Articles Posted in Fraud

A Swedish law firm has failed in its effort to sue a director of a former client for “misrepresentation” in Virginia federal court after the court ruled the claim was barred by Virginia’s two-year statute of limitations applicable to negligence claims. The law firm had conceded that it would be unable to maintain a cause of action for fraud under the laws of Virginia, and the court opted to analyze the viability of the claim as a negligence action.

The law firm, Andersson Gustafsson Advokatbyra KB, sued eSCRUB Systems, Inc., a Virginia company, and three people associated with the company, claiming that eSCRUB had failed to pay the firm’s legal bills after it hired the law firm in 2007 to help it resolve a dispute. The law firm alleged that John Packard, a former director of eSCRUB, committed fraud in that he breached a “continuing obligation to notify Andersson of the risks of non-payment it ran in performing services for eSCRUB.” The allegation was essentially that Packard was part of a scheme to induce the law firm to provide legal services to eSCRUB with the full knowledge that the company would never pay the firm’s legal fees.

In Virginia, negligence claims carry a two-year statute of limitations. Virginia follows the general rule that the event that starts the limitations clock ticking is the negligent act itself. There is no “discovery exception” that starts the clock at a later date,Hourglass.jpg such as the date the plaintiff actually discovers that the alleged negligence occurred or that he has been damaged. Statutes of limitation can expire before a potential plaintiff even learns of the grounds for a lawsuit.

Once a plaintiff has introduced evidence to establish a “badge of fraud,” a prima facie case of fraudulent conveyance is established and the burden shifts to the defendant to establish that the transaction was not fraudulent. So held the Virginia Supreme Court, in reversing the Henrico County Circuit Court’s decision to strike the plaintiff’s evidence and enter judgment in favor of the defendant.

Fox Rest Associates, L.P. v. Anne B. Little involved a dispute between George B. Little, an attorney and the general partner of Fox Rest Apartments, and the limited partners of Fox Rest Apartments, arising out of an alleged sale of the apartments by the general partner without the consent or knowledge of the limited partners. After learning that the limited partners planned to sue him, Mr. Little made various transfers, including transfers into an account at SunTrust Bank held jointly with his wife. The limited partners filed a derivative action against Fox Rest for malpractice, double billing, and other claims. The limited partners obtained a judgment but were unable to collect approximately $856,400. They then proceeded to file a fraudulent conveyance action to attempt to set aside various transfers as fraudulent.

The trial court struck the limited partners’ evidence, finding that they had produced insufficient evidence of fraudulent intent. The Supreme Court, however, reversed. Under Virginia law, it pointed out, to survive a motion to strike, a plaintiff need only introduce evidence of “badges of fraud.” Badges (or presumptions) of fraud include:

Toyota Motor Sales, Inc., will not be able to take advantage of a mandatory arbitration clause in an online agreement with a Los Angeles woman because the agreement was obtained by fraud and is therefore entirely void, a California state appeals court has held.

Amber Duick was targeted by Toyota as one of the people who would take on the role of “Player 2” in an interactive ad campaign entitled “Your Other You.” She sued Toyota and its advertising company, Saatchi & Saatchi North America, Inc., in 2009, after Toyota involved her in 2008 in an advertising campaign for its Matrix automobile as an evidently unwitting participant.

Sometime in 2008, Duick clicked a box on a Toyota-sponsored website entitled “Personality Evaluation Terms and Conditions.” The website indicated that by clicking, she was agreeing to participate in a five-day “digital experience through Your Other You,” and that she might receive emails, phone calls, or text messages from Toyota during that period. Duick soon found that instead of a personality test, she received several disconcerting emails from someone identifying himself as “Sebastian Matrix.jpgBowler,” which implied that Bowler enjoyed drinking to excess, owned a pit bull, had been running from law enforcement, and had damaged a hotel room. Duick was told that she was liable for the hotel damage, even though she had never been there and had never met Bowler. Finally, at the end of the process, Toyota revealed that this was all made up. It was a prank on Duick that was part of the ad campaign for the Matrix.

What kind of expense amounts to a “loss” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and did a Virginia litigation-support company incur the required minimum of $5,000 in losses when it investigated an alleged breach of its computer systems, retaining the services of both an attorney and a computer forensics company to aid with the investigation? That was the issue recently before Judge T.S. Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia, who held that the investigative activities could support a CFAA claim, even if the expenses were not paid in cash.

The issue was particularly important to the plaintiff, Animators at Law, a graphics and technology litigation support company, because of the 13 claims it brought against two former employees and a competitor, all but the CFAA claim were based on state law, meaning that without it, there would be no basis for federal-court jurisdiction.

The CFAA provides for a civil action against anyone who intentionally gains access to a computer without authorization and obtains information from it. The CFAA has a minimum jurisdictional requirement of $5,000 in losses. Animators at Law claimed screen.jpgthat its former employees conspired with a competitor to leave Animators’ employment and join the competitor, taking with them confidential and proprietary information about Animators’ services, projects, and clients.

