The various ways a victim can be defrauded are as limitless as the bounds of human ingenuity. But under California law, wrongful actions are generally characterized as civil "fraud" only under one of the following legal theories:
1. Intentional Misrepresentation. Probably the most common type of fraud is a false statement. But not every false statement is fraudulent. The elements of a claim for intentional misrepresentation are:
a. An intentionally or recklessly false statement of fact. Not every false statement is a false statement of "fact." Statements of opinion generally are not actionable. Sales talk, or "puffing" ("This is the best location in the county!"), is generally not actionable. However, if the defendant claims to be an expert or there are other reasons to expect that the victim would rely upon the defendantís opinion as a statement of "fact," an opinion may be treated by the court as a statement of fact. Also, a statement need not be made directly to the victim. For instance, if the defendant made the false statement to a third person with the expectation that the statement would be repeated to the victim, the victim may have a valid claim for fraudulent misrepresentation.
b. Intention to defraud. If a representation of fact was intentionally false and a material part of the transaction (e.g., "this house does not have flooding problems"), it is likely the false promise was made with the intention to defraud the victim.
c. Reasonable reliance upon the false statement. The victim must have actually relied upon the statement to change his or her position (e.g., the victim would not have purchased the house if he or she knew the truth). The false statement need not be the only reason the victim changed his or her position, but it must be at least part of the reason. Also, the victimís reliance on the false statement must be reasonable. If the victim knew or should have known the statement was false, the victim did not reasonably rely. The sophistication of the victim will play a role in determining whether his or her reliance on the statement was reasonable; e.g., a sophisticated real estate investorís reliance on a representation about the qualities of a house may not be reasonable while an unsophisticated buyerís reliance may be. Even an unsophisticated victim, however, "may not put faith in representations which are preposterous, or which are shown by facts within his observation to be so patently and obviously false that he must have closed his eyes to avoid discovery of the truth." Seeger v. Odell (1941) 18 Cal. 2d 409.
d. Resulting in damages. There must be measurable damages that were caused by the fraud. It is not enough that the victim was told a lie (e.g., "A famous movie star once slept in this house"); the victim must also be able to prove some type of damage resulted from the lie.
2. Negligent Misrepresentation. A claim for negligent misrepresentation is generally the same as a claim for intentional misrepresentation, except the victim must only prove the defendant did not have "a reasonable basis" to believe its statement of fact was true (as opposed to proving the defendant knew its statement was false). If the defendantís false statement was both honestly made and based upon reasonable grounds, however, there is no claim. Punitive damages are not available for negligent misrepresentations.
3. Concealment. A claim for fraud may also arise if the defendant concealed or failed to disclose a material fact during a transaction, causing damage to the victim. The elements of a claim for fraudulent concealment are:
a. The defendant failed to disclose or concealed a material fact with an intent to defraud the victim.
b. The defendant had a duty to disclose. There is not always a duty to disclose facts during a transaction. If there is a duty, it generally arises in one of four different circumstances: (i) The defendant is in a "fiduciary relationship" (such as being a partner) with the victim; or (ii) The defendant took steps to hide important information from the victim (as opposed to simply failing to tell the victim); or (iii) The defendant disclosed some information to the victim, but the disclosed information is misleading unless more information is given; or (iv) The defendant is aware of key information and knows the victim is unlikely to discover that information. In addition, California laws may create a duty to disclose in certain transactions. For example, sellers of residential property in California generally are required to make written disclosures about the condition of the house.
c. The victim must have been unaware of the fact and would not have acted as he or she did if he or she knew of the fact.
d. The victim sustained damages as a result of the concealment.
4. False Promise. A claim of fraud may arise if a defendant entered into a contract and made promises that it never intended to perform. The elements of a false promise claim are:
a. The defendant made a promise.
b. The promise was important to the transaction.
c. At the time he or she made the promise, the defendant did not intend to perform it.
d. The defendant intended the victim to rely upon the promise.
e. The victim reasonably relied upon the promise.
f. The defendant did not perform the promise.
g. The victim was harmed as a result of defendant not carrying out his or her promise.
h. The victimís reliance on the defendantís promise was a substantial factor in causing the victimís harm.
It is important to understand that a broken promise, alone, is not a sufficient basis for a fraud claim. More than a mere broken promise is required. The victim must also prove that the defendant did not intend to perform the promise at the time the promise was made. In practice, it is usually difficult to tell the difference between a broken promise and a promise made without an intention to perform. Courts generally look for circumstantial evidence to support a false promise claim (as opposed to a broken promise claim), such as the defendant broke its promise immediately after making it.
Characterization of a claim as fraud has many advantages to a victim; primarily, the victim may be able to recover punitive damages in addition to actual damages. Also, the measure of damages is generally more liberal under fraud and other "tort" theories, allowing victims a more complete recovery. But even if a wrongful action does not fall under the definition of "fraud," it still may lead to a valid legal claim. For instance, a broken promise - while not necessarily fraudulently - may still constitute a valid breach of contract claim. While punitive damages and emotional distress damages are generally not available for breach of contract in California, the victim still should be able to recover his or her monetary damages.
This article constitutes general information only and should not be relied upon as legal advice.
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Michael Abney is a business and real estate litigation attorney in Orange County, California and a partner in Drosman Abney & Percival, LLP. An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, Michael has been a California lawyer for 19 years. You can contact Michael at http://www.DapLawyers.com or (949) 727-0880