Crime in the Suites: An Analyis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
Archive for the ‘White-collar crime’ Category
Sep 11

DOJ uses White Collar Prosecution for Election-Season Rabble Rousing


Beating their chests and breathing fire to rouse the polity, the Department of Justice recently came out with an announcement as earth shattering as the sun rising. The DOJ proclaimed it has adopted new policies to prioritize the prosecution of individuals for white-collar crime.

Deputy Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, was quoted in the New York Times: “It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable. The public needs to have confidence that there is one system of justice and it applies equally regardless of whether that crime occurs on a street corner or in a boardroom.”

What’s the hoped-for public response? Probably something like this: “And the crowd goes wild. Finally, after years of corporate executives sporting Teflon and sliding past investigators, the government is going to put its fist down and make the wrongly rich execs pay for their nefarious acts of fraud, insider trading, embezzling, racketeering, and tax evasion! “

But things look a little different in the actual world of white-collar criminal investigations and defense. In fact, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York and across the country are zealously prosecuting employees accused of white-collar offenses, and their companies are never shy about providing the backup data regulators request.. What’s more, convicted offenders are often subject to penalties far exceeding their crimes, as U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff noted in the 2012 sentencing of Rajat Gupta.

The fact of the matter is that the DOJ doesn’t need to announce a new policy to go after individuals for white-collar crimes. The reality on the ground is we deal with employees being investigated and indicted all the time.

So why did Washington make the announcement? It sounds more like a PR stunt than anything else. Perhaps the Administration is gearing up for the next election cycle, which includes some obvious key elections. The DOJ wants to have a strong response to public outcries for accountability at the opportune time of impending regime change. In prior election cycles, administrations have taken some sort of hard stance on crime and punishment, whether it is increasing sentencing guidelines or messaging prosecutors about white-collar plea agreements.

From our viewpoint, it’s a little hard to take the DOJ’s new policy announcement at face value. We don’t see any recent motivation (outside PR). However, it’s also true that the wheels of Justice move slowly and this may just be a reflection from public dissatisfaction after the 2008 economic crisis, which saw corporations, but few Wall Street execs, held accountable. Regardless, we see the DOJ’s announcement much ado about nothing.


Jun 02

U.S. Justice Department v. FIFA Executives and Others in Bribery Indictment

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - MARCH 8, 2014: Red card for Julian Jenner of Ferencvaros during MTK Budapest vs. Ferencvaros OTP Bank League football match at Hidegkuti Stadium on March 8, 2014 in Budapest, Hungary.

In an ironic twist, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed a 47-count indictment this morning charging nine present and former officials of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (better known by its acronym, FIFA) and five sports marketing executives with fraud, racketeering, bribery and money laundering. The guilty pleas of four individuals and two entities relating to these same allegations were also unsealed.

The indictment alleges that officials of FIFA, which controls the media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments worldwide, received bribes totaling more than $150 million in connection with the award of those rights. The defendants also include sports executives alleged to have paid those bribes, and the indictment also charges that intermediaries were used to launder the proceeds of those bribes. The lead charge in the indictment is an alleged violation of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

At the request of U.S. authorities, Swiss authorities arrested a number of individuals in Zurich this morning where FIFA executives had gathered for the organization’s annual meeting. The indictment was disclosed along with a Swiss investigation into mismanagement and money laundering associated with the award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. FIFA has stated that the award of those tournaments will not be reconsidered.

The great irony of the indictment is that this is about football – not “American football” but “real” football (what we Americans call “soccer”) – the most popular sport on the planet. From a sports perspective, Americans are still newcomers to the game, though the women’s national team has enjoyed perennial success, the men’s national team has climbed in world rankings, and individual American players are becoming more commonplace on teams in the English Premier League and elsewhere in Europe. It is surely ironic for the U.S. to police a sport that struggles for attention at home.

But on the other hand, it should be no surprise to see a U.S. indictment that seeks to address corruption in FIFA that has been the stuff of rumors for years. The FIFA indictment is another example of how the United States projects not only military power but legal power overseas, using its robust Justice Department and court system to impose on the world the legal standard enshrined in its criminal laws. Given that the case is being prosecuted in the Eastern District of New York – where now-Attorney General Loretta Lynch previously served as the United States Attorney – the case may also signal something about Attorney General Lynch’s approach to such multinational cases.

