Commercial Law Update - Fraud and more than Barnes v Addy – VSCA on accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty or trust

Commercial Law
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In the wake of a fraud the missing money has sometimes vanished for good – spirited overseas perhaps or lost to the fraudster’s gambling habit. There may be a lack of other assets held by the fraudster against which any judgment could be executed. This is why claims that can be made against third parties who were not the fraudsters themselves but were sufficiently involved in what happened, can be so important. In some circumstances, even where they did not receive the stolen or misappropriated money, the third party’s involvement as an accessory is such as to make them liable, and losses can be recovered from them. 

On Tuesday the Victorian Court of Appeal handed down its decision in Harstedt Pty Ltd v Tomanek [2018] VSCA 84. It is a significant judgment for their Honours’ remarks as to the different forms of accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty – it is not confined only to the second limb of Barnes v Addy (knowing assistance). Further, the judgment is significant for the principles it identifies as to what will constitute “assistance” for the purposes of the second limb (knowing assistance). There is also useful guidance in relation to the five Baden catetogories of knowledge relevant to knowing assistance.

The judgment was unanimous. The bench comprised their Honours Santamaria, McLeish and Niall JJA. I will briefly summarise the facts and decision in this case, before laying out the learnings to be gained from this judgment.

The facts

The appellant Harstedt Pty Ltd had invested $250,000 in one of those investment schemes which in hindsight was probably too good to be true. Investors were promised sizeable profits to be generated by the investment of capital by a humanitarian organisation. Investors deposited money into a CBA account in the name of the corporate vehicle Apollo Development Enterprises Pty Ltd, which they were told was a ‘non-depleting amount’; the funds were to be held inviolate and were not to leave the account.  They were told CBA had agreed to lend three times the amount held in the account, which presumably was to be used to generate profits via the investment platform. In the event, however, the funds (over $4m) were transferred to an account in Spain where they vanished without a trace.

Harstedt sued the company Apollo and others associated with Apollo, including the company secretary Mr Tomanek. Harstedt made various claims, including fraudulent breach of trust by Apollo and a claim against Mr Tomanek for knowing assistance under the second limb of Barnes v Addy. Harstedt was successful at trial against Apollo, but dismissed the claim against Mr Tomanek. Harstedt appealed.

On appeal the Court of Appeal held that Mr Tomanek knew of the essential facts which constituted the dishonest and fraudulent breach of trust by Apollo (see [105]-[108]). However the appeal failed, primarily on the basis that Harstedt had not established “assistance” on the part of Mr Tomanek. Their Honours held that on the evidence, and on the case as advanced (see below), Harstedt had not established anything beyond knowledge on the part of Mr Tomanek of Apollo’s dishonest and fraudulent design. That knowledge, in and of itself, did not facilitate Apollo’s breach of trust and cause the loss arising therefrom. On the evidence, it was insufficient to constitute “assistance” in the relevant sense (see [119]-[121]).

1.Fraud may give rise to different claims against third party accessories 

Note that on the facts of this case, the claim of knowing receipt (first limb of Barnes v Addy) was not considered, nor was there any question of tracing or following the money. This appeal decision only considered the case where a third party may be liable as an accessory to another’s breach of trust or fiduciary duty.

As their Honours acknowledged, the state of the law on accessorial liability in this context has been riddled with uncertainty and disunity; they set out the relevant authorities and case law in footnotes which I have not reproduced here.

Their Honours observed at [68] that there are different forms of accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty, which must be kept distinct. Their Honours identified two forms of liability and went on to describe two other situations in which accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty may arise. The two forms of accessorial liability their Honours set out were –

  1. Knowing assistance in the breach – the second limb of Barnes v Addy. This was the claim brought in this case. To be liable under this form, the breach of duty or trust must amount to a ‘dishonest and fraudulent design’ (see [68] and the elements set out at [70]). Note, however, that the dishonesty required is on the part of the fraudster, not the third party (see [97] and see also Farah Constructions Pty Ltd v Say-Dee Pty Ltd [2007] HCA 22; (2007) 230 CLR 89 at [160], [163] and[179]).
  2. Knowing inducement or immediate procurement of the breach. The High Court in Farah drew attention to a line of cases preceding Barnes v Addy in which it was accepted that a third party might be liable as an accessory to a breach of trust (or, their Honours noted, fiduciary duty) on this basis. Procuring or inducing a breach of fiduciary duty is distinct from participating in it (see [68]). The Full Federal Court in Grimaldi v Chameleon Mining NL (No 2) [2012] FCAFC 6; (2012) 200 FCR 296 observed that for this head, as with corporate alter ego cases (see next) it is not necessary to show any dishonest or fraudulent design here, or improper purpose on the part of the trustee or fiduciary (see [245] of Grimaldi; see [161] of Farah). Their Honours in Harstedt sets out the cases under this head at footnote 28 and 29, but see also Marriner v Australian Super Developments Pty Ltd [2016] VSCA 141 and the decision of Sloss J at first instance in Australian Super Developments Pty Ltd [2014] VSC 464 from [274].

