Articles Posted in Fraud

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 Forbes.com, 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.

D.C. has brought an action in D.C. Superior Court against several computer-leasing companies, charging them with deceiving numerous church congregations into paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for unneeded or broken computer equipment. 

In the lawsuit, filed last Wednesday, the city claims that United Leasing Associates of America, Television Broadcasting Online, and others hatched a plan to offer “free” computer equipment to hundreds of area church congregations, but then trick them into signing papers binding them to long-term lease payments of $50,000 or more.  The equipment, marketed by the defendants as “information kiosks” designed to help congregations communicate with members of the community and post job listings, consisted of ordinary desktop computers disguised in mahogany casing.  Those congregations who refused to pay the exorbitant monthly fees suffered harm to their credit rating.

Businesses need to conduct their operations in good faith and deal fairly with their customers.  An action for fraud and deceit arises when a defendant makes (1) a false representation (2) in reference to material fact, (3) made with knowledge of its falsity, (4) with the intent to deceive, which (5) causes the subject of the fraud to take action in reliance upon the representation.  See Atraqchi v. GUMC Unified Billing Servs., 788 A.2d 559, 563 (D.C. 2002).  Stated more simply, you commit fraud if you lie to someone for the purpose of tricking them into doing something, and the person falls for it.  Virginia has similar laws prohibiting fraudulent business transactions. 

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