A U.S. district judge in Virginia has ruled that a restaurant chain operator is liable for breach of contract and is obligated to pay a franchise consulting company for sales and marketing services that the consultant performed for the chain under the contract between the two companies. Rejecting the contract defenses of lack of standing, fraudulent inducement, lack of specificity, lack of mutuality, and unconscionability, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, III, of the Eastern District of Virginia, granted summary judgment in favor of the consultant.

The case arose from a 2008 contract between Freshii Development, LLC, which owns a chain of healthy fast-food restaurants, and Fransmart, LLC, an Alexandria, Va.-based company that agreed, in exchange for a percentage of franchise fees and revenues, to help Freshii expand by finding appropriate franchisees for its restaurants. In early 2010, Fransmart restructured its business and set up a new company to which it assigned its contracts and transferred its assets and liabilities. Freshii then stopped paying Fransmart under the contract, and Fransmart sued for breach. Freshii asserted five defenses to the lawsuit, all of which Judge Ellis rejected.

Freshii first argued that Fransmart lacked standing because the 2008 agreement was a personal services contract and therefore not assignable to a separate entity (such as the “new Fransmart”) without Freshii’s consent. Judge Ellis rejected this defense, noting that many aspects of the agreement led to the conclusion that it was not a personal Handshake.jpgservices contract. For example, the agreement was between two corporate entities, it was for a duration of ten years, and it did not identify any individual as being material to performance. In any event, the judge wrote, it was not necessary to reach that issue because the contract contained a “successors and assigns” clause, stating that “the provisions of this Agreement shall be binding upon and inure to the benefit of the parties hereto and to their successors and assigns.” This language, the court found, demonstrated that the parties intended the agreement to be assignable to a successor entity like the new Fransmart.

Too often, disgruntled departing employees will abuse their employer’s computer system on their way out, snooping into coworkers’ email accounts, erasing important files, downloading trade secrets or other confidential commercial information, or intentionally infecting computers with viruses. In recent years, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) has become an important weapon in an employer’s arsenal for combating such computer crimes. Civil remedies are available under the CFAA for damage to any “protected computer,” which includes any “computer used in interstate or foreign commerce or communication.” However, a Virginia court recently clarified that the CFAA will not provide a remedy absent an actual “loss” as defined by the statute.

In Global Policy Partners, LLC, v. Yessin, a plaintiff brought claims against her husband and business partner under the CFAA and the Stored Communications Act (SCA), claiming that he had accessed her work email account in order to review her confidential communications with her divorce lawyer. The court rejected the husband’s initial attempts to dismiss the case on the ground that his access to his wife’s email was authorized in that he was a co-manager of the couple’s business. The court reasoned that because there was no legitimate business reason for the snooping, the access was unauthorized. At the summary judgment stage, however, the court granted summary judgment in his favor because the wife did not introduce sufficient evidence to show she had incurred a $5,000 “loss.”

To prevail on a claim brought under the CFAA, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the alleged violation “caused … loss … aggregating at least $5,000 in value.” 18 U.S.C. Section 1030(c)(4)(A)(i). The CFAA specifically defines four categories of potential loss: laptop.jpg“[i] the cost of responding to an offense, [ii] [costs of] conducting a damage assessment, and [iii] [costs of] restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and [iv] any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of the interruption of service.” 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(11). According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, this list “plainly contemplates … costs incurred as part of the response to a CFAA violation, including the investigation of an offense.” A.V. ex rel. Vanderhye v. iParadigms, LLC, 562 F.3d 630, 646 (4th Cir. 2009).

When a couple of home buyers in Loudoun County filed a lawsuit against Ritz-Carlton and a Loudoun developer, they chose Loudoun County Circuit Court as the forum. The immediate response of the defendants’ lawyers was to remove the case to federal court, where summary judgment is much easier to obtain than in Virginia state court. The home buyers, likely worried about having their case dismissed at an early stage by a federal judge, sought to remand the case back to Loudoun County, pointing to a forum-selection clause which provided: “In connection with any litigation between Buyer and Seller arising out of this Agreement…[t]he sole venue for any litigation shall be Loudoun County, Virginia.” The court refused to send the case back to state court. All of that procedural maneuvering meant very little in the end, however, as the court recently denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and allowed the case to go forward.

In Nahigian v. Ritz-Carlton, LLC, the home buyers (the Nahigians) claim the defendants fraudulently induced them into buying property by making multiple misrepresentations about the nature and extent of the involvement of the prestigious Ritz-Carlton company in the management of the property and its adjoining private golf course. The Nahigians allege they were duped into buying an expensive property at Creighton Farms near Leesburg by various statements by sales agents referring to the development as a “Ritz-Carlton community” and part of the “Ritz-Carlton Life.” As it turned out, they allege, Ritz-Carlton was merely a temporary manager of the golf club and never had any long-term commitment to the neighborhood. In March of 2009, Ritz-Carlton announced they were pulling out of the development.