The Department of Justice presumably justifies this extraterritorial exercise because the defendants include several Americans and because FIFA includes component associations located in the United States; the alleged offenses therefore impact Americans as well as those overseas. To the extent this is true, that seems to be appropriate justification. But another question is how that exercise of power will be perceived outside of the United States. Is the United States helping to solve a problem that has dogged international soccer for years? Or is it meddling in matters that are largely outside of its borders and that should not concern it? As news of this morning’s arrests and the unsealing of the indictment spreads, the world’s reaction may answer those questions.

Feb 25

Court Reins In Prosecutorial Overreach in Insider Trading Cases


In an effort to reinstate powers stripped from them by the Court of Appeals in U.S. v. Newman and Chiasson, prosecutors have sought a rehearing of the landmark Second Circuit decision which severely curtailed the scope of insider trading cases.

The case is one which has already seen a dramatic reversal, so it is perhaps no surprise that prosecutors are hoping for the tide to turn in their favor.  In trial court, the jury heard evidence that financial analysts received insider information from sources at two companies, Dell and NVIDIA, disclosing the companies’ earnings before those numbers were publicly released.  The financial analysts in turn passed that information along to hedge fund traders Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson, who executed trades in the companies’ stock.

Those transactions earned Newman’s funds approximately $4 million and Chiasson’s funds approximately $68 million. The prosecution charged both defendants with insider trading based on the trades they made with early knowledge of the earnings reports.  The trial judge instructed the jury that the defendants could be found guilty if they had knowledge that the information “was originally disclosed by the insider in violation of a duty of confidentiality.”  On December 12, 2012, the jury returned guilty verdicts for both defendants on all counts.

Newman and Chiasson appealed their convictions, arguing among other things that the prosecution had failed to present evidence that they had engaged in insider trading and that the trial judge improperly instructed the jury as to the level of knowledge required to sustain a conviction.  Newman and Chiasson argued that the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt not only that the information was originally disclosed by the insider in violation of the duty of confidentiality, but that the insider disclosed the information in exchange for personal benefit.

The Court of Appeals agreed with their arguments, and found that the government had failed to present sufficient evidence that the insider received any personal benefit from sharing the information, or that Newman and Chiasson had knowledge of any such personal benefit an insider received from sharing the tip.

The Second Circuit’s December 10, 2014 opinion clearly lays out the requirements for “tippee liability,” that is, liability for one who received a tip originating from a corporate insider:

(1) The corporate insider was entrusted with a fiduciary duty; (2) the corporate insider breached the fiduciary duty by (a) disclosing confidential information to a tippee (b) in exchange for personal benefit; (3) the tippee knew of the tipper’s breach, that is, he know the information was confidential and divulged for personal benefit; and (4) the tippee still used that information to trade in a security or tip another individual for personal benefit.

Based on this standard, the Court of Appeals concluded that “without establishing that the tippee knows of the personal benefit received by the insider in exchange for the disclosure, the Government cannot meet its burden of showing that the tippee knew of a breach.”

The opinion also issued a stern rebuke of “recent insider trading prosecutions, which are increasingly targeted at remote tippees many levels removed from corporate insiders.”  This admonition could be fairly interpreted as being directed toward Manhattan United States Attorney Preet Bharara, who has been aggressively prosecuting Wall Street insider trading cases and has obtained approximated 85 convictions so far.  Mr. Bharara issued a statement saying that the decision “interprets the securities law in a way that will limit the ability to prosecute people who trade on leaked inside information.”

The court has yet to rule on the prosecution’s January 23, 2015 request for a rehearing of the case.  Until any modification is issued, the Newman ruling remains the controlling law of the Second Circuit and it will affect other cases.  Already, at least a dozen criminal defendants in the Southern District of New York have cited to the case in requesting to overturn their conviction or vacate their guilty pleas.

For instance, soon after the Second Circuit issued its ruling in Newman, a federal judge in Manhattan vacated the guilty pleas of four men charged with insider trading related to IBM:  Daryl Payton, Thomas Conradt, David Weishaus, and Trent Martin. Instead of bringing the case to trial, the prosecutors instead asked Judge Andrew Carter to dismiss the indictment.  However, the prosecutors indicated that if the Newman decision is altered on rehearing or appeal, they might consider bringing the charges again.  Appeals of previously convicted defendants will likely remain on hold pending the court’s decision on the requested Newman rehearing.  Regardless of the outcome on rehearing, the Newman decision is a strong indication that courts are making a concerted effort to rein in prosecutorial overreach.

