In what has become an unfortunate trend, unclaimed property holders continue to be subject to lawsuits under state false claims acts (FCA – also called a qui tam or whistleblower action) for alleged underreporting and remittance of unclaimed property obligations. More than 30 states have a false claims act with whistleblower provisions and nearly all are applicable to unclaimed property. While an honest mistake should not create liability under an FCA, a holder could be liable if its failure to report not only was done knowingly, but also if such failure to comply was done with deliberate ignorance or with reckless disregard. Actual fraud is not a necessary precursor to being subject to false claims act liability.
Potential liability under state FCA laws is far in excess of any liability under an unclaimed property audit. FCA laws impose treble damages (3x the value of the underreported property), penalties, interest and attorney’s fees. Successful claims under these laws are not just extremely punitive to the holder but also lucrative for the person bringing the lawsuit who can earn up to 30% of the ultimate recovery to the state. Liability under a FCA can turn a holder’s failure to be appropriately diligent in determining its unclaimed property compliance obligations into a multi-million dollar legal battle with long-term public relations implications. The fact that a holder has already been audited or that the State may have historically agreed with the holder’s position may not prevent a FCA case progressing.
A holder’s FCA unclaimed property horror begins with an investigation, which can be prompted by either claims by private parties (called relators) or the state attorney general’s office. A relator may be a disgruntled employee or any clever person with good research skills. The holder may not even know the claim has been filed and the investigation has been going on for years. These investigations may open closed periods and, once the holder is informed, are very interrogation-like, with the holder often knowing very little about the underlying claims until the case is unsealed. Eventually, these investigations may turn into a public court battle with a sometimes politically motivated state attorney general on the other side. Even if the state AG’s office declines to proceed with the case, the private party initiating the case may nevertheless proceed.
While frequently FCA cases are settled before becoming public, several recent cases provide some background for holders looking for FCA examples. In a series of Delaware qui tam cases, more than 25 retailers and restaurants were sued by a former disgruntled employee of a gift card issuance and management company alleging unclaimed property compliance violations. All but one settled or was dismissed by the court. In New York, a court recently dismissed claims by an audit firm against nearly a dozen life insurers in response to allegations under the false claims act that the companies failed to report life insurance policy funds – alleging more than $14.5 billion in damages. Regardless of industry, these lawsuits are a real and imminent threat that holders must be aware of and respond to quickly.
Most holders strive to institute and maintain stringent compliance practices, but the FCA laws facilitate the unilateral ability of private, financially motivated people and plaintiffs’ lawyers to force holders into court to defend themselves. McDermott Will & Emery has a proven track record of defending against false claims, including those in the unclaimed property context, and understands how to navigate through this difficult legal process. Holders can also adopt practices to reduce the risk of FCA lawsuits, such as obtaining opinions from firms such as McDermott regarding uncertain compliance issues.