Civil trial attorneys have an industry secret. Say you are suing over an unpaid loan. If the borrower never intended to pay back the loan, that’s not only a breach of contract, it’s a form of theft by false pretenses. And under Penal Code section 496, civil theft is punishable by treble damages and attorney fees. For those in on the secret, section 496 is a powerful tool in a business lawyer’s toolkit.
One problem: courts really don’t like section 496. They worry that lawyers will overuse it and turn every garden-variety loan or business-tort case into a civil-theft case. So there arose a split of authority, with some cases enforcing section 496, and others refusing to enforce it.
Breaking the split, the California Supreme Court kept this powerful tool intact. In Siry Investment, L.P. v. Farkhondehpour (Cal. Jul. 21, 2022 No. S262081) 2022 WL 2840312, the Court held the civil-theft remedies under section 496 applied to a case involving diversion of partnership cash.
But the Court did not throw open the floodgates. The Court noted that the concerns expressed by section 496 naysayers do “give pause.” And Justice Groban, joined by Justice Kruger, concurred to note they do not read the majority as endorsing civil-theft penalties in “most consumer or commercial transactions.”
If you have a civil case involving fraud that amounts to something akin to theft by false pretenses, consider seeking remedies under Penal Code section 496(c). Do not get too creative. But under Siry Investments, policy concerns are no longer a valid basis to refuse to enforce section 496. **