Jan 06

Even Governors Go To Jail

mcdonnell x-large

Photo Credit:  Steve Helber, AP

This afternoon, the long-running saga of Robert McDonnell came to what may be the end (not counting appeals) when the former Virginia Governor was sentenced to serve two years in prison after a jury convicted him of bribery while in office.  As with many cases, this one has lessons to teach for those of us who carefully follow sentencing advocacy in federal criminal cases.

One lesson that we have observed before – but is worth repeating – is how powerful it can be to present a sentencing judge with written or spoken testimonials about the otherwise good character of the defendant. In the presentence report, the Probation Department had recommended an advisory sentencing range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines of more than ten years, though the judge concluded that the proper advisory range was 6-1/2 to 8 years.  But the defense presented some 440 letters in support of the former Governor, as well as live testimony from a number of witnesses.  Even the Assistant United States Attorney, who asked for a harsh sentence to be imposed on Mr. McDonnell, conceded that the letters and testimony were moving.

That, of course, is the point: When a criminal defendant – especially one convicted by a jury that rejected his testimony – comes before a judge for sentencing, all that the judge knows about him is that he has committed a crime.  Letters and testimony help the defense to present the judge with a three dimensional human being, and facilitate the judge’s fuller consideration of the imposition of a fair and just sentence.  In the case of Rajat Gupta, Judge Jed Rakoff was moved by the letters of hundreds of supporters to sentence him to a two-year sentence despite prosecutors’ calls for a sentence of ten years in prison.  Here, Judge James Spencer was likewise motivated by evidence of Mr. McDonnell’s character to find that a sentence of eight years “would be unfair, it would be ridiculous, under these facts.”

But there is also a second lesson to be learned from Mr. McDonnell’s sentencing, and it is also one that is often repeated: No one is above the law, and indeed, we may hold our public officials to a higher moral standard in their conduct.  Judge Spencer’s comments at sentencing reflected this view: “A price must be paid,” he said. “Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can’t wash my hands of it all. A meaningful sentence must be imposed.” For that reason, among others, Judge Spencer rejected defense lawyers’ calls for a non-incarceration sentence that they had suggested, which could have included thousands of hours of community service.

Aug 29

Collateral Damage: Criminal Convictions and the Lasting Consequences


Prosecutors and often even judges do not appreciate the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, regardless of whether it results from a trial or a plea agreement.  While the direct consequences of conviction are obvious – such as jail time, probation requirements, and fines – the collateral consequences are more insidious.  Yet sometimes those consequences can have an even greater impact on a person’s life than the sentence meted out by the court.  These consequences may be difficult to identify, though they may be mandated by statutes and regulations scattered throughout state and federal law, and may arise from a misdemeanor conviction, or even a simple arrest.

One of the most serious collateral consequences of a criminal conviction is its effect on a person’s immigration status, and thanks to the United States Supreme Court, it is now one that has great visibility for most defense counsel. In Padilla v. Kentucky (130 S. Ct. 1473 (2010)), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of effective assistance of counsel requires that a defendant must be provided with notice of deportation consequences of a guilty plea he or she is considering.  This issue arises most frequently in the context of drug cases because of the draconian treatment of such conduct under U.S. law for non-citizens.  Since the Supreme Court’s opinion in Padilla, many courts now specifically include in their allocution during guilty pleas a specific notice regarding the possibility that a guilty plea may result in immigration consequences for the, including deportation, reversal of naturalization and non-admission.

But there are many other collateral consequences that are routine, but are not always referenced in a plea agreement and are often not recognized by defendants.   Under federal law, a person convicted of a felony may not possess a firearm – indeed, possession of a firearm by a felon constitutes a felony violation itself.  And many state laws require that defendants who commit sex crimes register with local authorities.   A conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs may result in the administrative loss of driving privileges for a period of time.

There are even more serious collateral consequences that persist for long periods of time involving exclusion from employment prospects, eligibility for professional licensing and access to government benefits. For instance, employees in the nursing care industry are generally subject to background checks by their employer and are required to maintain certain licensing in their individual capacity as a condition to working in the industry. But even a relatively minor criminal conviction will raise a red flag on the background check and foil any chance of receiving a license. Similarly, a state agency may refuse to issue a business an operating license if some of its higher level employees have criminal convictions. Not only does this restriction limit a person’s employment prospects, but more broadly, they also harm the person’s chances of earning any livelihood because this person will also be prevented from owning any business that required such a state license.

