I predict this post will set off a storm of emotions, because it’s going to cover cancer, death, fraud, and blogging. It’s a long post, ready?
Today we are going to discuss whether Freckled Fox blogger Emily Meyers deceived people who gave her donations after her husband died in June 2016. Emily remarried in September 2016, eighty or so days after her husband’s death, but still accepted donations made after she had already remarried.
Could Emily be implicated for fraud? She seemed to accept charitable donations for her widowhood while omitting the crucial information that she had already remarried and was going on a honeymoon. I’ll analyze this issue using the common law fraud cases I have read in law school.
Background: Freckled Fox is the name of Emily Meyers’ lifestyle blog, where she posts about fashion, family, and hair. Two years ago, her husband received a devastating stage 4 cancer diagnosis.
When her husband Martin eventually passed away from the cancer in June 2016, Emily was left as a widow with five children. I can’t imagine the suffering and grief that this young family has undergone. I have nothing but empathy and condolences for Emily and her five children.
As you can already tell, there are so many facets to Emily’s story. That’s why I have to write very narrowly, because I am only concerned about the donations given to her after the news of her husband’s cancer diagnosis.
I will not be discussing Emily’s children, the cancer, or the fact that Emily was just shot by a gun a few weeks ago (long story short, Emily was shot by her new, second husband; she’s ok even though she has some knee damage. You can’t make this stuff up).
Before we get anywhere with this discussion, let’s get some disclaimers out of the way.
“Hasn’t Emily suffered enough?” some you might say in response to this post. I know she’s been through a lot. Cancer and death are tricky subjects to write about. That’s why I’m not going to write about them. I promise I will only focus on whether donations to the Meyers family were received with honest intentions.
If you have problems with any blog post involving a recent widow, or cancer in general, I can’t appease you. Nothing I say will convince you that, yes, even though a very tragic thing happened, there are objective issues around the touchy subject that could warrant legal analysis.
We can’t bury our heads in the sand when tragedy strikes; as a lawyer-in-training, I have to learn how to deal with the issues underlying people’s tragedies. I’m actually writing this post because the topic of internet fraud came up in my Fraud class at Harvard Law. I ultimately decided to do my presentation on blogger fraud.
Look, Emily’s story is upsetting and her husband Martin’s death is tragic. Period. Again, this post isn’t about Martin or his untimely death. I am not trying to impugn the reputation of a recently deceased person.
But using cancer as a shield against any analysis is also distasteful. This post is about money and fraud. If you were defrauded, or scammed out of money, you would probably not be satisfied if the fraudster used the defense “you can’t criticize me because someone in my family had cancer! That justifies everything! Go away!”
I also think that charitable fraud is more despicable than regular fraud. I am less offended by regular fraud (“hey, wanna buy this authentic Chanel bag for $50?”) than charity fraud, which uses a sad tale to trick us with emotional appeals.
People like to donate to charities because they feel that the money will help someone in a hard time. Wouldn’t you be furious if someone took advantage of your empathy to make money for another cause?
“Who are you to criticize how a widow spends the donation money?” some critics might say to me. Now we get to the actual analysis about the donations. This question requires us to start in April 2015, when Emily’s husband Martin was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma.
Martin and Emily tried a variety of treatments, even a experimental treatment in Mexico. As Martin’s condition deteriorated, kind-hearted neighbors and fans of Emily’s blog set up fundraisers to help Emily out.
As you can imagine, treatments can be very expensive and the Meyers also had five small children to take care of. There is no doubt that fundraisers and donations during Martin’s diagnosis were deserved and righteous.
Martin sadly passed away on June 15, 2016.
Eighty or so days after Martin’s death, on September 9, 2016, Emily remarried a man named Richard. The picture above is from Emily and Richard’s wedding photoshoot in September.
I initially did not want to give details of how Emily and Richard got married, because it would distract from the story. But the details are just so crazy that you need a summary. Emily knew Richard from high school and when they were pen pals.
Once Martin had died, Richard traveled to her doorstep to give Emily a letter. His reasoning was that he did not have a stamp, so he hand-delivered the letter. Richard and Emily revealed this to their Instagram audience during an Instagram Live segment.
I’m not judging anyone who decides to remarry quickly. Grief makes you do weird things. But the timing becomes problematic because there are only 80 days between Martin’s death and Emily’s remarriage to Richard.
- This means that the sooner Richard and Emily hooked up after Martin’s death, the longer the courtship period where Richard can get to know the five kids who just lost their father.
- It sounds like a good thing for Richard to take his time getting to know the kids, but the tight time constraint means that he would’ve had to basically swoop in quickly after Emily became a widow.
