Search Results for ‘"unclaimed property"’

Unclaimed property: headed eventually for the Supreme Court?

I’ve got a new post at Cato at Liberty noting that Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, in a concurrence this spring, appear to be inviting a constitutional challenge to states’ administration of escheat (unclaimed property) law on due process grounds. [More on Taylor et al. v. Yee from Daniel Fisher at Forbes] While the immediate questions posed would likely be whether states are doing too little to notify owners and using too short a period of idleness (three years is becoming common), the fact patterns might conceivably implicate some of the other problems noted by businesses on the receiving end of these laws, which we discussed back in 2013 (more): creative redefinitions of unclaimed property and outside “auditors” incentivized by contingency fees to overreach in assessments.

The Associated Press took a look at the issue last fall; more background at Maria Koklanaris, Tax Analysts and Odds and Means.

Reflecting widespread business discontent, the U.S. Chamber has addressed the issue in a series of papers and its publications have covered problems in states like Illinois, as well as in California as well as profiling the firms that specialize in these collections, which in some cases have filed qui tam (bounty-hunting) suits for a share of the proceeds.

On Delaware in particular see the Wall Street Journal (more), Forbes, and Delaware State News. And the Wilmington News-Journal has published an extensive investigation of the escheat contractors’ ties to the Delaware political class.

Small business could use some advance funding. Too bad gift cards are a legal mess.

Gift cards make a nice way to support your favorite business during the pandemic shutdown. They also make a compliance trap that can mire that same business in years of expensive hassle. My new piece at Reason explores the many legal exposures, from ADA lawsuits over lack of Braille translation to class actions over fine print and even exposure to money-laundering liability.

One durable problem, in some states at least, is state unclaimed-property law. Thinking of tossing a gift card into a drawer and never using it, as a kind of tip to an enterprise that’s brought you happiness over the years? Depending on what state you live in, you might actually be tipping your state tax authorities, and laying only future legal hassle on the merchant you wanted to help. I’ve covered state unclaimed-property law both here and at Cato. (More on its intersection with gift cards: Michael Waters, The Atlantic last fall.)

Delaware’s ambitious claims over unclaimed property have resulted in pitched courtroom battles for years, only a portion of which has been over gift cards specifically. Last year a jury awarded the state more than $7 million in a triple-damage unused gift card proceeding against just one national retailer, Overstock.com.

The Blue Hen State had to rewrite its unclaimed property law after a 2016 ruling by a federal court found its existing law a violation of due process and concluded that Delaware authorities had “engaged in a game of ‘gotcha’ that shocks the conscience.” The replacement law, which explicitly lays out a claim to gift cards rather than relying on older and more uncertain language, doesn’t have a long track record yet.

Banking and finance roundup

Forfeiture roundup

  • “Justice Department suspends abusive asset forfeiture program – for now” [Ilya Somin]
  • Tulsa sheriff steers seizures to judge it once employed, invokes unclaimed property law which dodges burden of proof [The Frontier]
  • Op-ed claims that if Maryland cops grab your stuff you must be a “drug dealer,” trial or no [Joseph Cassilly, Baltimore Sun]
  • Quest for revenue-self-sufficient law enforcement can end in “independent, self-funding armed gangs” [Noah Smith, Bloomberg View]
  • “Get rid of policing for profit in Michigan” [Angela Erickson, Detroit News]
  • Congress has twice tried to make it easier for prevailing claimants to recover attorneys’ fees when recovering seized property, but the government finds ways to slip around [Scott Greenfield]
  • Value of assets seized by law enforcement in U.S. in 2014 exceeds value taken by burglars [Armstrong Economics]

Delaware: your escheating heart

All 50 states have escheat laws awarding to state governments ownership of unclaimed property in business hands, which can range from bank, insurance, and stock holdings whose proper owners cannot be found to retail gift cards never cashed in. The revenue looms peculiarly large for the state of Delaware, because it is the state of incorporation for so many businesses. In recent years friction has been growing between the state and its corporate citizens as the state government has taken an increasingly aggressive stance in auditing corporations for unreported escheatable property. [WSJ] So far, perhaps, so routine (except for the parties to the dispute), but some accounts omit one of the most salient angles, summed up by one critic [Douglas Lindholm, IBD via Volokh] as follows:

Last year alone, Delaware seized $319.5 million from liquidated property while returning only $18.9 million of unclaimed property to its rightful owners.

Delaware does this through an unfair, onerous and expensive audit system that “looks back” to 1981, and contrives unclaimed property if the company doesn’t have records for all those years. This process often costs companies millions of dollars, mires them in years of audits, and forces them to deal with third-party auditors who are motivated by contingent fees to invent unclaimed property where none exists.

Kelmar, which conducts most of the audits for the Delaware Department of Finance and works on a contingent fee, was paid more than $30 million in the second half of 2012 alone.

Again and again — whether in forfeiture laws entitling law enforcers to a share of the booty seized, or percentage awards for informants under whistleblower laws, or traffic camera systems in which the operators of the cameras get a share of ticket revenue, contingency fees for participants in law enforcement prove deeply problematic. In my chapter on contingency fees in The Litigation Explosion, I summed things up this way:

Contingency fees tend to be disfavored in professions to whom the interests of others are helplessly entrusted, where misconduct is hard to monitor…. Giving traffic cops contingency fees by hinging their bonuses on whether they make a ticket quota arouses widespread anger because it so obviously tempts the officer running under quota to be unfair to the motorist. The same is true of giving tax collectors contingency fees by hinging their bonuses on how many deductions they disallow or how many assets they seize. (“Tax farming,” the old system where private parties were deputized to collect taxes and keep some of the haul for themselves, was abolished long ago in well-run countries, not because it was the least bit inefficient — it was a favorite way for Roman emperors to extract revenue from conquered provinces — but because it encouraged brutality and trampling of due process in tax collection.)

Delaware seems to have gotten its image in trouble through a variant on tax farming. Let’s hope a lesson is being learned.