The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Klein v. Cornelius on Wednesday, May 27, 2015.
R. Wayne Klein was appointed receiver of Winsome Investment Trust, a business entity whose founder, Robert J. Andres, caused it to illegally distribute funds as part of a Ponzi scheme. William Cornelius and his Houston law firm, Cornelius & Salhab, received some of the illegally obtained funds as payment for a New Hampshire criminal defense representation of one of Andres’ friends. Klein, as receiver, brought suit against Cornelius in Utah federal court to void the fraudulent transfer to Cornelius for approximately $90,000 in legal fees. The Utah court granted summary judgment to Klein, and Cornelius appealed, raising several points of error.
The Tenth Circuit first addressed Cornelius’ three jurisdictional challenges. Cornelius first argued the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) does not authorize a receiver to bring state fraudulent transfer claims in federal court against a third-party recipient of Ponzi scheme funds. The Tenth Circuit found that the CEA authorizes the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to bring civil actions in federal court to enjoin violations of the CEA, and does not prohibit a receiver from pursuing state law claims in federal court. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to resolve Klein’s Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (UFTA) claims on Winsome’s behalf.
Cornelius next challenged standing, arguing Klein lacked standing to bring a UFTA claim because Winsome itself could not bring such a claim. Cornelius reasoned that because Winsome was unincorporated and under Andres’ control, it was an alter ego for Andres and therefore had no authority to sue in its own right. Although he conceded Klein could sue as a receiver for Andres, the Tenth Circuit disagreed with Cornelius’ contention that Winsome could not sue in its own right. The Tenth Circuit found that as a business entity abused as part of a Ponzi scheme, Winsome became a defrauded creditor. The Tenth Circuit found that Winsome was its own entity under Utah law and therefore Klein had standing to pursue the UFTA claim.
Cornelius also argued the district court lacked personal jurisdiction because he did not have sufficient contacts with Utah and because he was not properly served with a complaint. The Tenth Circuit first found the CEA allowed nationwide service of process for receivers pursuing receivership property. The Tenth Circuit next looked at Cornelius’ argument that he had minimum contacts with Utah, and found that in federal question cases where nationwide service of process invokes jurisdiction, the defendant must establish that the chosen forum burdens the defendant with “constitutionally significant inconvenience.” Because Cornelius made no jurisdiction arguments other than the minimum contact argument, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s determination that it had jurisdiction. Cornelius also argued that in personam jurisdiction was inappropriate and only in rem jurisdiction would apply, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding personal jurisdiction applied under the particular statutory scheme.
Next, Cornelius argued three points of error regarding the district court’s application of UFTA: (1) Texas law applies, (2) the transfer was not fraudulent, and (3) regardless, Klein’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations. The Tenth Circuit addressed each argument in turn. Because the relevant provisions of Texas law use the same language as Utah, the Tenth Circuit found Cornelius’ first argument of no practical significance. Next, the Tenth Circuit found that because Ponzi schemes are inherently insolvent, there is a presumption that transfers from such entities involve an intent to defraud. Cornelius argued that neither he nor the criminal defendant he represented knew of the Ponzi scheme, but the Tenth Circuit noted that nothing in the UFTA requires a transferee to have knowledge of the fraud. The Tenth Circuit also declined to adopt Cornelius’ assertion that he provided “reasonably equivalent value” for his payment, noting that his legal services conferred no benefit on Winsome and the payments to Cornelius only served to diminish its net worth.
Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the statute of limitations argument. Claims alleging actual intent to defraud under the UFTA must be brought within four years of when the transfer was made or one year after the transfer could reasonably have been discovered. Klein brought suit against Cornelius in December 2011. The payments to Cornelius for his legal services were made between September 2006 and July 2007, and Cornelius argued the suit was untimely because it was brought well after the four year statute of limitations had expired. However, Klein was appointed as receiver in January 2011, and he could not have reasonably discovered the fraud until his appointment. The Tenth Circuit found the claim was timely since it was brought within one year of Klein’s appointment as receiver.
The district court’s grant of summary judgment to Klein was affirmed.