- On the other hand, the longer that Richard waited for Emily to grieve, Emily would have had less time to make a rational decision about remarrying.
I’m not sure which scenario I want to believe. Both are equally dubious to me.
After Martin’s death, there were ongoing donations and fundraisers set up to benefit Emily. Let’s see if any of them overlapped with her remarriage. Then we’ll analyze whether this looks shady.
One of the fundraisers was a pop-up shop whose proceeds would go to Emily. This pop-up shop posted a call-to-action approximately one month, or 30 days, after Martin’s death. Emily could have started dating Richard at this point; it sounds crazy, but meeting Richard 30 days after Martin’s death would have left them only 50 days to date before they married. So 30 days after Martin’s death is in the sweet spot when Emily and Richard could have reunited.
But doesn’t that sound problematic? Emily could have already started seeing someone when this pop-up shop was raising funds for her late husband. And because the money from a pop-up shop doesn’t transfer immediately, Emily would probably not have received these funds until her second
honeymoon (edit: Emily commented below letting me know she did not have a honeymoon, just a wedding).
Another fundraiser was started by Emily’s friend Camille. Camille posted that she could accept cash Paypal transfers on Emily’s behalf. There are no details when Camille ended the fundraiser, so again, it could have been going on while Emily was making plans for a new husband to move in.
And yet another fundraiser “hope4martin” raised money independently; it’s unclear when this fundraiser started and ended (sometime in September), so I’m including it in the timeline.
And lastly, Emily had a Youcaring page that asked for online donations. In this case, there is no debate that donations were solicited well after Emily remarried. The YouCaring page was up until at least October 9th, and there is a comment on the page at the bottom from December 16th that made it look like it was still open in December, 3 months after Emily and Richard were already married.
Some of the comments on the Youcaring page show that Emily was already married before donors found out. Yet the page remained open for business. Although the page posted updates about how much had been donated so far, at no time did the Youcaring page reveal that Emily had remarried.
Edit: a commenter got feisty in my comments so I’ll copy word-for-word what the YouCaring page said:
The demands of being a mother and a care taker have left Emily with no time to work and help bring in income to pay their bills both medical and every day living expenses. This has been one of the many burdens she faces with this difficult trial! I know there are so many of you who desperately would like to help this sweet family out! If you feel you can or are willing to donate, every little bit counts!
Donors to the YouCaring probably expect the following to be true:
- Emily has no time to work
- so there is no adult able to work in the household
- she has no help to bring in income
- and she has no help with the kids
- donations are being solicited for the “sweet family” of “Emily Meyers & Children.”
We’ll see that some of these assumptions were already false while the YouCaring page was open.
As you can see in the revised timeline below, all of the fundraisers could have lasted until Emily and Richard had already made plans to marry. At this point, was the money going to Emily’s care of the kids, or would any of it be used for the wedding and honeymoon?
Some of you might want to argue “so what? A widow isn’t obligated to tell you what’s going on her in life!”
Are you sure you want to defend that logic?
Sure, Emily didn’t have to tell the pop-up shop anything about her financial or personal info. But don’t lie; there is something about Emily’s story of being a recently-widowed, stay-at-home-mom of 5 children that motivated people to donate.
If you heard Emily’s widowhood story, you’d probably donate because it sounds like her world is shattered. Her husband and income earner has died. It is crucial and important to sustain the 5 children and help the stay-at-home-mother when the breadwinner has died.
You’d be fuming mad if you found out that the widow had actually inherited a million dollars. Or if the widow was actually a Kardashian/trust fund baby and she never needed a breadwinner in the first place. Or if she was hiding a gambling problem and was going to use the donation money to play blackjack etc.
If anything about the story changed, your willingness to donate would change.
Let’s also spin it the other way: if you think that it didn’t matter to donors whether Emily was remarried or not, you’re basically saying that donations would have stayed the even if Emily revealed that she had remarried. But if donations would have stayed the same regardless of what Emily said, then why didn’t Emily reveal the truth that she was remarried?
It’s precisely because you know deep in your heart that donations would DEFINITELY have been affected. Donations for a remarriage aren’t as generous as donations for a widow losing a husband to cancer.
Emily probably did not tell the fundraisers about her new status because it might have hurt donations. The simplest explanation is the easiest.
Besides, for crying out loud, the name of the YouCaring page was “Support Emily Meyers & Children” up until the day it closed. The title is meant to manipulate your emotions to make you feel like you could help out an unfortunate family of little ones. It never disclosed that this family had a new father and support.
Of course, Emily might have omitted the crucial info because she was too busy grieving or planning a mountaintop wedding, But as her instagram pictures reveal, she had time to
hire retain a photographer (edit: Emily commented below that the photographer shot their wedding pictures on a mountain for free), buy a dress, and post blog-worthy shots like the one below.
