ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The MoneyGram Case: Commercial Law at the United States Supreme Court

MoneyGram LogoHow often do those of us in the contracts realm get to string together "commercial law," "U.S. Supreme Court," and "original jurisdiction" in the same sentence? If your answer is, "not nearly often enough!" then you may want to keep tabs on a lawsuit filed last month by Arkansas, Texas, and 19 other states against Delaware and MoneyGram.  At issue is the appropriate recipient of unclaimed property, the property in this case being the proceeds from unused MoneyGram payment instruments, which, after a time, are ultimately subject to escheat to the state.

The Dallas Morning News described basic facts in covering the rollout of the litigation by the Texas Attorney General:

Attorney General Ken Paxton today accused the state of Delaware of swiping up to $400 million in unclaimed checks that rightfully belong to Texas and the 48 other states.

Texas’ share, he said, would be about $10 million.

FTexas Shaped Flagor the last four or five years, Paxton said, announcing a lawsuit against Delaware that was filed directly at the U.S.  Supreme Court, Delaware has been requiring financial institutions incorporated under its laws — in particular MoneyGram – to turn over unclaimed funds only to Delaware.

But under a 1974 federal law, Paxton asserted, such funds belong to the state in which a transaction originated. MoneyGram lets people pay a fee to purchase a check they can send to someone else.

“The state of Delaware elected to begin playing by a different set of rules,” Paxton said, calling the practice both illegal and unfair. “Delaware has our money.”

He cited an audit released in February 2015 that found that Delaware had claimed more than $150 million in unclaimed checks that originated in 20 other states. Extrapolating to  the whole country, he said, the tally could be $400 million.

This group of 21 states is not the first to take issue with Delaware's appropriation of the unclaimed property. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania brought a similar lawsuit in federal district court in which defendant Delaware ultimately invoked the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to resolve disputes between states. SCOTUSblog provides some helpful detail on the legal background and procedural posture of these state-v.-state cases:

The core legal issue in each of the new filings is whether a 1974 law with an assignment of priority of state ownership for unclaimed tangible property applies to the new instrument, which some 1,900 banks or other institutions across the country are using instead of cashier’s or teller’s checks.  Delaware says the law does not apply; the other states disagree.

SCOTUSbuilding_1st_Street_SEThe Supreme Court has issued three rulings on competing state claims to unclaimed intangible property; Congress has overruled one of those, in a 1974 law known as the Disposition of Abandoned Money Orders and Traveler’s Checks Act.  That law is at the center of the cases that have reached the Court under its “original” jurisdiction — that is, its authority to decide, in the fashion of a trial court, a legal dispute not decided by a lower court.  This jurisdiction is often implicated in resolving disputes between states — as in the new filings over unclaimed property.

The Court has no binding obligation to take on such a case.  However, if it does, it customarily names a “special master” to act like a junior judge to gather facts and make a recommendation for a decision.  A special master’s report is not final unless it becomes the ruling of the Supreme Court.

The large dollar amount in dispute arises from an aggregation of small transactions that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the "money order" species of negotiable instrument:

While Delaware’s claims are at the center of this new financial fight between the states, the controversy actually turns on the specific financial instrument involved, and the Texas company that has been issuing those items, which it calls “official checks.”   That company, MoneyGram Payments Systems, Inc., has its main business office in Texas but it is incorporated in Delaware.  It does business in all fifty states.

Its main business is as a kind of financial partner to banks and other institutions that prefer not to issue cashier’s checks or teller’s checks in their own name.  MoneyGram does it for them, so it acts as the financial backer of its “official checks.”

That kind of transaction is conducted for some of the same reasons that stores do a business in money orders or traveler’s checks.  The idea is that, in the form of a money order or traveler’s check, the piece of paper is a guaranteed form of payment that works like cash; in other words, it won’t “bounce” for lack of sufficient funds behind it.  Typically, this kind of instrument is in fairly small amounts.

The Supreme Court does not frequently consider issues intersecting with commercial law in quite the way that this case does, so the outcome will certainly bear watching.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/contractsprof_blog/2016/07/the-moneygram-case-commercial-law-at-the-united-states-supreme-court.html

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