The Nahigians sued for fraud and related claims, and the defendants moved for dismissal, arguing that the plaintiffs had failed to plead fraud with sufficient particularity, and that they failed to allege all the requisite elements of a fraud claim. The court disagreed and denied the motions to dismiss.

Even in Virginia, which recently placed first in a ranking of the “Best States for Business” by, businesses often fail. Particularly in small companies, relationships among the owners sour and partnership disputes arise. Here in Fairfax County, where my practice is located, it is not uncommon for disgruntled partners to attempt to withdraw large sums from corporate bank accounts prior to dissolution or to attempt to block other owners’ access to the company’s accounts. Banks need to be careful not to get caught in the crossfire by inadvertently facilitating a wrongful cash grab by one of the business owners. Fortunately, as illustrated by a recent decision by Fairfax Judge Bellows, Virginia’s adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code provides some valuable protection to banks.

Khan v. Alliance Bank (Fairfax Circuit Court, Dec. 22, 2009) involved a dispute between two owners of Advantage Title and Escrow, LLC, Khan and Kazmi. Both were authorized signatories on the company’s account held with Alliance Bank. After the two had a falling out, Kazmi instructed the bank to remove Khan as a signatory. A few days later, Khan wrote a $35,000 check against Advantage Title’s account in exchange for a cashier’s check for that amount. Upon learning of the transaction, Kazmi sent an “Affidavit of Unauthorized Transaction” to Alliance Bank. This document alleged, under oath, that Khan obtained the cashier’s check through fraud as Khan was (according to Kazmi) not authorized to withdraw funds from the company’s account. In reliance on that affidavit, Alliance Bank canceled the cashier’s check and credited $35,000 back to the Advantage account.

Normally, putting a stop-payment order on a check is not a big deal. But cashier’s checks, which are governed by the UCC, are different. Unlike personal checks, cashier’s checks carry a promise of the bank to the holder. For that reason Khan sued Split.jpgAlliance Bank, claiming that the promise was unconditional and that, by terminating payment, Alliance was liable to Khan for breach of contract and conversion.

Fraud is a word that is thrown around a lot in everyday life. When pundits discuss the latest political or Wall Street scandal, the discussion often turns to the bad actors’ “fraudulent” behavior. In ordinary, non-legal parlance, the word fraud can mean anything from merely bad intent to criminal behavior. Outside the courtroom, accusing someone of fraud is generally synonymous with calling that person a cheat or a swindler. Sometimes this casual definition of fraud will overlap with the legal definition, but more often it does not. The law does not consider every act of dishonesty to amount to actionable fraud. You may be owed compensation, however, if you have truly been defrauded in a legal sense.

Actionable fraud requires more than just broken promises or a breach of contract. The law looks more harshly upon fraud. It is considered a tort, for which punitive damages are available. (Punitive damages are not recoverable in actions for breach of contract). Because a successful fraud claim will usually result in a higher damages award than an ordinary contract claim, lawyers often try to convert a contract claim into a fraud claim through artful drafting of their client’s complaint. Under Virginia law, a party alleging fraud must prove by clear and convincing evidence (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 to him. (See Thompson v. Bacon, 245 Va. 107, 111 (1993)). Let’s take a closer look at these elements.

1. False Representation. This is the essence of a fraud claim. The defendant must have misrepresented the truth. If somebody steals your wallet but does not communicate with you, you have not been “defrauded” and cannot maintain a fraud action against that person. (You would have other remedies you could pursue, but the correct legal theory would not be fraud because no misrepresentation was made).

To file a lawsuit in Virginia’s state or federal courts against a non-resident of Virginia or an out-of-state corporation, it is necessary to establish “personal jurisdiction” over the defendant. A court has no power over parties to a lawsuit absent such jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction will exist only if (1) Virginia’s “long-arm” statute authorizes it; and (2) the defendant has certain “minimum contacts” with Virginia “such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice,” which is required by constitutional due process. In a recent case from the Eastern District of Virginia, Judge Trenga held that a passive website not purposefully targeted at Virginians was not sufficient to create a basis for personal jurisdiction and he dismissed the case.

The case, which contains counts for actual fraud, constructive fraud, negligence, and breach of fiduciary duty, was filed by Dr. Olimpia Rosario, a Virginia psychiatrist, against professional psychic Jeffrey Wands, who operates Psychic Eye Media in New York. Dr. Rosario became impressed with Mr. Wands several years ago when he correctly predicted that she would obtain a residency in a New York-based hospital. Ever since, Dr. Rosario has sought counseling and guidance from Mr. Wands on a wide range of issues, including spiritual issues and substance abuse problems, despite the fact he held no degree or license to practice any type of healing art, medicine, counseling, or social work in either Virginia or New York.

Eventually, Mr. Wands became concerned about certain of Dr. Rosario’s behavior and reported it to both the New York Police Department and the Virginia Board of Medicine. Dr. Rosario sued, claiming Mr. Wands caused her condition to worsen and denying abuse of prescription drugs. Mr. Wands, a resident of New York, moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction.

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