New York Governor Kathy Hochul has declared a disaster emergency for the state through January 15, 2022 in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases in the state and the newly identified Omicron variant. According to The Wall Street Journal, New York is the first state to declare a state of emergency in response to Omicron, although many states have remained under declared states of emergency since the beginning of the pandemic. New York allowed its previous declared state of emergency to expire on June 24, 2021.
As price gouging restrictions remain in place in many states and municipalities, new and ongoing enforcement actions continue to advance or settle. Over the past several weeks, we have seen a number of noteworthy developments in the most watched price gouging matters.
On July 2, 2021, a group of consumers filed a putative class action in Washington District Court alleging Amazon engaged in unlawful price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic on a variety of products. The case is noteworthy because Washington does not have a specific price gouging statute. Instead, plaintiffs argue that the alleged price gouging is an “unfair or deceptive act or practice in the conduct of any trade or commerce” in violation of Washington Consumer Protection Act (“WCPA”). Commentators have speculated that one of the purposes for filing in Washington is to pursue, in a state court, nationwide damages from Amazon.
Although many states of emergency have expired, new lawsuits that allege price gouging continue to be filed. On September 3, 2021, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a complaint in Minnesota state court against Sparboe Farms, Inc. alleging the company engaged in price gouging for the sale of eggs in violation of the Minnesota Governor’s executive order.
In the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 was synonymous with a mad dash for anti-virus home items like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and anti-bacterial wipes. Amazon emerged from the shopping frenzy as key source of these products and hosts of others. Even as many states are lifting states of emergency, businesses active during the pandemic, such as Amazon, are facing suits for conduct during the pandemic.
On June 24, 2021, New York celebrated the lifting on most COVID-19 restrictions. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the COVID-19 state of emergency would officially expire. With the expiration of the emergency declaration, the state of New York’s price gouging restrictions were also lifted. The New York price gouging statute provides for certain pricing restrictions “during any abnormal disruption of the market”, and that an abnormal disruption of the market is triggered by a declaration of a state of emergency by the Governor. After over a year of COVID-19 related pricing restrictions, the Governor’s announcement marked the end of those restrictions.
In recent weeks many states have either started lifting pricing restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic or announced their plans to do so. Still, some state governments have indicated that they will continue to hold pricing restrictions in place as a means of protecting consumer welfare as people return to normal spending habits and economies recover from the toll of the pandemic. As the country begins turning the corner toward the end of the pandemic, the landscape of state price gouging restrictions remains muddy as governors take individualized approaches to states of emergency.
Many companies have increased prices in recent months. Reportedly, across the economy, prices “rose by 5 percent in May compared with a year ago.” Restaurants are raising prices to cover the cost of increases in wages in a tight labor market. The prices of used and rental cars are quickly rising, due to low inventory and higher demand. Gasoline prices have risen, and not just as a result of the recent cyberattack.