Massachusetts SJC Grants Appellate Review to Consider Legal Relationship Between Commercial Custodian of IRAs and Named Beneficiary

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UBS Financial Services, Inc. v. Donna M. Aliberti, SJC-12662, slip op. (October 22, 2019)

Author: Kaitlyn Sapp of Day Pitney LLP

On October 22, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a slip opinion that considered the legal relationship between UBS Financial Services (“UBS”), as a commercial custodian of individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”), and Donna Aliberti (“Aliberti”), as a named beneficiary of such accounts upon the death of the original account holder.

Background

Patrick Kenney (“Kenney”) opened three IRAs with UBS in 2008 with the help of his sister-in-law, Margaret Kenney.  At this time, he designated Aliberti, his long-term girlfriend, as the sole primary beneficiary of all three IRAs.  In November 2013, Patrick completed two “IRA Beneficiary Designation Update Forms” in connection with two of the smaller IRAs (“IRA #1” and “IRA #2”).  These forms named Aliberti, Aliberti’s son, Patrick’s niece, and Patrick’s friend Craig Gillespie (“Gillespie”) as his beneficiaries, all to receive 25% each.  The third, unchanged IRA (“IRA #3”) was the largest of the three, with an approximate balance of $276,000.  Unfortunately, Patrick had incorrectly completed these forms and UBS declined to process them.  Margaret Kenney arranged to have the beneficiary update forms corrected, but Kenney died suddenly on December 2, 2013 without ever having them completed.

Near the end of December, UBS received a letter from Gillespie’s attorney incorrectly stating that Kenney was in the process of changing the third account’s beneficiaries when he passed.  The letter went on to say that Gillespie was going to have a court of law resolve the beneficiary issue with respect to IRA #3 and asked UBS to not make any distributions.  This prompted UBS to classify IRA #3 as “disputed,” which effectively froze the account until UBS received a court order with instructions, Gillespie withdrew any claim to the account, or the statute of limitations expired.  Shortly thereafter, Aliberti began contacting UBS asserting that she was the sole beneficiary of all three accounts.  IRA #1 and IRA #2 were liquidated and equally distributed to Aliberti, Aliberti’s son, Patrick’s niece and Gillespie.  At the time, Aliberti did not dispute this action.  However, over the course of the next year and eight months, Aliberti struggled with UBS to obtain information about the supposed dispute with Gillespie over IRA #3, forcing her to retain counsel.

Aliberti demanded distribution of IRA #3 multiple times and sent UBS a c. 93A demand letter alleging that UBS violated the consumer protection statute.  Finally, in August of 2015, UBS filed an interpleader complaint asking the court to determine ownership of IRA #3, joining Aliberti and Gillespie as defendants.  In March of 2016, all parties stipulated to partial dismissal of claims by Gillespie, resulting in his waiver to any ownership of IRA #3.  UBS still delayed distribution to Aliberti.  Aliberti agreed to release UBS from liability regarding the disbursement in exchange for prompt distribution, but retained her claims against UBS for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and violation of c. 93A.

Aliberti continued to pursue her counterclaims against UBS, and after several additional months of litigation, UBS filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings.  The Superior Court granted the motion, Aliberti appealed, and the Appeals Court reversed in part, finding Aliberti’s counterclaims well-pleaded.  The Supreme Judicial Court granted further appellate review of whether the claims for relief as to breach of fiduciary duty and violation of c. 93A were plausible.[1]

Discussion

  1. Breach of Fiduciary Duty

To establish a claim for breach of fiduciary duty in Massachusetts, there must be a fiduciary duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, and injury to the plaintiff must have been proximately caused by defendant’s breach.[2] Fiduciary duties may arise by (a) a matter of law, “such as trustee and beneficiary, or attorney and client,”[3] or (b) “as determined by the facts established,”[4] upon “evidence indicating that one person is in fact dependent on another’s judgment in business affairs or property matters.”[5]

