I wish I could help everyone who comes to me with a problem, but I can’t. People get scammed all the time, then want to hire a lawyer to sue the scammer for damages. Is that ever possible? Sure, but most scams these days occur online and are specifically designed to leave the victim without a remedy. Typically, the scammer communicates through technology that conceals his identity, making it impossible to locate his whereabouts to serve him with suit papers. If you are able to trace the scammer, he’s often found in a foreign country outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. Money sent to scammers is often wired to overseas accounts in irreversible transactions. In short, most scam victims will never be able to obtain justice, no matter how many high-priced lawyers are retained to seek it. The best way to protect yourself is to not get scammed in the first place. No one is immune from a clever scam but there are lots of tell-tale signs that everyone should know to minimize the likelihood of falling victim to one. So here I present the top ten ways to know when someone is trying to scam you.
Fraudulent inducement is a defense to a breach-of-contract action. Enforceable contracts require a meeting of the minds as to the subject matter. If one of the contracting parties agreed to the contract terms only because of the other party’s trickery and deceit, there hasn’t really been a true meeting of the minds and the defrauded party can sometimes get out of the deal. For the defense to work, there must be a showing of fraud. One party must make an intentional misrepresentation of fact, material to the purpose of the agreement, which causes the defrauded party to agree to the terms of the contract in reliance on the false statement (believing it to be true). Although a contract induced by fraud is voidable and may be rescinded, there are limits to the defense. A recent case from Fairfax County explains that a forum-selection clause contained within a contract allegedly procured by fraud will still be enforced unless the alleged fraud relates specifically to the forum-selection clause itself.
The case is Boxer Advisors, LLC v. Success Business, Inc. As presented in the opinion, Boxer Advisors was a prime contractor on a government contract and had entered into a subcontract with Success Business (“SBI”). The subcontract contained a forum-selection clause specifying Maryland as the sole venue for any litigation between the parties arising under the agreement. A dispute arose and Boxer sued SBI for fraud, misappropriation of trade secrets, and tortious interference. It filed the lawsuit in Virginia rather than Maryland. SBI objected, pointing to the forum-selection clause. Boxer argued that it wasn’t required to honor the terms of the forum-selection clause because, as alleged in its complaint, the subcontract with SBI had been fraudulently induced.
If you sue someone for fraud, you can win punitive damages in addition to regular compensatory damages. If you’re suing only for breach of contract, punitive damages are a no-go. As punitive damages can add up to $350,000 to the value of the plaintiff’s claim, plaintiffs naturally try to add fraud claims to their breach-of-contract lawsuits whenever possible. The “source of duty” rule, however, limits the circumstances under which plaintiffs can pursue such a strategy. The rule provides that tort claims (like fraud) can only be pursued if the source of the duty allegedly breached is the common law and not a contract entered into between the parties. The Virginia Supreme Court has clarified in recent years that if a fraudulent misrepresentation is made within a contract, the plaintiff is limited to contract remedies, but if a misrepresentation is made for the purpose of inducing another party to enter into a contract, a separate fraud claim can be pursued.
If a fraudulent misrepresentation is made before a contract even comes into existence, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re dealing with a separate fraud claim and won’t be limited to contract remedies. After a contract is formed, however, it can be tricky to determine the source of the duty violated. One reason for this is that courts have applied the source-of-duty rule to exclude fraud claims when they are based on misrepresentations that are closely related to promises made within the contract, even if the misrepresentations are not made expressly therein. (See Tingler v. Graystone Homes, Inc., 834 S.E.2d 244, 257–58 (Va. 2019) (noting that “a putative tort can become so inextricably entwined with contractual breaches that only contractual remedies are available)). If a fraudulent act “arises out of” a contractual relationship and the damages caused by the fraud also arise out of that relationship, that can be enough for application of the source-of-duty rule.
Many lawyers pursuing business litigation on behalf of their clients will file a whole panoply of claims rather than content themselves with a single count for breach of contract. As the law generally permits a wider range of remedies (and higher damages awards) for tort claims like fraud and tortious interference, plaintiffs seeking to enforce contract rights in court will often sue for various tort claims in addition to breach of contract. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Courts are guided by various principles to help them weed out contract-based claims disguised as tort claims. One such principle is known as the “source of duty” rule.
When a plaintiff alleges that the defendant violated some duty owed to him, the court will examine the source of the duty allegedly violated. If the source of the duty is a contract entered into by the parties, as opposed to common law or some provision of the Virginia or United States Code, the court will treat the claim as one for breach of contract and limit remedies accordingly. Of course, there are circumstances in which a defendant can both breach a contract and commit a tort by violating a common-law duty. It is up to the court, however, to dismiss any tort claims based on the alleged violation of a duty that exists solely by virtue of a contractual agreement. (See Preferred Sys. Sols., Inc. v. GP Consulting, LLC, 284 Va. 382, 408 (2012)).
You may have heard that a group of Chinese investors filed a fraud action here in Virginia against Governor McAuliffe and others for $17,920,000, plus punitive damages exceeding $53,000,000. Earlier this month, a federal judge dismissed the case, finding that the allegations were insufficient to allow a jury to even consider the claim. Should you, dear reader, ever find yourself on the receiving end of a $71M fraud lawsuit, try to stay calm, and read my earlier blog post about what kind of facts are needed to make out a facially valid fraud claim. The plaintiffs in this particular case were unable to present such facts, so they lost. If a plaintiff cannot allege in good faith facts sufficient to satisfy each element of a fraud claim, the case will be dismissed no matter how much money is at stake.
According to the original complaint filed against Governor McAuliffe (it was originally filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court, then removed to federal court in Alexandria), the case was brought “to remedy a $120 million scam perpetrated by savvy and politically connected operatives and businessmen.” The Defendants allegedly offered–in exchange for a $500,000 investment from each plaintiff in an electric car company–to leverage their political connections to ensure that the plaintiffs’ visa applications would be approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Chinese investors claimed that McAuliffe lied about a number of things in order to secure those $500,000 investments:
The statute of limitations for fraud cases in Virginia is two years from the time the cause of action accrues. See Va. Code § 8.01-243. This is not necessarily two years from the time the fraud was committed. Fraud cases are subject to a “discovery rule,” meaning that the cause of action will not accrue until the alleged misrepresentation is either discovered, or, by the exercise of due diligence, reasonably should have been discovered. See Va. Code § 8.01-249(1). The clock on the two-year period does not begin ticking until that moment in time. As you might expect, precisely when that moment occurs is often the subject of fierce disagreement.
To exercise due diligence, as contemplated by the statute, a plaintiff must use “such a measure of prudence, activity, or assiduity, as is properly to be expected from, and ordinarily exercised by, a reasonable and prudent [person] under the particular circumstances; not measured by any absolute standard, but depending on the relative facts of the special case.” (See Schmidt v. Household Fin. Corp., II, 276 Va. 108, 118 (2008)). Who gets to decide whether a plaintiff exercised this level of prudence, activity, and assiduity? In most cases, it will be the jury. A motion to dismiss or plea in bar based on the statute of limitations normally will not be successful unless all the facts necessary for resolving the “due diligence” question appear on the face of the pleadings or are not in dispute. If there’s a factual dispute about whether due diligence was exercised, the case will normally need to go forward so that the jury can hear evidence on the matter.
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.
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.
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.
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.