murphy complains that Capella also failed to tell him that a doctoral candidate in any subject must pass Comprehensive Exams in order to be eligible for a Ph.D. and that most candidates fail these exams. According to Murphy, only 10% of Capella’s degree candidates obtained their desired degree. He asserts that these material omissions happened despite frequent contact with “representatives of Capella, including the Capella ‘enrollment counselors.'”

One common problem when negotiating contracts is keeping track of all the revisions the other side makes without having to re-read the entire contract again and again. Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature is helpful but can still lead to confusion when not used properly. Even when the other contracting party tells you that the only changes are to the language on a particular page, can you really trust that person? A recent opinion from the Western District of Virginia suggests that you can, to a certain extent, because if the other party tries to slip in a material change without alerting you to it, the other party may be liable for fraudulent inducement.

A party can be fraudulently induced to enter a contract when a false representation or omission of a material fact is made knowingly with the intent to mislead and the party signs the contract in reliance on the representation. Concealment of a material fact can constitute a false representation where evidence shows a knowing and deliberate decision not to disclose a material fact.

In Whalen v. Rutherford, Jacqueline Whalen and James Rutherford maintained a romantic and business relationship for over twenty years. In 1985, they formed W&R Partnership to manage a horse farm and breeding operation. According to the editing.jpgPartnership Agreement, Whalen was the managing partner and would receive a salary to be determined by both parties commensurate with her time and effort. Rutherford agreed to move in with Whalen and finance the construction of a new house on the property, so Whalen granted Rutherford a joint tenancy interest in the property.

If you’re going to sue a bunch of former employees for various business torts, you need to be clear in your allegations as to who did what. It’s all too easy to lump all the defendants together when describing the wrongful conduct in the complaint, especially when there are numerous defendants. Increasingly, however, Virginia courts are dismissing defendants from cases in which their specific involvement cannot be ascertained from the face of the complaint.

Recently in a Virginia federal court, Alliance Technology Group, LLC (Alliance), an IT services provider, sued a cadre of its employees and Achieve 1, LLC (Achieve), a competing company, for conspiracy, fraud, misappropriation of trade secrets, and other claims. One defendant, William Ralston, moved to dismiss due to the fact that many of the allegations of the complaint lumped all the defendants together, accusing all the defendants of committing tortious conduct collectively.

The rules are pretty lenient on what a complaint must contain to survive a motion to dismiss. A complaint must include a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, and enough factual information to give the defendant fair notice of the nature of the claim. It must allege enough facts–not conclusions–to make the asserted right to relief plausible on its face rather than merely speculative or conceivable.

Contact Us

Virginia: (703) 722-0588
Washington, D.C.: (202) 449-8555
Contact Information