Monday, May 9, 2016

Oklahoma Supreme Court Affirms Dismissal of Suit Challenging Unclaimed Property Program as "Ponzi Scheme"

Recently, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma issued a decision in Dani v. Miller, an attempted class action suit challenging Oklahoma's Unclaimed Property Program as a "Ponzi Scheme."  In that case, an Oklahoma resident filed a number of constitutional and common-law challenges to the Oklahoma Unclaimed Property Act and its administration.  In particular, the plaintiff was challenging Oklahoma's practice (shared by nearly all the states) of only holding a portion of unclaimed property to pay out claims, while using the rest for state revenue.  As the Oklahoma Supreme Court explained:
"[T]he UUPA contemplates and accounts for the fact that not all owners of abandoned property will seek to recover it.  The UUPA therefore creates a system where a reserve is maintained in the Unclaimed Property Fund to pay approved claims and the remainder is deposited to the General Revenue Fund for use by the state."
 The plaintiffs contended that Oklahoma's unclaimed property program was a "Ponzi scheme"* because "the reserve is not sufficient to pay all potential (including not-yet-established) claims and new abandoned property is to be used to pay any established claims exceeding the reserve." The Court rejected this argument on two grounds.  First, the Court held that there was nothing fraudulent or deceptive about Oklahoma's program as its procedures (including the deposit of funds into the states general revenue) were all disclosed (and in fact, mandated by) state law.  Second, the court explained that "[t]he State is not deceiving new investors to pay valid claims, but rather is paying those claims with abandoned property it would be taking in anyway, per the terms of the UPPA.  [The Act thus] operates in such a manner that even if they must wait, owners of abandoned property with valid claims will always be able to eventually recover their previously presumed-abandoned property."  (emphasis added).

While the Court's reasoning seems  sound insofar as it recounts how state unclaimed property programs actually work, notably implicit in the court's decision -- and, in fact, in the operation of the states' programs themselves -- is the idea that the influx of unclaimed property funds will continue forever.  While there may be nothing deceptive or fraudulent in how these programs work, the fact remains that, at least in the first instance, a claimant's ability to recover his or her property is not a function of the state's ability to serve as a custodian or caretaker of unclaimed property, but rather its ability to keep that property coming in.

*  A "Ponzi scheme" named after Charles Ponzi is a fraudulent scheme wherein victims are generally promised a guaranteed return in exchange for an investment, and those investments are used by the fraudster to pay out returns to earlier investors.  Eventually, when the flow of new investments slows or stops, there is no money left to pay returns (or the initial investment) to any investors, and the fraudster has generally taken steps to disappear.  One of the most recent, and well-known, Ponzi schemes was the Madoff Investment Scandal.


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