NJ Supreme Court Narrowly Defines “Aggrieved Consumer.” End Of The Road For One Type Of “No Injury” Class Action?

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Contract(pd)
I have written a number of times about New Jersey's Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). (Here, here, and here for example.) This statute, which was largely ignored after it was enacted in 1981, became increasingly popular in recent years as part of so-called no injury class actions. (So-called mostly by defense counsel, not plaintiff's counsel.) Its popularity may now have come to an end, however, because the New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in the highly-anticipated case, Spade v. Select Comfort Corp., which answered two questions certified to it by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, one of which appears to hamper, at the very least, the ability of plaintiffs to sue for alleged violations of the act.

By way of brief background, the TCCWNA was enacted to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. It provides:

No seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written  consumer contract  .  .  .  or display any written . . . notice or sign . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made . . . or the . . . notice or sign is given or displayed.

To state a claim under the TCCWNA, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) that it is a consumer; (2) that defendant is a seller; (3) that the seller offered a consumer contract containing a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller; and (4) that it was an "aggrieved consumer." Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, and reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.

The questions certified to the Supreme Court in Spade arose out of two cases that had been consolidated by the district court. Each involved plaintiffs who ordered furniture pursuant to contracts that violated certain regulations promulgated by New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs. The regulations require, among other things, that furniture sellers deliver furniture to customers by or before the promised delivery date or provide written notice that they will not be able to do so. Sellers must also provide notice to the purchaser that if the delivery is late, the consumer has the option of canceling the order and receiving a full refund, or agreeing to accept delivery at a specified later date. The regulations also prohibit sellers from including certain language in their contracts, such as "all sales final," "no cancellations," and "no refunds." In Spade, plaintiffs alleged that the contracts they entered into with defendants did not contain language required by these regulations, contained language prohibited by these regulations, or both. Notably, however, plaintiffs received their furniture deliveries on time.  

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Litigation Privilege Protects Client’s Statement That His Former Lawyer Was a Liar, Thief, and “No Good Drunk”

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Privilege (pd)Anyone who has practiced law for any period of time likely has a story about a misdirected email. You know, the one you meant to send to a client or a colleague, but it went to your adversary or your supervising partner instead. These situations often just result in mild to moderate awkwardness around the office, but they sometimes create bigger problems. MacNaughton v. Harmelech, a recent decision from the Appellate Division, involved the latter. But it also involved the litigation privilege, something I wrote about just a few weeks back. (What Do eBay, The "40 Year Old Virgin," And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?). And, fortunately for defendant, the statements in his misdirected email were protected by that privilege.

In MacNaughton, plaintiff, a New Jersey lawyer, represented defendant in a lawsuit involving defendant's company. Defendant disputed plaintiff's bill and plaintiff eventually sued defendant over the bill. At some point during the litigation, the trial court asked the parties whether they were interested in mediation. Around the same time, however, plaintiff was "in contact with another of defendant's creditors about banding together to force defendant into involuntary bankruptcy." As you might expect, when defendant learned about plaintiff's efforts, it colored his decision about whether to agree to mediation. In fact, defendant sent the following email, reprinted exactly as it appeared in the Appellate Division's decision, to his lawyers on the subject:

Please I Am asking you to file a paper in the state court there WILL NOT BE AGREE NOT TO BE A MEDIATION MACNAUGHTON CALL TODAY AND ASK HIM TO TRY TO POT ME IN IN VALENTRY BANKRUPTCY AS YOU SEE HE IS A. LIAR THIEF AND NO GOOD DRUNK

NO TO BE TRUSTED THANKS

Unfortunately, defendant also copied plaintiff on this email. Upon receiving it, plaintiff filed a one-count complaint for defamation. The trial court held a hearing on whether the statements were protected under the litigation privilege. After taking testimony from defendant and his current counsel, the court applied the four-factor test from Hawkins v. Harris, and held that they were. As a result, plaintiff's claim was dismissed. Plaintiff appealed.  

