“I’m strong to the fin-ich. Cause I eats me spin-ach. I’m Popeye the . . . debt collector man?”

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

PopeyeFor lawyers, debt collection can be a trap for the unwary. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA") governs debt collection by both attorneys and non-attorneys. It generally prohibits debt collectors from using deceptive, abusive, or unfair practices to collect debts. While that sounds straightforward, it is often difficult to figure out whether you are even a debt collector governed by the FDCPA, much less whether what you are trying to collect is a debt under the FDCPA and whether what you are doing to collect that debt is deceptive. And the consequences for running afoul of the FDCPA — statutory damages and attorney's fees — can be significant.

A recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Tepper v. Amos Financial, LLC, offered a good primer on one of these tricky issues — whether a party that buys debt and seeks to collect that debt for its own account qualifies as a debt collector under the FDCPA — but the more interesting aspect of the opinion is the court's frequent references to Popeye (the sailor man, not the fast food restaurant).

The opinion began: "Many would gladly pay Tuesday for a hamburger today." This, of course, is a reference to Wimpy's famous tag-line in Popeye. The court then described the basic purpose of the FDCPA and introduced the issue in the case as follows:

The Act does not apply . . . to all entities who collect debts; only those whose principal purpose is the collection of any debts, and those who regularly collect debts owed another are subject to its proscriptions. Those entities whose principal place business is to collect the defaulted debts they purchase seek to avoid the Act's reach. We believe such an entity is what it is – a debt collector. [Emphasis added.] If so, the Act applies.

Understandably, the court was not willing to go so far as have the defendant declare "I yam what I yam, and that's all that i yam," but you get the point. Popeye references continued throughout the opinion, so keep reading. 

Continue reading ““I’m strong to the fin-ich. Cause I eats me spin-ach. I’m Popeye the . . . debt collector man?””

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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NJ Court: Agreement To Arbitrate “Any Claims” Does Not Include Agreement To Arbitrate Statutory Claims

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

Arbitration (pd)In recent months I have written several times about the difficulty of enforcing arbitration agreements in New Jersey (e.g., here, here, and here). While the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark has some people confident that this will change, it hasn't yet. Instead, New Jersey courts continue to issue opinions demonstrating the uphill battle faced by parties trying to enforce contractual arbitration provisions. A recent unpublished Law Division opinion, Griffoul v. NRG Residential Solar Solutions, LLC, is the latest example.

In Griffoul, plaintiffs entered into a lease for a residential solar system. The lease contained a "broad form arbitration clause" in which plaintiffs agreed to arbitrate "any" claim "arising out of" or "in connection with" the lease, and agreed that, by entering into the lease, plaintiffs were waiving their right to a jury trial. The lease also contained a class action waiver provision, declaring that "each party may bring claims against the other only in its individual capacity and not as a plaintiff or a class member in any purported class or representative proceeding."

Nonetheless, just over three years after entering into the lease, plaintiffs filed a putative class action in state court. The complaint asserted the now-common one-two punch of claims under the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act ("TCCWNA"). The CFA claims were based on alleged misrepresentations made by defendants in connection with the marketing of the solar energy system, and the TCCWNA claims were based on six provisions of the lease that plaintiffs claimed violated clearly established rights under New Jersey law. 

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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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Court Approves Service Of Complaint Via Facebook, No Word On How Many “Likes” It Received

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

Facebook (pd)Facebook is useful for a lot of things — humble bragging about your children, posting professionally taken candid photographs of your smiling family, announcing your engagement/marriage/pregnancy/baby's gender to several hundred of your closest friends, etc. In K.A. v. J.L., a New Jersey court added another item to this list. After observing that courts in other jurisdictions were almost evenly split on the issue, the court allowed plaintiffs in that case to serve defendant via Facebook. (When it researched the issue, I assume the court reviewed one of my prior posts about two New York courts that also allowed service via Facebook.)

K.A. involved very unusual facts. Plaintiffs sued defendant to "enjoin defendant from holding himself out as the father of their [adopted] son." Defendant, who was not the son's biological father of record, sent the son a friend request over Facebook. The son declined. Defendant then reached out to the son over Instagram, claiming that he was the son's biological father. Defendant allegedly informed the son that he knew where the son was born, and disclosed both the identity of the son's birth mother and that the son had "biological siblings at large." (Plaintiffs allege that defendant also sent a Facebook friend request to the son's sister, who, like the son, declined the invite.) Defendant also "incorporated a picture of [the son] into an image comprised of three separate photographs, each featuring a different person," and purportedly claimed that the collage was a picture of his children. Defendant shared this picture with the public on his Facebook account. Plaintiffs believe defendant obtained the image of the son from the son's Facebook account.

Plaintiffs claimed that defendant was a "complete stranger to them," and that they had no contact with him prior to the events that led to the litigation.  Plaintiffs' counsel attempted to serve cease and desist letters on defendant at his last known address via certified and regular mail. The certified letters were returned as unclaimed, but the letters sent by regular mail were never returned. Plaintiffs then sued, seeking an injunction preventing defendant from contacting their son or claiming to be his father. They sought permission from the court to serve the complaint on defendant via Facebook.

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In New Jersey, You Can Now Disapprove A Real Estate Contract By Email Or Fax (But Not Telegram)

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

Telepgraph (pd)Anyone who has bought or sold real estate in New Jersey is familiar with "attorney review." When you buy or sell a house, you sign a contract that is almost always prepared by a broker. The contract must contain a standard provision stating that the buyer and seller have the right to have an attorney review the contract. This "attorney review" period lasts three days. The contract becomes legally binding if, at the end of that three-day period, neither the buyer's nor the seller's attorney disapproves of the contract. If either side disapproves, their attorney must notify the other side's broker by certified mail, telegram, or personal service. In Conley v. Guerrero, a case that seems to be a case study in the concept of raising form over substance, the New Jersey Supreme Court updated this requirement to allow the notice of disapproval to also be sent by fax or email. (Those of you still using telegrams may be out of luck, however, because this no longer appears to be an appropriate method of service for the notice of disapproval.) 

In Conley, plaintiffs signed a form contract to purchase a condominium unit from sellers. It contained the standard "attorney review" provision. After signing the contract, but during the attorney review period, sellers received competing offers to purchase the property and eventually entered into a new contract to sell it to a new buyer for a higher price. Sellers' attorney sent a disapproval of plaintiffs' contract to both plaintiffs' counsel and the broker (who was a duel agent represented both plaintiffs and seller) during the attorney-review period. He sent the notice via email, which plaintiffs' counsel and the agent acknowledged receiving within the attorney review period. Nonetheless, plaintiffs claimed that the sellers were bound by the contract and had to sell to his clients because the disapproval was not sent in the proscribed manner — by certified mail, telegram, or hand delivery.

Plaintiffs sued, seeking specific performance. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The Chancery Division granted defendants' motion and dismissed the complaint. The Chancery Division held that, while seller did not comply with the method-of-delivery requirements set forth in the contract, this breach was only "minor" because plaintiffs' counsel acknowledged receiving the notice within the attorney review period. Therefore, the Chancery Division held that the "underlying justification for the attorney review clause" — to protect parties against being bound by broker-prepared contracts without the opportunity to review them with their attorneys — was accomplished.

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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.