On April 2, 2021, the acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey released an update of her office’s efforts to prevent fraud related to the COVID-19 pandemic, noting prosecutions involving the Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, and the Unemployment Insurance programs, as well as prosecutions involving price-gouging and hoarding of critical personal protective equipment. The announcement comes on the heels of a similar one by Attorney General Merrick Garland last month, who marked the one year anniversary of the passage of the CARES Act by announcing that, in the past year, the Department of Justice has charged nearly 500 individuals with COVID-related fraud. These announcements serve as important reminders that, even as the vaccine roll out continues and life regains a sense of normalcy, federal prosecutors continue to actively monitor price gouging compliance.
While the majority of states have had price gouging laws on the books since before the pandemic, widespread pandemic price gouging has led states without laws to reconsider. Some states, like Colorado, passed price gouging legislation mid-pandemic, but other states, including New Hampshire and Washington, are now playing catch up.
On March 18, 2021, retailer Union Square Supply, Inc. filed a civil rights class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York challenging New York City’s price gouging enforcement practices. The complaint alleges that defendants are responsible for “the creation and maintenance of an illegal and unconstitutional penalty enforcement scheme, abuse of emergency powers, and other misconduct that improperly assesses penalties and fines on businesses without any notice or due process.”
State legislatures are still continuing to enact new changes to their states’ price gouging statutes. Some are expanding the scope of their laws, while others are tailoring the law or emergency orders in response to new issues that have arisen during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Idaho took a third tack and limited limit overbroad enforcement so that its law applied only to price increase, and not to price decreases that are deemed to be insufficient.
The majority of price gouging laws have been activated throughout the country for over a year now, but reports of price gouging continue, along with enforcement and lawsuits. While many are aware that price gouging restrictions apply to essential goods such as medical and emergency supplies, some covered goods are often mistakenly thought not to be covered. As a result, companies should remain vigilant and familiarize themselves with the scope of covered products and services in the states in which they conduct business.
One year after declaring a state of emergency in California due to COVID-19, the California Governor issued a new Executive Order lifting pricing restrictions on most categories of products previously subject to California’s price gouging statute. Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2021 Order comes as states across the nation slowly reopen. This 2021 Executive Order marks a change for businesses in California.
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.”
As Texas and other southern states thaw from a frigid winter storm, companies doing business in these states should assess and take steps to minimize the risk of a price gouging claims. As suits are filed in the wake of the storms, companies should prepare now to defend such claims, whether from state attorneys general or from private plaintiffs. In road-mapping a defense strategy, the following information may be helpful.