The Supreme Judicial Court found that no fiduciary relationship existed as a matter of law because the relationship between the custodian of a nondiscretionary IRA and a named beneficiary is not among the traditional familiar and well-recognized relationships giving rise to fiduciary duties.  The record did not support finding a fiduciary duty since the IRAs were not “trusts” and there was nothing to suggest that Patrick intended to create a trust.  Further, the court found that federal law did not change its analysis.  The Internal Revenue Code, which governs the tax aspects of IRAs, does not require an IRA to be a “trust.”  It could take the form of a custodial account, which was the case here.

The Court found that the facts also did not give rise to a fiduciary relationship.  Fiduciary duties may arise wherever “faith, confidence, and trust” is reposed by one party “in another’s judgment and advice.”[6] Aliberti never claimed to repose trust and confidence in UBS’s judgment and advice, she simply relied on their cooperation in order to gain access to the assets of the IRA.  The court found this relationship was akin to a retail consumer relationship governed by contract, which did not establish any higher duty owed to Aliberti.  UBS only had a contractual duty to transfer the IRA proceeds in accordance with Patrick’s agreement, not a fiduciary duty.

  1. Violation of G. L. c. 93A

To establish a valid c. 93A claim, one must show that (a) the company has committed an unfair or deceptive act or practice, (b) the unfair or deceptive act or practice occurred in the conduct of any trade or commerce, (c) the claimant suffered an injury, and (d) the company’s unfair or deceptive act or practice was the cause of the injury.[7] The court first determined that Aliberti was a proper plaintiff despite the absence of privity between Aliberti and UBS.  No privity was required because c. 93A allows any person injured by trade or commerce, even if indirectly, to bring a cause of action.[8] The Court also held that the business context requirement of c. 93A was met because the interactions between an IRA custodian and a named beneficiary following the account holder’s death typically occurs in a business context within the meaning of c. 93A.

G.L. c. 93A does not define what constitutes “unfair” or “deceptive,” so the courts instead look to the circumstances of the case to determine if the company acted as such. Here, the Court found that UBS clearly acted unfairly by (1) denying Aliberti the funds she was entitled to; (2) for years; and (3) without good reason; (4) until she was forced to take legal action and incur unnecessary costs and fees.[9] The Court also determined that UBS filed an unjustified interpleader, considering there was never any real question as to whether or not Aliberti was entitled to IRA #3 as the sole designated beneficiary.

Conclusion

After determining that there was a plausible claim for violation of the consumer protection statute, the case was remanded to Superior Court for further proceedings.  However, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the Superior Court, that there was no plausible claim made for a breach of fiduciary duty owed to Aliberti as a beneficiary.  The court expressly found that the relationship between a commercial custodian of an IRA and a named beneficiary of such is similar to that between a retailer and consumer.  Unless the agreement between the original account holder and the service provider expressly creates a trust for the benefit of the designated beneficiary, then the custodian of the account owes no fiduciary duty to the beneficiary.

[1] UBS did not seek further review of the Appeals Court’s determination that the breach of contract claim was well-pleaded by Aliberti as an intended third-party beneficiary.

[2] Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, 467 Mass. 478, 492 (2014).

[3] Smith v. Smith, 222 Mass. 102, 106 (1915).

[4] Warsofsky v. Sherman, 326 Mass. 290, 293 (1950).

[5] Markell v. Sidney B. Pfeifer Found., Inc., 9 Mass. App. Ct. 412, 444 (1978).

[6] Doe v. Harbor Sch., Inc., 446 Mass. 245, 252 (2006).

[7] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., 479 Mass. 141, 161 (2018).

[8] Ciardi v. F. Hoffman-La Roche, Ltd., 436 Mass. 53, 60 (2002).

[9] UBS Fin. Servs., Inc. v. Aliberti, 94 Mass. App. Ct. 180, 191 (2018).