Written during my final year at university, this 12,000 word research project explores the potential for judicial bias when adjudicating fiduciary breaches across four countries including Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Having kept this frankly illuminating piece to myself for the last three years, I thought perhaps it was time to share it with those interested or curious enough to view it, while for the record I was delighted to receive a first-class grade for my earnest efforts.
This is a twenty page report detailing the financial collapse of Carillion plc in 2018, and while this independent report explains much of the background leading up to their downfall, it also includes judicial insight into the rights of those left out of pocket when the hammer finally fell (simply click here to read it).
While the strictness of fiduciary duties within a corporate entity are prime examples of greed overshadowing obligation, this particular case demonstrates the need for contextual adjudication when examining the seemingly selfish actions of those shouldering such burdens.
Having been appointed managing director of a company designed to pursue mining opportunities within the Australasian continents in 1958, the respondent was later sued for breach of duty when obtaining coal and iron ore mining licences from the Tasmanian government by way of his position.
In the first instance, the Equity Division of the Supreme Court of New South Wales found in favour of the appellants, although legal recourse was unavailable due to its commencement beyond the statute of limitations, and so upon appeal to the Privy Council, the council was compelled to review the findings of the supreme court, while dissecting the sizeable case material used.
Here the council found that although the respondent had been serving as a director at the time negotiations had begun, it was also evident that a severe loss of capital over the preceding years had resulted in the respondent placing the company in ‘stasis’ whilst seeking alternative funding to carry out the work should they eventually receive the licences.
In addition to this, it had been made expressly clear by the board of shareholders following the receipt of the licences in 1961, that they no longer had any financial interest in the company, and that the appellant was free to pursue the benefits arising from the mining of the land available.
However in March 1962, the appellants had also sold their existing interest in the company to a third party for the sum of £2500, and so despite any claim of breach, they had by all accounts financially, contractually and orally divorced themselves from the company and those still remaining, and so when establishing the fiduciary parameters required for such a case, the council turned to Boardman v Phipps, in which Cohen LJ had held that:
“[I]t does not necessarily follow that because an agent acquired information and opportunity while acting in a fiduciary capacity he is accountable to his principals for any profit that comes his way as the result of the use he makes of that information and opportunity.”
And so basing their judgment on the strength of Boardman the council noted that not only had the respondentbeen transparent in his dealings with the Tasmanian government and the appellants, but that the appellants themselves had unequivocally shown their disinterest both in the value of the company and the actions of the respondent prior to their departure; and so with little hesitation the council dismissed the appeal while holding that:
“[A] limit has to be set to the liability to account of one who is in a special relationship with another whose interests he is bound to protect.”
Profiting from a fiduciary position, while not expressly forbidden, is a feature that requires careful consideration by both trustees and beneficiaries, and so in this matter the billing of fees for legal services proved both offensive and damaging for the party accused.
In 1895, the Governor of the Yorkshire College took issue with the vice-chairman after discovering that he had for a period of fourteen years, been providing legal function as a solicitor whilst holding a position based upon a voluntary footing. Incensed at this opportunistic behaviour, the now appellant wrote a lengthy letter to the respondent, accusing him of breaching his fiduciary duty to the institution her served, while stressing that he had:
“[U]sed religious, educational and philanthropic schemes as a hypocritical cover for the purpose of serving his own ends.”
The respondent argued that the terms of the memorandum of association had provided him with rights to both charge and profit from his work, a contention that remained largely unproven at the point of litigation. In the first hearing, the judge underemphasised the importance of the accusation levelled, instead focussing on the libellous tone used in the letter, which at the time, was circulated amongst three hundred other college governors.
Having convinced the jury that the respondent was justified in his collection of payment for legal services, the judge again placed greater weight upon the damaging effects of the written statements, after which the jury returned a verdict in favour of the respondent, and with damages set at a lofty 600l.
Upon appeal, the appellant was left facing a similar outcome after the Court agreed that the libel charges remained as effective as they would have should the respondent have been proved wrong, thus prompting a final plea before the House of Lords.
Here, the roots of the matter were revisited, along with Order XXXIX r.6 of the Rules of the Supreme Court 1883, which explained how:
“[A] new trial shall not be granted on the ground of misdirection or of the improper admission or rejection of evidence,…unless in the opinion of the Court to which the application is made some substantial wrong or miscarriage has been thereby occasioned in the trial…”
It was thus uniformly agreed by the House that from the outset, the nature of the action had been grossly overlooked in favour of aspersions, and that the trial judge had clearly failed to acknowledge the gravity of a fiduciary breach, which if proven correct, went some way to justifying the claims made by the appellant at the start. It was for this reason that the House held that there had been a clear miscarriage of justice, and that in failing to recognise this, the Court of Appeal had conversely erred in judgment.
In light of these collective mishaps, the House duly reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision, directed a re-trial under the Supreme Court Rules, and ordered repayment of all courts costs and damages to the appellant.
The essence of fiduciary duties run counter to the arms-length relationships navigated by contracting parties, and so on this occasion, the relinquishing of trustee duties by a regulated bank proved a reversal of fortune for an innocent employee.
