Author: Joshua S. Levy

Beyond Force Majeure: Government Quarantine Orders May Themselves Excuse Contract Non-Performance

The coronavirus pandemic is reverberating throughout commercial sectors, and countless contract obligations are going unperformed—shipments are not being made or accepted, payments are being missed, and contract milestone dates are lapsing every week that the pandemic and business shutdown continues. Those typically rare force majeure provisions are now being scrutinized. (For more on those topics, see previous entries in our COVID-19 “The Coronavirus Pandemic and Your Business: How We Can Help” client alert series, including “Litigation Issues That May Arise.”) And, in New Jersey, the precise language of such a clause is key, as courts in this state have held that they should be “narrowly interpreted as contemplating only events or things of the same general nature or class as those specifically enumerated.” Seitz v. Mark-O-Lite Sign Contractors, Inc., 210 N.J. Super. 646 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Law Div. 1986). With only some force majeure clauses including explicit references to pandemics, or broadly-worded “catch-alls,” the success of a force majeure defense is not necessarily certain. But before (or in addition to) attempting to invoke that force majeure provision, consider whether a court would ultimately determine that contractual non-performance is due to an “Act of God” or rather is being caused by the governmental orders quarantining segments of the population and/or shutting down whole swaths of the...

New Jersey Appellate Court Upholds Class Waiver & Arbitration Provision

The New Jersey Supreme Court has noted that both “federal and state policies favor[] arbitration.” Nevertheless, the High Court’s Atalese v. Legal Servs. Grp. decision—rejecting the enforceability of an arbitration clause—continues to raise questions about whether New Jersey state courts view such provisions with more skepticism than other jurisdictions. In this regard, the Appellate Division’s recent decision in Signor v. GWC Warranty Corp. provides some welcome guidance. In Signor, the trial court refused to dismiss and compel arbitration of class claims grounded in a particular automobile service contract. The contract contained an arbitration provision with language including: ARBITRATION PROVISION: READ THE FOLLOWING ARBITRATION PROVISION (“Provision”) CAREFULLY, IT LIMITS CERTAIN RIGHTS, INCLUDING YOUR RIGHT TO OBTAIN RELIEF OR DAMAGES THROUGH COURT ACTION. Any and all claims, disputes, or controversies of any nature whatsoever . . . shall be resolved by binding arbitration before a single arbitrator. You agree that any arbitration proceeding will only consider Your Claims. Claims by, or on behalf of, other individuals will not be arbitrated in any proceeding that is considering Your Claims. You and We understand and agree that because of this Provision neither You nor Us will have the right to go to court except as provided above and to have a jury trial or to participate as any member of a...

New Jersey Supreme Court’s “Aggrieved Consumer” Ruling Will Erode TCCWNA Class Actions

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s April 16, 2018 decision in Spade v. Select Comfort (consolidated with Wenger v. Bob’s Discount Furniture, LLC), entirely destroys the viability of “no injury” class actions under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”) and will also surely erode the viability of TCCWNA class certification more broadly. Via referred questions from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the N.J. Supreme Court held that in order to be an “aggrieved consumer” under the TCCWNA, a plaintiff must demonstrate an adverse consequence caused by an unlawful provision in a consumer contract or other writing. The TCCWNA essentially prohibits businesses from including in any written consumer contract, warranty, or sign any provision that “violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller” or other business. N.J.S.A. § 56:12-15. Although the TCCWNA on its face appears to only allow an “aggrieved consumer” to sue to recover a “civil penalty” of not less than $100 or actual damages, this Statute has been used—some might say abused—with increasing frequency by the plaintiff class action bar to bring “no injury” class actions premised solely upon the existence of a contract containing some unenforceable or illegal provision. Naturally, tens or hundreds of thousands of uniform consumer contracts with allegedly offending...

Another TCCWNA “Website” Terms & Conditions Class Action Dismissed

Over the last year – and as we have previously reported – online retailers have repeatedly been targeted by threatened or filed class actions, premised on their website terms and conditions purportedly containing unlawful terms that violate the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”). Many of these cases have been dismissed by trial courts on state law grounds and, in federal court actions, for failure to demonstrate “injury in fact,” a fundamental requirement for Article III standing. Continuing this trend, the District of New Jersey recently dismissed yet another website terms and conditions class action grounded in the TCCWNA, Hite v. Lush Internet Inc. In Hite – as in so many of these lawsuits – “Plaintiff visited Defendant’s website . . . and purchased one of Defendant’s cosmetic products.” Yet, she “[d]id not allege she has any claim about the product that she purchased, such as fraud, product liability or tort.” Instead, “[h]er quarrel [was] with the provisions of the terms of use of the website” in that she “generally allege[d] that the exculpatory clauses contained in the Terms of Use violate . . . the TCCWNA because they unlawfully disclaim all tort liability.” Chief Judge Simandle dismissed the case, however, holding that “Plaintiff has not alleged an injury sufficient to confer standing...

Seventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Data Privacy Class Action on Article III Standing Grounds

Since the United States Supreme Court decided Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins in May 2016, lower courts have struggled to consistently determine whether a plaintiff has standing to sue in federal court, which, as the Spokeo court explained, “requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation.” That is, even when Congress has made something unlawful and authorized an award of statutory damages for the unlawful act, the mere violation of that law is not itself sufficient to confer standing to sue under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. But precisely what is required to demonstrate sufficient “injury” under Article III remains unclear after Spokeo, especially in the data-breach and data-privacy contexts. In Gubala v. Time Warner Cable, Inc., however, a unanimous Seventh Circuit decision, authored by Judge Posner, held that the defendant’s possible failure to comply with a requirement contained in the Cable Communications Policy Act (requiring the destruction of personally identifiable information (“PII”) if the information is no longer necessary for the purpose for which it was collected) did not afford the plaintiff Article III standing to sue for violation of the statute where his personal information was not released or disseminated in any way. The plaintiff in Gubala had subscribed to Time Warner cable services in 2004, which required him to...

California District Court Dismisses Facebook’s TCCWNA “Website Terms and Conditions” Lawsuit in Light of Valid Choice-of-Law Provision

New Jersey’s Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty, and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”) ushered in a wave of class actions last year, targeting various provisions in retailers’ websites “terms and conditions.” Broadly speaking, the TCCWNA prohibits “consumer contracts” from containing language that violates any “clearly established legal right[s].” New Jersey courts have not been alone in adjudicating these cases, however, as a number of similar lawsuits have been brought in other jurisdictions, including California federal district courts. For example, on September 7, 2016, the Central District of California dismissed the complaint in Candelario v. Rip Curl, Inc. on standing grounds, holding that because the plaintiff’s “only connection to the Terms and Conditions appears to be her decision to read them” and because her complaint essentially alleged only “bare procedural violation[s]” of the TCCWNA – without more – she could not satisfy “the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.” Even more recently, although on different grounds, the Northern District of California dismissed a “website terms and conditions” class action against Facebook. In Palomino v. Facebook, Inc., as in Candelario, the plaintiffs alleged that the social media company’s website terms and conditions violated the TCCWNA because of “provisions that purport to ‘1) disclaim liability for claims brought for Defendant’s negligent, willful, malicious and wanton misconduct; 2) bar claims for personal and economic injury...

E-Commerce in New Jersey Threatened by Rise of TCCWNA Class Actions

Owners and operators of e-commerce websites should be aware of an eruption in threatened and filed class actions against online retailers under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”). The TCCWNA was enacted decades ago, as the New Jersey Supreme Court has explained, to “prohibit[] businesses from offering or using provisions in consumer contracts, warranties, notices and signs that violate any clearly established right of a consumer.” Yet, as laudable as this goal may be, with the potential for class-wide statutory penalty damages, the brevity and breadth of the statute has led to a tidal wave of litigation now targeting terms and conditions within e-commerce websites—an application of the law that could not have even been conceived of when the TCCWNA was passed in 1981.

TCCWNA Back Before the New Jersey Supreme Court

This year the federal courts in New Jersey have seen a dramatic uptick in the filing of class action lawsuits seeking statutory damages under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”), particularly cases targeting merchants selling or promoting goods or services via the internet. These cases are premised on the notion that the “terms and conditions” or “terms of use” on a company’s website constitute a contract and thus subject companies to potentially massive class-wide penalty damages should the terms of use contain language which violates the TCCWNA. As motions to dismiss are pending in many of these cases, the federal courts in New Jersey may soon provide further clarity on a number of important questions, including: (1) whether online website users are “aggrieved consumers” as required under the statute; (2) whether plaintiffs bringing bare TCCWNA claims have Article III standing given the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Spokeo decision; and (3) whether the statute reaches contractual provisions wholly unrelated to a consumer’s transaction.

New Jersey Federal Court Confirms TCCWNA Doesn’t Reach “Omissions”

In the thick of a torrent of litigation, mostly class actions, premised upon purportedly unlawful contractual provisions under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”) – a statute that permits “no-injury” claims – the District of New Jersey has reaffirmed a bright-line rule concerning this law: Omissions don’t trigger liability.

Contractual Limitations Period Bars TCCWNA Class Action

Class actions brought under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty, and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”) are on the rise. This year alone, Wal-Mart, J. Crew, Avis, Toys R Us, and Apple – among many others – have been sued under this unique state statute that prohibits certain types of unlawful provisions in consumer contracts and other documents. In the past decade, courts have continued to expand the scope of this law – from the New Jersey Supreme Court, which, in 2013, instructed lower courts to construe the statute broadly, to the District of New Jersey, which, in 2014, allowed a TCCWNA class action to go forward against contracts containing commonly-worded exculpatory and indemnification provisions.