The two “other situations” their Honours discussed at [69] in which accessorial liability for another’s breach of fiduciary duty may arise were –

  1. Alter ego of the wrongdoer. Their Honours described this as where a company is the corporate creature, vehicle, or alter ego of a wrongdoing fiduciary or trustee, and the wrongdoer uses the company to secure the profits or inflict the losses of their breach (see [69], citing Grimaldi at [243]). In these cases the corporate vehicle is fully liable for the profits made from, and the losses inflicted by, the fiduciary’s wrong. I note that as the Full Federal Court observed in Grimaldi, the basis for third party liability in these cases is said to be that the company had full (imputed) knowledge of all of the facts, and either has a “transmitted fiduciary obligation” or “jointly participated” in the breach. Liability does not turn on the need to show dishonesty, although it often provides the reason for the interposition of the company. (See [243] of Grimaldi.)
  2. Trustee de son tortThis is where the third party is not a trustee but nevertheless presumes to act as a trustee and then commits a breach or profits from the position. In those circumstances the third party can be liable as a trustee de son tort (see [69], citing Mara v Browne [1896] 1 Ch 199, Nolan v Nolan [2004] VSCA 109 at [25]-[29]).

I will not launch into a doctrinal debate about these forms of liability here, although I note that pleadings in these cases need to be carefully considered and framed. However it is worth pausing to comment further on the basis of liability  for number 1 immediately above – where the third party is the corporate alter ego of the wrongdoer. Regarding that type of case, it has been noted it is ‘rather artificial’ to use Barnes v Addy to explain this liability (see [243] of Grimaldi.) Having said that, in Grimaldi, Mr Grimaldi’s company Murchison Pty Ltd was found liable for Mr Grimaldi and Mr Barnes’ diversions of money away from Chameleon Pty Ltd…under both limbs of Barnes v Addy(knowing assistance and knowing receipt). Murchison Pty Ltd was also found liable for aiding and abetting the contraventions of ss181 and 182 of the Corporations Actcommitted by Mr Barnes as was Mr Grimaldi. (See [312]-[321] where the trial judge’s findings are set out, and the Full Court’s agreement with those findings at [322]-[345] of Grimaldi). As an aside, I note that the defendants had claimed the diverted funds were payments properly posted to their loan accounts – see what the Full Federal Court had to say about that at [336] – the funds were not stolen but they were misappropriated.

I note too that in 2012 in Grimaldi, the Full Federal Court outlined four “quite different manifestations of [third party] participation” in another’s breach of fiduciary duty or breach of trust, rendering them liable in equity. These were framed somewhat differently to those identified here by the Victorian Court of Appeal; for those interested, see Grimaldi at [243]-[248]. My 2012 article discussing the Full Federal Court’s decision in Grimaldi may be read here, and my 2012 discussion of the issue of de facto directors and officers as dealt with in the judgment may be read here. Mr Grimaldi was unsuccessful in obtaining special leave to appeal to the High Court – see here.

2.Assistance  

As noted above, this week’s judgment in Harstedt is also significant for the principles it identifies as to what will constitute “assistance” in the breach of trust or fiduciary duty for the purposes of the second limb (knowing assistance).

Their Honours acknowledged that the authorities offer little guidance, and that plainly whether a third party has assisted relevantly is a question of fact for each case. However their Honours distilled two principles as having emerged from the authorities and commentary on this point (at [116]-[118]) –

  1. There will be assistance where, but for the action or inaction of the third party, the breach of fiduciary duty would not have occurred. Their Honours observed that a common example is the role of a bank or other financial intermediary the function of which is essential to effect a transaction that amounts to a breach of trust.
  2. There may also be assistance where the third party has facilitated a breach of fiduciary duty that would have occurred in any event. (emphasis added)

Before any bankers reading this sit up in alarm at their Honours’ comment under principle 1 immediately above, it should be noted that a finding of assistance alone will not be enough to found liability as an accessory. Indeed there are four necessary elements of liability under the second (knowing assistance) limb of Barnes v Addy. These were set out by their Honours at [70], citing Farah and Grimaldi, and are –

  1. The existence of a fiduciary duty owed by the fiduciary (trustee or otherwise),
  2. A ‘dishonest and fraudulent design’ on the part of the fiduciary,
  3. Assistance by the third party in that design, and
  4. Knowledge on the part of the third party of the circumstances constituting that design.

