Website owners who seek to bind visitors to the terms of an arbitration agreement must make those terms “reasonably conspicuous” under the law, and website visitors must “manifest unambiguous assent” to those terms. That means that the smallest of details – the font and color of the text, the color of the page, the location and appearance of the hyperlinks and the “I agree” button – carry tremendous legal significance. Those seemingly small design details could make the difference between a dispute being resolved in arbitration, or in litigation.
During trial, lawyers make many strategic decisions to try to appeal to a jury. For example, they consider not only the substance of the evidence they present, but also the emotional impact of that evidence. But the impact of a witness’ testimony can be blunted if your jury is not following the testimony, so the use of demonstrative exhibits can be a useful tool to ensure the jury remains focused on the testimony.
In a case of mistaken identity and a web of conflicting testimony, a Fresno local business successfully appealed a price gouging fine. The saga between the store and the City of Fresno offers insights in the importance of maintaining proper business records to defend potential price gouging allegations.
On April 8, 2021, an Administrative Hearing Officer for the City of Fresno, California dismissed an Administrative Citation issued by the City Attorney’s Office against a local business for allegedly price gouging. City Inspectors issued the $10,000 citation in March 2020 while Fresno was under a State of Emergency. The store owner appealed the fine, and after a virtual hearing, the Hearing Officer determined that the City had not met its burden of proving each element of the case against the business.
On February 2, 2021, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of class certification for failure to prove an administratively feasible method to identify absent class members. The Eleventh Circuit’s rejection of administrative feasibility as a prerequisite to certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 has deepened a circuit split on the issue.
While PPE, toilet paper, and groceries make price gouging headlines, consumer goods are not the only goods covered by price gouging laws in many states. Less publicized, but equally important, lodging or housing may be found on lists of products covered by many price gouging statutes.
A recent case in California offers a glimpse. In California, the statute prohibits selling, or offering for sale, a lengthy list of goods and services “for a price of more than 10% greater than the price charged by that person for those goods or services immediately prior to the proclamation or declaration of emergency.” Among other things, California’s price gouging statute covers “housing.”
On November 24, 2020, a class action price gouging claim was filed against a California based operator of casual fine dining restaurants. The class action lawsuit against Hillstone Restaurant Group alleges price gouging in violation of California Penal Code §396. According to the lawsuit, “Hillstone engaged in unfair and unlawful business practices by increasing its price on food items and also unjustifiably charging a 10% or 15% so-called ‘service or packaging fee’ for takeout orders.” The lawsuit further states that “despite increasing the cost of its food items and adding this Fee, there has been no change in the quality or quantity of the food sold or the packaging being offered for pickup by consumers as compared to Hillstone’s pre-pandemic offerings.” Plaintiffs seek restitution, injunctive relief, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages. The complaint is striking not only because it shows the extent to which plaintiffs will bring claims at the margins of price gouging restrictions, but also for the glimpse it gives into what may be the coming wave of price gouging claims in 2021.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many governors have issued executive orders targeted at combating price gouging. However, one California state senator, Senator Thomas Umberg, proposed going a step further. In April 2020, Senator Umberg introduced Senate Bill 1196, which would codify many of the provisions in California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N-44-20. On September 30, 2020, Governor Newsom signed the bill into law. In connection with the signing, Senator Umberg stated that “[t]his decisive action ensures that fewer of our neighbors will be victims of price gouging.”
Businesses may be wondering whether there is increased risk of price gouging liability when they impose higher penalty terms, ask for higher up-front payments, raise rates, or otherwise seek terms that may be more burdensome. Sellers and service provides should consider the risk of being held liable for non-price terms that result in higher customer costs.