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Drink Up! TGI Fridays Ducks Class Action Based On Alleged Failure To List Drink Prices On Menu

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

TGIFOn a ski trip a few years back, a friend of mine decided to spend his day at a local bar instead of on the slopes. He spent the afternoon drinking with a friend and a man they met at the bar. Later in the day, the man, who had been drinking with them the whole time, said he had to go to work. He stood up, walked around to the other side of the bar, and clocked in for his shift as the bartender. He promptly gave my friend one more drink on the house, and then told him he was cut off. That is consumer fraud if you ask me. But, alas, that issue was not before the New Jersey Supreme Court in Dugan v. TGI Friday’s, Inc.

In Dugan, plaintiffs alleged that TGIF violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and the Truth in Consumer Contract Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA) by (1) failing to list prices for alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks on its menus and (2) charging different prices for the same beverage depending upon where in the restaurant the beverage was served (i.e., at the bar as opposed to at a table). Plaintiffs sought to certify a class comprised of "all customers who had purchased items from the menu that did not have a disclosed price."

The first-named plaintiff alleged in the complaint that she only "became aware of the prices [of drinks she purchased at the bar] after she had consumed the beverages and was presented with a check," and that she was "charged $2.00 for a beer at the bar and later charged $3.59 for the same beer at a table in the restaurant." She was later deposed and admitted that she did not review the menu at the bar, or review the price of the beer indicated on her receipt from the bar, or review the beverage section of the menu at the table, or review the final bill before she paid it. Rather, she testified that she reviewed the receipts when she got home and noticed the discrepancies, and also noticed that she paid a "steep" price for a soda. 

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New York Court: “Happy Wife, Happy Life” Will Not Shield You From A Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Mr right and mrs always right (pd)I do not have these mugs at home, but I should. Most married men will tell you that the easiest way to avoid trouble at home is to remember that your wife is always right (even on those rare occasions when she is obviously wrong). Sometimes this policy of gratuitous appeasement fails, however, as was the case in a recent decision, Edwards v. Nicolai, from the New York Appellate Division (First Department).

In Edwards, defendants were husband and wife, and co-owners of Wall Street Chiropractic and Wellness. The husband was head chiropractor, while the wife was the chief operating officer. The husband hired defendant as a "yoga and massage therapist," and was her direct supervisor. According to plaintiff, her relationship with the husband was entirely professional and he "regularly praised" her work performance.

A little more than one year after hiring plaintiff, the husband allegedly "informed Plaintiff that his wife might become jealous of Plaintiff, because Plaintiff was too cute." This apparently proved to be a prescient statement. Approximately four months later, at 1:30 in the morning, plaintiff received a text from the wife, stating that plaintiff was not "welcome  any longer" at the office, that plaintiff should "NOT ever step foot in [the office] again," and that plaintiff should "stay the [expletive] away from [the wife's] husband." A few hours later, at around 8:30 am, plaintiff received a text from the husband notifying her that she was "fired and no longer welcome in [the] office," and that if she called or tried to come back, defendants would call the police. 

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Size Matters: Seventh Circuit Rejects Subway Footlong Settlement Because It Provided No Meaningful Benefit To Class Members

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Subway (pd)I am a regular Subway customer, so I read the Seventh Circuit's opinion, In re. Subway Footlong Sandwich Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, with great interest. You probably remember the events that spawned this litigation. As the Seventh Circuit described it: "In January 2013 Matt Corby, an Australian teenager, purchased a Subway Footlong sandwich and, for reasons unknown, decided to measure it. The sandwich was only 11 inches long. He took a photo of the sandwich next to a tape measure and posted the photo on his Facebook page. Thus a minor social-media sensation was born." And, "[w]ithin days of Corby's post, the American class-action bar rushed to court," therefore, a class action lawsuit was also born. It ended a few years later with a settlement, which the Seventh Circuit just overturned.

To say that the Seventh Circuit was critical of the settlement would be an understatement. Its opinion is filled with subtle, and not so subtle, criticisms of the settlement and plaintiffs' counsel. For example, early in its opinion, the court observed: "In their haste to file suit [ ] the lawyers neglected to consider whether the claims had any merit. They did not." It did not get much better for plaintiffs from that point on.

