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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Law And The Simpsons, Lesson One: Trampolines=Potential Lawsuits

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

I know trampolines are fun, but everyone should know, thanks to The Simpsons, that they are a recipe for (legal) disaster:

Apparently some people missed this episode, as a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Panico v. Winner, demonstrates. [Note: In the second week of my first-year torts class, our professor told us that we were having a pop quiz. Being first-year law students, we all panicked. But then he shut off the lights and played this clip and we discussed all of the potential legal issues. It was a relief that it was not a quiz, but unfortunately this was the high point of my first-year torts class.]

In Panico, plaintiff was injured while jumping on a trampoline at a graduation party. The party was held at one of his classmate's homes and was attended by approximately twenty teenage guests. His classmate's mother originally planned to attend the party and serve as chaperone, but later learned that she would not be able to attend because of a work obligation. She told her daughter that she would have to cancel the party unless her daughter could convince the daughter's grandparents to attend. The daughter was able to do so. Her grandparents attended the party and, as a reward, became defendants in a lawsuit. 

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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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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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Even in Texas It Is Not OK For A Judge To Share Details Of A Pending Trial Over Facebook

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

I recently wrote an article for law360.com about when, if ever, it is appropriate for active judges to become “friends” with lawyers on Facebook and other social media. Courts and ethics authorities in several states have weighed in on the issue, with some banning judges from “friending” lawyers who regularly appear before the judge and others permitting all such “friending” unless it violates one of the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct (e.g., the prohibition against ex parte communications between a judge and counsel).

According to a recent article from the Texas Lawyer (h/t Above the Law), Judge Michelle Slaughter, a judge on the Texas state district court, got herself into some hot water, not for the “friends” she kept on social media, but for broadcasting details of a pending trial to those “friends” over Facebook, including the following:

On the first day of testimony, Slaughter posted the following comments on her Facebook page: "Opening statements this morning at 9:30 a.m. in the trial called by the press 'the boy in the box' case"; "After we finished day 1 of the case called the 'boy in the box' case [the defendant was charged with unlawful restraint for allegedly keeping a 9-year-old boy in a 6 feet by 8 feet wooden enclosure that had been used as the child's bedroom], trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6'x8' 'box' inside the courtroom!"; and "This is the case currently pending in the 405th!" The post included a link to a Reuters article about the case.

The "actual box" comment referenced evidence that had not yet been presented in the trial, and the Reuters article contained extraneous information that had also not been presented in the case.

Somewhat ironically, Judge Slaughter’s Facebook posts came after she warned the empaneled jury not to discuss the case with anyone, including over Facebook and other social media.

 

 

 

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A Rare Narrowing Of The Consumer Fraud Act’s Scope: Medical Malpractice Insurance Not Covered

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

It is not every day that a New Jersey court limits the scope of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), so when one does, it is worth writing about. Anyone who litigates in New Jersey knows about the CFA and, depending on whether you are on the plaintiff’s side or the defendant’s side, either loves it or hates it. (I am mostly on the defendant’s side, but occasionally find myself representing a plaintiff, so my relationship with the CFA is “complicated.”) Because it is remedial legislation, the CFA is liberally construed to afford the greatest protection to consumers. This philosophy has led courts to apply the CFA (and its treble damages and prevailing party’s attorney fees) to a seemingly ever growing, and very rarely contracting, variety of disputes. In fact, many years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court observed that: “The history of the Act is one of constant expansion of consumer protection.”

With this in mind, we turn to the Law Division’s published decision in Khan v. Conventus Inter-Insurance Exchange. That case was a putative class action in which plaintiff, a doctor, alleged that defendant violated the CFA in connection with the sale of medical malpractice insurance and the administration of the policy after it was purchased. Plaintiff purchased a policy from defendant and, as part of her initial membership, was required to make a one-time contribution, equal to the first year’s premium, to defendant’s surplus fund. (Defendant is not a traditional insurance carrier, but is instead a “non-profit physician member-owned risk sharing exchange.”) Plaintiff elected to make this contribution in installments over a ten-month period, with the understanding that if she cancelled her policy before the final payment was made, she would still be responsible for the full surplus fund contribution. Plaintiff eventually cancelled her policy before the ten-month period passed and defendant demanded that she immediately pay her entire surplus fund contribution rather than allowing her to pay it off in installments as originally agreed upon by the parties. Plaintiff sued alleging that this attempt to accelerate the surplus fund payment was a breach of contract and a violation of the CFA. She sought to bring her claims as a class action.

Before addressing whether plaintiff could sustain a class action and be appointed class representative, the court first had to decide whether the CFA applied to “transactions involving the purchase and sale of medical malpractice insurance.” Because the court held that it did not, it never had to reach the class certification issues.

 

 

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More Courts Reject Eleventh-Hour Attempts To Avoid Foreclosure Based On An Alleged Lack Of Standing

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

 Two more Appellate Division panels have refused to allow defendant's in foreclosure lawsuits to raise standing as an eleventh-hour defense.  As we previously reported — Changing Tide in Forclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute — there is now a clear trend against allowing defendants to stay silent in the face of a foreclosure lawsuit only to appear at the last minute, usually on the eve of a sheriff's sale, and seek to vacate final judgment based on an alleged lack of standing to foreclose.  Two recent Appellate Division cases continue to bring this point home. 

In IndyMac Bank FSB v. DeCastro, a residential borrower moved to vacate final judgment and dismiss the complaint 15 months after it was entered, arguing that he was not served with the complaint.  The motion was denied.  Defendant filed a second motion to vacate, arguing, for the first time, that the bank lacked standing to foreclose because it was not assigned the mortgage until after the complaint was filed.  This motion was denied as untimely and defendant appealed.  In an opinion, dated March 13, 2013, the Appellate Division affirmed.  In its decision, among other things, the Appellate Division rejected defendant's standing argument, noting: "[W]e have now made clear that lack of standing is not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint."  Moreover, the Appellate Division held that defendant's standing argument was meritless "particularly given defendant's unexcused, years-long delay in asserting that defense or any other claim."  In arriving at this decision, the Appellate Division relied on many of the cases discussed in our prior post. 

Similarly, in WellsFargo Bank, N.A. v. Lopez, a different Appellate Division panel rejected another residential home owner's last-minute attempt to raise standing as a defense to the foreclosure complaint.  The facts in that case were a bit more egregious because the borrower contributed to the four-year delay between the entry of default and the filing of his motion to vacate by filing numerous bankruptcy petitions and seeking a stay to attempt to short sell the property.  Nonetheless, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's denial of the motion to vacate holding, among other things, that the lack of standing, even if true, was not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint, particularly in the post-judgment context.  Again, the Appellate Division relied primarily on the cases included in our prior post.