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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New Jersey Supreme Court To Clarify Whether TCCWNA Claim Can Be Based On An Omission

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

Contract(pd)In a recent post, I wrote about New Jersey's Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). It has become exceedingly popular with the plaintiffs' bar and now appears frequently (usually along with another favorite, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act) in putative consumer class action complaints. The New Jersey Supreme Court is now going to weigh in on one of the unsettled portions of this newly-popular law — whether a TCCWNA claim can be based on an alleged omission in a contract as opposed to an affirmative misstatement.

The case discussed in my prior post — Matijakovich P.C. Richard & Son — involved the purchase and delivery of a washing machine. Although the washing machine was delivered on time, plaintiff sued because the contract with the seller did not contain language disclosing defendant's obligation in case of delay. TCCWNA provides that "[n]o seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or 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." Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a TCCWNA claim cannot be based on an omission. It argued that TCCWNA prohibits a seller from entering into a consumer contract that includes an illegal term, therefore it applies only to affirmative statements, not omissions of allegedly required language. The district court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court had not yet ruled on this issue, but relied on federal case law to grant the motion and dismiss the complaint.

A similar scenario played out in another recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey,Truglio v. Planet Fitness, Inc. In that case, plaintiff alleged that the contract she entered into with her health club violated TCCWNA by failing to (1) conspicuously set forth her total payment obligations and (2) set forth that a bond had been filed with the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. The district court dismissed this portion of the complaint. Like the Matijakovich court, the district court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the issue, but it relied on the same federal law as the Matijakovich court for the proposition that an alleged omission cannot serve as the basis for a TCCWNA claim.

Both of these courts looked for guidance from the New Jersey Supreme Court and found none. This may soon change. The New Jersey Supreme Court just granted certification in two cases — Bozzi v. OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC and Dugan v. TGI Friday’s, Inc. — that should resolve the question of whether a TCCWNA claim can be based on an alleged omission. I wrote about Dugan here, but both cases involved restaurants not including drink prices on their menus, and both appeals question whether class certification is appropriate under TCCWNA in light of this omission. (The Dugan case also has a second question about whether class certification is appropriate where a restaurant charges different prices for drinks depending on where they are purchased (i.e., at the bar vs. at a table).) It will be many months before we get an answer from the Supreme Court in these cases, but this case will be closely watched by both plaintiffs' and defense counsel so stay tuned.

Alleged Omission In Consumer Contract Does Not Violate New Jersey Consumer Protection Statute

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

Washer dryer (pd)New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) has long been a favorite of  plaintiff's attorneys, but there is another consumer protection statute that is rapidly gaining on the CFA in popularity — the Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA) (or, as it is sometimes awkwardly pronounced, "ta-KWA-na"). Although it has been around for thirty years, case law interpreting the TCCWNA is still in its infancy because the act has only recently become a common claim in putative consumer class actions. In a new, unpublished decision, Matijakovich v. P.C. Richard & Son, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, addressed one unsettled aspect of the still developing body of case law surrounding the TCCWNA.

First, a brief primer on the TCCWNA, which provides, in part:

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.

Its purpose is to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. 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; and (4) that the consumer contract contained a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller. Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, in addition to reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.

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In Case You Ever Find Yourself Fighting With Your Wife Over Your Ferraris . . .

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

Ferrari (pd)Right. I never do either. But if you do (or think you might in the future) then you might want to know about Durrani v. Wide World of Cars. In that case, plaintiff sued a car dealership and her ex-husband's former lawyers for delivering two Ferraris to her ex-husband, allegedly in violation of an order entered in their divorce action.

As the trial court described it, when plaintiff and her ex-husband were married, they lived an "extravagant lifestyle." Among other things,  they owned "twenty-five luxury cars worth approximately one million dollars, boats and properties." Of these assets, however, plaintiff was only on the title of two cars (and not the Ferraris). Nonetheless, during their divorce proceeding, plaintiff sought "exclusive possession" of the Ferraris, which were titled and registered to her ex-husband and stored at the defendant dealership's facilities. Consistent with this claim, plaintiff's counsel sent a letter to the dealership requesting that it not release or transfer the Ferraris to anyone, including plaintiff's ex-husband, and threatening to hold the dealership liable for damages if it did. At the end of the letter, counsel asked the dealership to agree to abide by the demand and indicated that if it did not agree, plaintiff would "immediately seek to serve [the dealership] with a court order." The dealership did not respond.

Around the same time plaintiff's counsel sent this letter, the family part entered an order in the divorce proceeding preventing either party from dissipating, selling, etc. any assets of the marriage, and specifically identified the Ferraris in a list of assets to which this restraint applied. Plaintiff's counsel sent a copy of the order to the dealership, purportedly placing it on notice of the terms.

 

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