For these reasons, it is absolutely essential that when considering whether to accept a plea agreement that both counsel and the client understand the consequences of the guilty plea in order to properly evaluate the benefits and the collateral damage of accepting a guilty plea versus proceeding to trial.  And it is essential that counsel advise their clients in an effective manner of the consequences of a conviction that may persist long after the clients leave the courthouse or the jail.

Mar 17

Supreme Court Expands Whistleblower Protection

The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that Sarbanes–Oxley extends whistleblower protection, not just to employees of public companies, but to employees of private contractors and subcontractors that serve public companies. In a 6-3 decision, the Court rejected the First Circuit’s narrow construction of the statute in favor of the Labor Department’s more expansive interpretation. Now more than ever, affected contractors and subcontractors need to ensure they have robust policies in place for addressing whistleblower complaints.

Congress passed the Sarbanes–Oxley Act in 2002, the year after Enron’s collapse. The Act was intended to protect investors in public companies and restore trust in financial markets. It achieved these goals in part by providing whistleblower protection: 18 U.S.C. § 1514A makes it unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees who report suspected fraud. The provision certainly protects employees of publicly traded companies. It was less clear whether § 1514A protects employees of private contractors that service public companies. The plaintiffs in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, claimed it did.

Jackie Lawson and Jonathan Lang were employees of private companies that serviced the Fidelity family of mutual funds. As is often the case with mutual funds, the Fidelity funds were subject to SEC reporting requirements, but had no employees. Private companies contracted with the funds to provide accounting and investment advisory services. In this case, the private companies were Fidelity-related entities referred to collectively as FMR. Lawson was a 14-year veteran and Senior Director of Finance for her employer, Fidelity Brokerage Services. She alleged that she was constructively discharged after raising concerns about cost accounting methods for the funds. Zang was an 8-year veteran of Fidelity Management & Research Co. He alleged that he was fired for raising concerns about misstatements in a draft SEC registration statement related to the funds. Both plaintiffs sued for retaliation under § 1514A.

FMR responded by asking the district court to dismiss the claims on grounds that § 1514A protects employees of public companies, not employees of privately held companies. The trial judge rejected FMR’s argument, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Months later, the Labor Department’s Administrative Review Board issued a decision in another case, making clear that ARB agreed with the trial judge. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the question.

On March 4, the Court issued its opinion that § 1514A shelters employees of private contractors, just as it shelters employees of public companies served by those contractors. Speaking for the majority, Justice Ginsburg explained that the Court’s broad construction finds support in the statute’s text and broader context. As relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims, § 1514A provides, “‘No public company . . . , or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company” may take adverse action “against an employee . . . because of [whistleblowing or other protected activity].’” Boiled down to its essence, the phrase in question states that “no . . . contractor . . . may discharge . . . an employee.” In ordinary usage, the phrase means that no contractor (of a public company) may retaliate against its own employees. After all, those are the people contractors have power to retaliate against. According to the Court, if Congress had intended to limit whistleblower protections to employees of publicly traded companies, as FMR argued, Congress would have said “no contractor may discharge an employee of a public company.” The statute doesn’t say that because Congress was not attempting to remedy a nonexistent problem. Enron did not collapse because its private contractors retaliated against Enron employees who tried to report the company’s fraud.

The Lawson Court explained further that its interpretation flows logically from the statute’s purpose to prevent another Enron debacle. Often, the first-hand witnesses of corporate fraud are employees of private companies that service a public company—law firms, accounting firms, and business consulting firms, for example. Without adequate protections against retaliation, contractor employees who come across fraud in their work for public companies will be less likely to report misconduct. The Court’s point was particularly relevant with respect to the Fidelity funds. Like most mutual funds, the Fidelity funds had no employees. A narrow reading of § 1514A would insulate a $14 million industry from retaliation claims. Congress could not have intended that result.

Given the Court’s decision in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, privately held companies that service public companies should consider how best to deal with whistleblower complaints. At a minimum, robust whistleblower policies will (i) safeguard whistleblower anonymity to the extent possible; (ii) encourage whistleblowers to exercise discretion without discouraging them from reporting misconduct; (iii) address the preservation of evidence relating to putative fraud; and (iv) establish procedures for the conduct of internal investigations into suspected fraud.


Mar 01

$76 Million Distributed in Full Tilt Poker Restitution

We have previously reported on the arrangements being made by the Garden City Group for remittance of money to the former customers of Full Tilt Poker.  Since that time, there has been a lengthy process for the submission of claims to the group for administration.