Turning briefly then to the last of these – knowledge.

3.The Baden categories of knowledge

Their Honours’ judgment in Harstedt also provides useful guidance in relation to the five Baden categories of knowledge relevant to ‘knowing assistance’ at [85]-[87].

The Baden categories are –

  1. Actual knowledge
  2. Wilfully shutting one’s eyes to the obvious
  3. Wilfully and recklessly failing to make such inquiries as an honest and reasonable person would make,
  4. Knowledge of circumstances which would indicate the facts to an honest and reasonable person, and
  5. Knowledge of circumstances which would put an honest and reasonable person on inquiry.

Their Honours noted that the first two speak for themselves. In Harstedt, their Honours’ findings as to Mr Tomanek’s knowledge of the three essential facts which constituted the dishonest and fraudulent breach of trust by the company Apollo fell into the first and second categories (see [105]-[108]).

As to the third category – wilfully and recklessly failing to make inquiries as an honest and reasonable person would make – their Honours observed that this ‘involves such a calculated abstention from inquiry as would disentitle the third party to rely upon lack of actual knowledge of the trustee’s or fiduciary’s wrongdoing’ (see [86]).

I pause to note that last year in Sino Iron Pty Ltd v Worldwide Wagering Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 101, Hargrave J found the third category of knowledge on the part of the director and general manager of the betting company which had unknowingly received over $2m in stolen funds, as at the date they then credited it to the fraudster’s betting account. His Honour took the view that based on what (little) they did know, the inquiries they made were manifestly inadequate. He held that they ought to have made the ‘simple inquiry’ of identifying and contacting the depositors of the stolen funds, and asking if they intended to pay the money to the sports betting company for the benefit of the customer claiming it. My article reviewing and analysing that case can be read here.

As to the fourth category – knowledge of circumstances which would indicate the facts to an honest and reasonable person- their Honours observed that this category ‘is designed to prevent a third party setting up his or her own “moral obtuseness” as the reason for not recognising an impropriety that would have been apparent to an ordinary person’ (see [86]).

The fifth category derives from the doctrine of bona fide purchaser for value without notice (see [86]).

The Court of Appeal noted that the High Court in Farah endorsed the Baden scale and indicated that knowledge falling within any of the first four categories, but not the fifth, represents the law in Australia (see [87]).

Conclusion…and a window left open – omission/acquiescence

The Victorian Court of Appeal’s judgment in Harstedt is worthwhile for practitioners to be across. Their Honours’ remarks as to the different forms of third party liability as an accessory to breaches of fiduciary duty or trust are instructive. Further, the judgment contains useful guidance as to what will constitute “assistance” for the purposes of the second limb (knowing assistance), and as to the five Baden catetogories of knowledge.

One final aspect: Their Honours noted that Harstedt advanced its case as to “assistance” as one of active involvement by Mr Tomanek. Their Honours remarked that Harstedt did not contend that Mr Tomanek’s “assistance” comprised his acquiescence with the breach, which acquiescence caused the loss. Therefore, so their Honours noted, it was unnecessary to decide whether an omission or acquiescence may amount to “assistance” under the second limb (see [119]). Their Honours observed that the authorities on this point appear to be in disharmony. They set out a list of such cases at footnote 84.

Clearly their Honours have left this matter open. It raises interesting questions as to whether a failure to stop a fraud could constitute “assistance”; whether sitting on one’s hands could be held to be enough to facilitate a fraud, sufficiently to amount to “assistance” and satisfy that element of a claim for liability in respect of the fraud against a third party. I would speculate that may depend upon the knowledge of the third party. If the third party’s level of knowledge of the fraud reaches a high enough Badencategory, then a failure to take any action to stop the fraud may be more likely to be found to constitute sufficient “assistance” in the fraud. It will be interesting to see what happens in the cases to come.

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Carrie is a commercial law barrister practising primarily in the areas of insolvency and corporations law, equity and trusts, bankruptcy, contract, restitution, and banking and finance.

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