While operating his construction company, the sole owner established a Profit Sharing 401(k) Plan for the benefit of his numerous employees. Almost six years later, the company filed for bankruptcy under Ch. 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, after which one of its employees requested payment for the money he had invested during the life of the plan.
With an estimated $14,000 owed, the employer agreed to settle the matter with a payment of $21,000 to cover court fees incurred while pursuing the debt on grounds of a fiduciary breach. Unfortunately, the employer paid only $18,500, after which he escaped jurisdiction and was never seen again. This left the employee with no option other than to claim the remaining $3,000 from the now appellant bank, who in accordance with the terms of the plan, was an acting trustee under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
At the point of litigation, it became clear that while serving as a trustee, the bank was under duty to inform where possible, all plan beneficiaries of its decision to rescind its appointment, as expressed under art. 15.6 of the plan, which allowed the bank to resign by written notice, after which any outstanding funds would be transferred to a successor trustee; however should one not be available, the administrator of the plan would automatically occupy that position.
Unbeknown to the employee, the bank had been struggling to communicate with the employer for a number of months, and after resigning as trustees with the knowledge that the trustee-administrator relationship had broken down, and that the company was now also in financial trouble, the bank had handed $53,000 of plan funds to the employer without notifying the beneficiaries of their decision. It was at this point that the employer converted the assets for his own personal use, sometime before part-settling with the employee and disappearing.
When heard in the district court, the judge awarded in favour of the claimant employee, whereupon the bank appealed to the court of appeals, who investigated further, the nature of the plan and associated case precedents. Here it was agreed that under § 106 of the Restatement (Second) of Trusts, a trustee was able to resign in accordance with a trust with express permission of the beneficiaries or consent of the court, yet at no point had the bank alerted the employee(s) of either the decision to resign, or the uncertain future of the employer.
It was also noted that under s. 11.4 of the plan, that the bank could be could liable:
“[T]o the extent it is judicially determined that the Trustee/Custodian has failed to exercise the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character with like aims.”
While the bank argued that under such circumstances, legal remedy would be sustainable only as a class action involving all the beneficiaries, the court held that in Varity Corp. v. Howe, individual remedy was viable under ERISA § 502(a)(3), which provides that equitable relief is granted to individuals in order to “redress any act or practice which violates any provision of this title”. The court also noted that § 173 of the Restatement (Second) of Trusts provides that:
“[The Trustee] is under a duty to communicate to the beneficiary material facts affecting the interest of the beneficiary which he knows the beneficiary does not know and which the beneficiary needs to know for his protection in dealing with a third person.”
It was for these salient reasons that the appeal court supported the district court ruling and awarded in favour of the employee for the remaining balance of the plan monies, while adding that had the bank been in a position to hand over money of its own to the employer, things may have taken quite a different turn, especially when considering the vulnerability of the beneficiaries.
As can often result from mutual wills, the overlapping fields of contract law and equity become central to the resolution of this property dispute, after a claimant intervenes in the immoral acquisition of sole title to the matrimonial home of a son’s parents.
The drafting of mutual individual wills reflected that upon death, the surviving spouse became under law, the sole beneficiary of that person’s equitable and legal interest in the property occupied at the time of death. Where neither party were survivable, the individual wills stated that the wife’s niece was to become the beneficiary of the equally held share of the leasehold, and that the father’s son would inherit the remainder of the estate.
Following the death of the wife, the husband took the liberty of transferring his now sole title to that of a shared (or joint) title to the property with his son; an act that in and of itself, contravened the earlier agreement within their final (and irrevocable by declaration) wills. This transgression had remained unaddressed until the death of the father, preceding a naturally vehement claim by the niece that the transfer of title constituted fraud, and that under those circumstances, the son now held both parents’ share of the property upon trust for her, and that despite any contractual arrangements made between the father and son, the binding nature of the mutual wills superseded any administrative effects constructed under the laws of property.
Despite drawing argument against mutual testation under the property doctrine of survivorship, it remained evident that the father was acting within a fiduciary capacity when surviving his wife’s death, and so by avoiding the duties prescribed him, he breached that obligation in favour of his son’s expectation to benefit.
Again, as with the rules of equity and proscription of contract law, there appeared to be a lack of clarity surrounding the written intentions of the testator and testatrix, while the basis for this opposition relied upon s.2 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989, where the disposition of land requires a single co-signed document containing the terms of the arrangement (or at the very least an exchange of those documents) as proof of intention; yet as the mutual wills were never signed by their respective partners, any desire to enforce their bequests became invalid under the Act itself. This essentially meant that:
“No disposition of land can be challenged unless done so with a written and signed document contrary to the one drafted by the person charged.”
Sadly, the nature of the wills were such that neither party co-signed the others wills prior to their deaths, which thereby prevented a contract of sorts to exist, so on this occasion the judges decided that instead of the property now becoming the sole title to the claimant, as was the design of the mutually drafted wills, the home was now held in equal shares for both parties to enjoy, albeit through the framework of a constructive trust.