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What Constitutes a Breach of Fiduciary Duty in California?

Fiduciary relationships work to ensure the highest degree of loyalty and care from one party to another. Breach of fiduciary duty can do more than violate this trust relationship – it may result in irrecoverable costs in a variety of forms.

What is a Fiduciary Relationship?

A fiduciary relationship has been defined within the California Civil Jury Instructions published in 2017 as “any relation existing between parties to a transaction wherein one of the parties is duty bound to act with the utmost good faith for the benefit of the other party.”

In essence, the fiduciary duty of a party to their beneficiary exists when the beneficiary places their complete confidence in the fiduciary’s integrity. The fiduciary is not allowed to work against the beneficiary’s interests or take advantage of them without consent or knowledge.

These are a few typical examples of individuals and organizations owing fiduciary duty:

  • Banks to their borrowers
  • Attorneys to their clients
  • Controlling shareholders to minority shareholders
  • Business partners
  • Insurer to insured
  • Corporations to their stockholders
  • Pension fund trustee to pensioner beneficiary
  • Joint venturers
  • Stockbroker to client
  • Spouse to spouse
  • Trustee to trust beneficiary
  • Trade unions to union members

Forms of Breach of Fiduciary Duty in California

A person agreeing to act as a fiduciary essentially promises to act in the best interests of the other party. Hence, a breach of fiduciary duty takes place when the fiduciary acts in a self-interested or self-serving manner. Typically, breaches of fiduciary duty take place due to deception or negligence on the fiduciary’s behalf.

These are a few common examples of a breach of fiduciary duty:

  • Acting in a manner beneficial to a competitor
  • Sharing an employer’s secrets
  • Mishandling for company funds or assets
  • Deliberately withholding important information from partners
  • Engaging in any conduct legally classified as self-dealing
  • Using the trust’s property for the fiduciary’s own benefit

Consequences of a Breach of Fiduciary Duty

It’s important to understand that a breach of fiduciary duty is not a criminal act in itself. But it can be tied to one. For instance, insider trading is not just a breach of fiduciary duty, but it is also a crime depending on the significance of the wrongdoing.

The fiduciary won’t just have to deal with the damages associated with their breach, but also the consequences of a criminal act in certain cases. This may include penalties and jail time. In California, a plaintiff can demand compensatory damages along with punitive damages.

Punitive damages are awarded in more exceptional cases. They are not meant to compensate the plaintiff, but to punish the defendant and send a message to society that this particular breach of fiduciary duty is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

The difficulty lies in quantifying damages and actually proving that a breach exists. This is where a qualified civil litigation attorney can prove to be useful.

Elements of a Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claim

There are four primary elements that need to be demonstrated to successfully prove a breach of fiduciary duty. Plaintiffs can recover damages caused by a defendant by providing substantial evidence supporting the specific components.

Plaintiffs should be prepared to show that:

  • Fiduciary relationship existed and the principal was owed a duty by the fiduciary.
  • Fiduciary acted in a manner that breached or contradicted their expected duties.
  • Fiduciary’s actions caused the principal to suffer damages.
  • Damages incurred on the principal were a direct result of a breach of fiduciary duty.

According to California’s Code of Civil Procedure section 343, you have four years to file a breach of fiduciary duty claim. But this is not a universal statute of limitations.

Your claim may have grounds for constructive fraud, in which case the statute of limitations will be reduced to three years. This makes it crucial to contact an attorney to discuss your options and file a claim in a timely manner.

It’s important to set realistic expectations regarding the next steps whether you are a defendant or a plaintiff in a breach of fiduciary duty claim. A reputable business attorney in California will be able to explain the fine nuances of the way the law applies to your particular case. This includes reviewing arbitration agreements, options for litigation, and the possibility of settling out of court.

There may be multiple parties involved in your claim, which could make it complex. Filing a claim can be costly and may last for months. For this reason, it is in your best interests to act swiftly if you believe you were harmed by a breach of fiduciary duty.

Our Seasoned Civil Litigation Lawyers are Ready to Fight for You

The attorneys at Peterson, Martin & Reynolds have helped numerous clients attain fair compensation to cover the losses suffered through a breach of fiduciary duty. Our lawyers have extensive legal knowledge and experience successfully litigating fiduciary breach cases across a wide array of circumstances.

Schedule your free case review with our lawyers today. Call us at (415) 849-2564 or contact us online.