Yet she didn’t have time to send a quick text to the fundraisers to let them know they might want to update their info? Supposedly the people holding the fundraisers are her closest friends, right? So if these close friends didn’t even know about the second wedding, who did? Why was it such a huge secret?
It’s starting to look like they were counting on people not being aware of the remarriage.
Emily’s donors don’t need to know her personal details, but it’s only fair for them to know the scope of her financial needs. Some of those donors were donating when Emily already had another caretaker and another potential source of income.
So should this count as fraud? Donations are generally considered gifts and not subject to fraud (with some exceptions that I won’t talk about), but let’s take a look at what the common law on fraud says. In the common law, there are several elements that need to be fulfilled in order for a court to find fraud.
I’ll explain the elements by using the example of a kid who asks for field trip money even though the field trip is actually free. The kid really wants to spend the money on candy.
- There has to be a representation of fact
- Kid: “I really need this money for a field trip.”
- The representation is false
- The field trip is free, but the kid wants spending money for candy.
- The representation is material
- The parent gives the kid money because of the kid’s statement. The kid’s statement is material because it affected the parent’s decision.
- The kid has to have intent to defraud.
- The person trying to trick you has intent to defraud if they are aware that they are omitting key information or saying something that isn’t entirely true.
- The parent has to have reliance on the kid’s statement
- The reliance is reasonable
- The parent has been injured or damaged by the trickery.
- See, e.g., Strategic Diversity, Inc. v. Alchemix Corp., 666 F.3d 1197, 1210 n.3
Reading the comments on the YouCaring page, you’ll see that a lot of people are complaining how they felt defrauded:
Let’s see how Emily’s actions stack up against the common law elements of fraud.
- The YouCaring page seems to represent that the money was needed since Martin was the breadwinner and Emily needs help with childcare costs.
- The representation could be false.
- The YouCaring page was not closed when Emily remarried Richard, a new breadwinner and caretaker. Emily did not seem to update the page when her financial situation changed, which could basically be a lie by omission.
- The representation is material
- The comments show that people were motivated to donate because they thought Emily was a widow in need. So Emily’s representation affected their decision to donate.
- Emily could have had the intent to defraud
- You can kind of argue this one since the YouCaring page and pop-up shop were started by people other than Emily.
- But that’s no excuse for why Emily did not notify them that she was already remarried when they wrote her a check for the funds.
- You can also defraud through omission, or failing to tell someone crucial information
- The donors had reliance on Emily’s word:
- The comments show that quite a few people relied on Emily’s interpretation of the events to make their decision to donate.
- The reliance is reasonable
- The donor could have been injured or damaged by the trickery.
- People gave up hard-earned money for a cause that turned out to be not quite truthful. They were financially damaged.
If all of these elements can be met, a lawyer could make this into a reasonable case for fraud. In other fraud cases I’ve read, the remedy is usually to return the money to the people. I don’t know if it’s possible at this point to return the money to the donors who felt like they had been tricked
(EDIT: Emily commented below that all the money donated after her marriage was returned. I asked why the fundraiser simply didn’t disclose the remarriage instead of going through the hassle of returning the money later).
Maybe the best solution is to use Emily’s situation as a cautionary tale. Consumers should do their research before donating their money. And maybe we should stop trusting bloggers altogether.
But the frustrating thing about this particular case is that someone who DID do research could still have been tricked because the second wedding was kept as an air-tight secret.
That’s what provoked me to write this post, because the fraud here seems more heinous than regular ole “here are some magic weight loss pills!” Emily knew her fans would grieve for her, and she used her tragedy to solicit funds—even though eighty days later, she was no longer a widow and she had a new income winner that no one knew about.
Bloggers form personal connections with their readers, so this is less of a stranger trying to defraud you and more like a best friend tricking you. It feels like a betrayal. It makes me less likely to trust bloggers. And less likely to donate to cancer fundraisers.
Now that I’ve been burned by Emily, other deserving families will not be getting my donations because I’m scared they are also hiding something. As a grad student, I can’t afford to give my money away to people who are willing to hide material facts from their readers.
I wish Emily and Richard luck in their new remarriage (here is where I tell you that Emily was shot in the knee by Richard in March 2017, but they are still together), although I will no longer be reading her blog after this distasteful YouCaring incident.
I feel like what I’ve written is fair, and actually, if you compare this post to the one I wrote about Stylish Petite, you’ll find that this post is far more gentle. Emily has suffered and I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but there is no question that she has severely damaged the relationship she had with her readership and possibly hurt other cancer families from getting the donations that they need.