The court noted that the parties engaged in limited, informal discovery early on in the case, with the intent of going to mediation. This discovery revealed that plaintiffs' claims were deficient. It showed that "the length of the [baked] bread has no effect on the quantity of food each customer receives." First, all of Subway's raw dough is exactly the same size. So, even the few rolls that bake to approximately a quarter-inch less than 12 inches because of natural, and unpreventable, "vagaries in the baking process" provide the same bread as those that bake to the full 12 inches. Second, Subway standardizes the amount of meat and cheese that its "sandwich artists" put on each sandwich, so whether the bread is 12 inches long or a quarter-inch short, the customer still gets the same amount of food. (In the interest of full disclosure, because I am a regular, I do occasionally get an extra slice of ham, salami, and pepperoni on my six-inch BMT at my local Subway.) "This early discovery, limited though it was, extinguished any hope of certifying a damages class."

"Rather than drop the suits as meritless," however, plaintiffs shifted the focus of the lawsuit from one seeking damages to one seeking injunctive relief. THey filed an amendec complaint and, after mediation, reached a settlement with Subway, under which Subway would, for four years, implement practices designed to ensure, the the extent possible, that its sandwich rolls measured at least 12 inches long. But, the settlement noted that "because of the inherent variability in food production and the bread baking process, Subway could not guarantee that each sandwich roll [would] always be exactly 12 inches or greater in length after baking." In other words, Subway would try to fix, but could not guarantee that it would fix, the problem that spawned the lawsuit. 

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Exception To The Rule: Ambulance Service Providers Are “Learned Professionals” And Not Subject To New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Ambulance (pd)New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") is generally recognized as one of the strongest consumer protection laws in the country. It prohibits "any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise or misrepresentation" that leads to an "ascertainable loss." But, certain "learned professionals" — doctors, lawyers, hospitals, etc. — are insulated from liability under the CFA. In Atlantic Ambulance Corporation v. Cullum, the Appellate Division added ambulance service providers to the list of "learned professionals" who are not subject to the CFA. 

In Atlantic Ambulance, defendants received services from plaintiff, an ambulance service provider. After they failed to pay the bills for those services, plaintiff sued. In response, defendants filed a counterclaim alleging that they were overbilled by plaintiff in violation of the CFA. Defendants sought to bring their counterclaim as a class action on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated people who were allegedly overcharged during a six-year period.

After five years of discovery, defendants moved for class certification. The trial court denied the motion for a number of reasons, only one of which is relevant for this post. Plaintiff argued that defendants could not maintain a cause of action under the CFA because they did not pay their bills, therefore they had not suffered any "ascertainable loss." The trial court agreed, expressly rejecting defendants' argument that an excessive bill from plaintiff, by itself, was enough to prove an ascertainable loss. Defendants appealed. 

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Waiver In Gym Membership Agreement Not Too Broad And Not Barred By TCCWNA

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Contract(pd)Gym memberships are notoriously difficult to cancel. As a result, there is a fair amount of litigation over the cancellation, or attempted cancellation, of gym memberships, many of which are class actions. A recent Appellate Division decision, Mellet v. Aquasid, LLC, was one such lawsuit. As an added bonus, the decision also involves the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty, and Notice Act (TCCWNA), a once relatively obscure statute that has recently become popular — or controversial depending on which side of a lawsuit you find yourself — and about which I have written here and here.

In Mellet, defendant was a health club. Plaintiffs were members of the health club. Plaintiffs attempted to cancel their memberships but their requests were declined and the health club continued to bill each of them. When plaintiffs failed to pay, defendant attempted to collect these unpaid fees — which included monthly dues, late fees, collection fees, and administrative fees –  from plaintiffs. In response, plaintiffs filed a putative class action, alleging that defendant's membership agreement and the fees it charged violated New Jersey law, including TCCWNA. The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion for class certification and plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, plaintiffs raised a number of issues, but the most interesting one involved its claim that the broad waiver in the membership agreement violated TCCWNA. It provides, in part, that "[n]o seller . . . shall . . . enter into any written  consumer contract  . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time." Its purpose was to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties, but it has become a favorite of plaintiff's attorneys because consumers can sue under TCCWNA even if they have suffered no injury or loss, and because the statute allows successful plaintiffs to recover attorney's fees as part of their damages. 

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