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'Citizenfour' Lawsuit Seeks Constructive Trust Over Profits: Report

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By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on December 22, 2014 12:09 PM

A retired U.S. Navy officer and former Secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a constructive trust over profits made by the Edward Snowden documentary "Citizenfour."

The suit by Horace Edwards names Snowden, "Citizenfour" director Laura Poitras, and The Weinstein Company, among others, as defendants, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The lawsuit seeks to establish the constructive trust "on behalf of the American people" in order to "redress unjust enrichment" from the defendants' alleged misuse of classified government information.

What does a constructive trust do and how would it work in this case?

Constructive Trust

A constructive trust is a court-ordered trust imposed to prevent unjust enrichment by a defendant who has wrongfully obtained an interest in another person's property. A constructive trust is a "legal fiction" in the sense that it is not created like a typical trust, but rather constructed by the court to accomplish an equitable result.

Unlike other types of trusts, constructive trusts do not have trustees. Instead they operate by compelling the defendant to act as if he were a trustee acting for the benefit of the plaintiff in handing over any unjust profits. These trusts are typically ordered in cases of fraud, or when property has been obtained using undue influence, deception, or criminal means.

Lawsuit Claims Film Is 'Scheme to Profit from Stolen U.S. Government Property'

The suit alleges that the defendants in the case have "concertedly acted without regard for the health safety and welfare of all U.S. Citizens" and have damaged national security by misusing confidential information obtained by Snowden while he was working as a contractor for the U.S. government.

According to the lawsuit, Snowden breached his fiduciary duty to the government by releasing the classified information, and the film is profiting from that breach. The suit seeks a constructive trust over "all monies, gains, profits, royalties, and other advantages that all Defendants have derived, or will derive in the future, from the publication, distribution, sale, serialization, or republication in any form, including any other rights, of the work entitled 'Citizenfour'" as well as money damages for proceeds already obtained.

Under the federal rules of civil procedure, defendants generally have 21 days to answer a lawsuit.

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