It appears that players’ waiting has not been all for naught.

The Garden City Group reports that, on February 28, 2014, it issued more than 27,500 payments totaling approximately $76 million to former Full Tilt Poker players who timely confirmed the balance of their Full Tilt Poker accounts.  GCG reports that petitioners will receive ACH transfers of the funds anywhere from the day it was issued until several business days later, depending on the practices of their banks.

These payments are only the first round of anticipated payments.  The deadline for affiliates to submit a petition for remission is this Sunday, March 2.

Feb 28

Omnicare Decision Limits the Reach of False Claims Act

A recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit limiting the reach of the False Claims Act demonstrates how relators who pursue cases in which the government declines to intervene can end up making law that is unfavorable to the government’s enforcement of that statute.

United States ex rel. Rostholder v. Omnicare, Inc., et al., No. 12-2431, a qui tam case alleging violations of the False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729, arose from a whistleblower’s claim that defendants violated certain Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety regulations requiring that penicillin and non-penicillin drugs be packaged in complete isolation from one another.  The violation of these regulations resulted in a legal presumption of penicillin cross-contamination.  The relator asserted that the contaminated drugs were not eligible for reimbursement by Medicare and Medicaid and, therefore, claims presented to the government for reimbursement of these drugs were false under the FCA.

In affirming the district court’s grant of Omnicare’s motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals focused on the specific requirement of the FCA that there be a claim that is, indeed, false.  The Court noted that the statutes providing for reimbursement require that the drug in question be approved by the FDA but these statutes do not require compliance with FDA safety regulations as a precondition for reimbursement.

The Court therefore held that, while the cross-contamination might be a violation of safety regulations, it did not transform Omnicare’s requests for reimbursement into false claims.  The Court observed statements in its own earlier cases that “the correction of regulatory problems is a worthy goal, but is ‘not actionable under the FCA in the absence of actual fraudulent conduct.’”  (citing Mann v. Heckler & Koch. Def., Inc., 630 F.3d 338, 346 (4th Cir. 2010)).  If it were “to accept relator’s theory of liability based merely on a regulatory violation,” the Court noted, “we would sanction use of the FCA as a sweeping mechanism to promote regulatory compliance, rather than a set of statutes aimed at protecting the financial resources of the government from the consequences of fraudulent conduct.”  Given the FDA’s “broad powers to enforce its own regulations,” to permit the FCA to be used in this manner “could ‘short-circuit the very remedial process the Government has established to address non-compliance with those regulations.’”  (citing U.S. ex rel. Wilkins v. United Health Grp., Inc., 659 F.3d 295, 310 3d Cir. 2011)).

Based on these principles, the Court of Appeals found that the relator had failed adequately to allege the existence of a false statute or fraudulent conduct, and that he could not plausibly allege that Omnicare acted with the requisite scienter when submitting the claims in question to the government.

This Court of Appeals decision could offer support for companies in highly regulated industries that face qui tam cases under the False Claims Act that arise from violations of safety regulations.  In industries such as pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging in which payment reimbursements are not expressly tied to compliance with safety rules, those companies may face regulatory enforcement for those violations, but will not also face assertions that they have also violated the False Claims Act.

Feb 12

Wild, Wild West: The Legalization of Marijuana Brings Lots Of Regulatory Concerns

The beginning of 2014 has brought many new laws into effect and we have written on a number of them. But few laws have received more mainstream media exposure than Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana. Of more importance to us, the legalization of recreational marijuana has posed some interesting problems for regulators.

The most obvious effect of the law was to allow the recreational use of marijuana, but there has also been a significant side effect: Colorado has seen an explosion of food products with marijuana additives (known as “marijuana edibles”). A big reason for the wide variety of marijuana infused products is because it is relatively simple to manufacture them. The regular food manufacturing process is used and then cannabis oil is added to the recipe, which adds THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) the main psychoactive substance in marijuana, to the food. Marijuana edibles range from candies and sweets (e.g. chai mints, truffles) to sodas to cake (e.g. cookies, brownies), and even peanut butter. These products are especially attractive to people who want to avoid the coughing and inhaling of pot smoke, or, to partake of marijuana in a place where smoking is not permitted.

