Articles Posted in Fraud

Zealous lawyers seeking to maximize their clients’ monetary recovery in court will often sue for as many different claims as their highly trained legal minds can conjure up. And they will usually try to come up with at least one viable tort claim (such as fraud or business conspiracy) to pursue in addition to any breach-of-contract claims, because tort claims often allow the recovery of punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. But there are important differences between the law of contracts and the law of torts. The law of torts is designed to protect broad societal interests such as safety of persons and property. Contract law, on the other hand, is concerned with the protection of bargained-for expectations. Therefore, several rules have developed to prevent turning every breach-of-contract claim into a tort action.

The economic loss rule, for example, holds that where a contracting party’s loss is limited to disappointed economic expectations, his remedy is limited to one for breach of contract. A similar rule is known as the “source of duty” rule. It looks to the source of the duty alleged to have been violated. Before a court will allow a contracting party to recover on a tort theory, it must be satisfied that the duty tortiously or negligently breached is a common law duty, and not one existing solely by virtue of a contract between the parties. If the source of the duty allegedly violated is a contract, then the plaintiff should be limited to remedies available in breach-of-contract actions.

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Fraud is a confusing and widely misunderstood tort. I wrote about the elements of fraud on this blog a few years ago, and last month I dug deeper into what it means to make a fraudulent misrepresentation. This month, I’m going to elaborate a bit more about the requirement that fraudulent misrepresentations be made with the intent to mislead someone before liability will arise. In other words, we’re talking about the expectation on the part of the speaker that the person hearing the statement (i.e., the person being defrauded) will take some action–or refrain from taking some action–as a direct result of hearing the statement. To win a case for actual fraud, you need to establish that the defendant not only misrepresented a fact, but did so intending to influence your behavior.

Who can sue? Generally speaking, anyone whose conduct the speaker intended to influence and who was, in fact, influenced as intended. Sometimes the defendant intends to defraud a single person. Sometimes the defendant seeks to influence an entire group of people. Even if a defendant did not specifically intend to defraud a particular plaintiff, if the defendant had reason to expect that the plaintiff would act or refrain from acting in reasonable reliance on his untrue statement, liability may attach. There may be a valid defense, however, if the defendant could not have anticipated that a particular plaintiff would hear the fraudulent statement and take action upon it. Let’s look at some examples.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.”
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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)).
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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.
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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.'”

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