We are not generally in favor of more regulation, but we do think that there is a need for more robust regulation of marijuana edibles.  These are standard food products with all the associated risks (e.g. going rancid, food poisoning like salmonella).  Also, THC is not particularly stable as a good additive. Yet, despite these characteristics that pose risks associated with food products, marijuana edibles are not being monitored by the experienced federal food regulators (such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration).  Moreover, Colorado Department of Public Health also cannot provide oversight because part of their funding comes from the federal government.  And while Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division may monitor these products, its original purpose was to regulate the medical marijuana industry and it is therefore ill equipped to regulate the entire recreational marijuana industry from the perspective of experience and resources.  The Marijuana Enforcement Division has taken some significant steps to ensure marijuana edibles’ safety – such as requiring laboratory certification of edibles and implementing a tracking program that would be able to trace any food poisoning outbreaks directly back to the plant – but the absence of experienced food regulators from this process is worrisome.

Like many new laws, the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in Colorado is creating unforeseen challenges for regulators necessary to ensure the health and safety of the public.  We are confident that, even in the continued absence of federal agency involvement, Colorado state authorities will find new and effective ways to meet these challenges.

Feb 10

Recent Ruling May Put Dent In Ability of Government to Seize Domain Names

A November 2013 ruling from the United States District Court in a bankruptcy case may create an obstacle for a tactic increasingly popular among federal prosecutors – the seizure of a defendant company’s domain name.

The statutes permitting civil and criminal forfeiture in U.S. District Courts – Title 18, United States Code Sections 981 and 983, respectively – both authorize seizure of “property.”  In a number of prominent (and not so prominent) cases, federal prosecutors have seized a defendant company’s domain name, which may shut down the company’s operations during the pendency of the case.  But it does not appear that any Court has squarely considered, in a forfeiture context, whether a domain name constitutes “property” that may be seized and forfeited.

Alexandria Surveys, LLC v. Alexandria Consulting Group, LLC, Civil Action 1:13—CV-00891, Bankr. Case No. 10-11559-BFK, was not a forfeiture case, but it may have set the table for a forfeiture defendant to argue successfully that a domain name may not be seized.  In Alexandria Surveys, the District Court reviewed a ruling in the Bankrupcty Court relating to the sale of certain assets previously belonging to the debtor.   In the case, the debtor argued, among other things, that the sale of the debtor’s web address and telephone numbers was improper because neither were the “property” of the bankruptcy estate, and therefore neither could be sold by the trustee.

In considering the issue, the Court noted a split in the Circuits as to whether a telephone number constitutes property of an estate.   Compare Rothman v. Pacific Tel. & Telegraph Co., 453 F.2d 848, 849-50 (9th Cir. 1971) (trustee lacks right to distribute telephone number as property of the estate); Slenderalla Sys.of Berkeley, Inc. v. Pacific Tel. & Telegraph Co., 286 F.2d 488, 490 (2d Cir. 1961) (same) withDarman v. Metropolitan Alarm Corp., 528 F.2d 908, 910 n.1 (1st Cir. 1976) (permitting trustee to distribute telephone number as property of estate); In re Fontainebleau Hotel Corp., 508 F.2d 1056, 1059 (5th Cir. 1975) (same).

The Court observed that, while the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet addressed the issue, state law determines the contours of property interests assumed by the trustee.  In that regard, the Court noted the Virginia Supreme Court’s relatively recent decision in Network Solutions, Inc. v. Umbro International, Inc., 529 S.E.2d 80 (Va. 2000), in which that court specifically held, in the context of a garnishment action, that a web address and telephone number could not be garnished by a judgment creditor because the debtor lacked a property interest in them.  529 S.E.2d at 86-87.The court held that a domain name registrant acquires the contractual right to use a unique domain name for a specified period of time, and that the domain name is not property, but rather, “the product of a contract for services.”  Id.  Without diminishing the importance and significance of web addresses and domain names, the Alexandria Surveys court followed the holding in Network Solutions that they did not constitute “property.”

While Alexandria Surveys did not deal specifically with the law of forfeiture, the holding that domain names do not constitute property has significant implications for civil and criminal forfeiture cases.  The case is not binding on other courts, but given the paucity of precedent characterizing domain names, this analysis may be viewed as instructive by courts considering claimants’ and defendants’ challenges to domain name seizures.  And a shift in the law that did not permit those seizures would deprive the government of a significant piece of leverage that it now wields in many cases.

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About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, healthcare, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partner Michelle Cohen, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Jeff Hamlin, Steven Eichorn, David Yellin, and Nicole Kardell. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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