New Jersey Supreme Court Unanimously Limits Scope of Consumer Protection Statute

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued an important decision on the scope of the New Jersey consumer protection statute called the Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act or TCCWNA.

The two class action matters involved allegations that Select Comfort Corp. and Bob’s Discount Furniture violated the TCCWNA by failing to include, among other things, specific language regarding a consumer’s right to cancel an order as a result of delayed delivery. The Supreme Court held that a violation of this regulation could constitute a violation of a “clearly established legal right or responsibility of sellers” to constitute a violation of TCCWNA.

Separately, and of broader significance, the Supreme Court was asked whether a consumer must suffer an actual adverse consequence to be entitled to the statutory minimum penalty of $100 per person provided by the TCCWNA.  None of the plaintiffs in either of the cases had alleged that they suffered any actual harm, monetarily or otherwise, from the defendants’ technical violations of the regulations.   The question before the Court was whether these plaintiffs could be considered “aggrieved consumers” to qualify for TCCWNA’s statutory penalties.

Analyzing the statutory language, the unanimous Supreme Court noted that certain sections of the TCCWNA use the term “consumers” whereas the term “aggrieved consumer” was used in the section of the TCCWNA discussing damages. The addition of the term “aggrieved” before “consumer,” the Court held, must be given meaning and, under a plain reading of this word, denotes the plaintiff’s suffering some actual harm, even non-monetary harm.  As an example of the type of harm that may be sufficient to render a consumer “aggrieved” under the TCCWNA, the Supreme Court hypothesized a potential furniture seller customer who contends he would have sought a refund after a late furniture delivery but did not because of a company’s “no refund” statement (in violation of the regulation).

The Supreme Court’s decision will likely impact the uptick in putative class actions filed by consumers under TCCWNA. In addition to reducing the number of individuals who might be entitled to TCCWNA statutory damages, the decision will also make it more difficult for consumers to maintain class actions since each class member potentially must demonstrate that they suffered an “adverse consequence.”

For more information on the Supreme Court’s decision, the TCCWNA or consumer class actions, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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“Blurred Lines” Infringes Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”, Ninth Circuit Holds

Yesterday, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals largely affirmed a trial court judgment finding that Pharrell Williams, Clifford Harris and Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit single “Blurred Lines” infringed upon the defendants’ copyright in Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give it Up.” Williams v. Gaye, No. 15-56800.

The decision of the panel majority (Judges Milan D. Smith and Mary Murguia) is a cautionary tale of how the procedural posture of a case can be outcome determinative. The majority held that following a full trial on the merits, the appeals court could not review the trial court’s earlier denial of a summary judgment motion.  The issues to be resolved were not purely legal, the majority continued, and the factual issues hotly disputed by the parties’ experts. Because of the full trial, the majority concluded that they could not conduct its own summary judgment analysis.

The Court then reviewed the verdict and found there was no basis to overturn the jury’s decision as it related to the Thicke Parties because there was sufficient evidence from which they could conclude that Williams, Harris and Thicke had access to Gaye’s work and the two songs were substantially similar. After a jury verdict, the Court continued, an appellate court cannot weigh the evidence for itself and make credibility rulings on the parties’ experts.

The dissent (Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen) decried the majority’s opinion as allowing Gaye to “to accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style” and setting “a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere.” Though there are some similarities between the songs, the dissent contended, most of the similarities were short patterns that are not themselves protectable under the copyright laws. The dissent warned that the majorities’ decision will stifle creativity as copyright law is only meant to protect authors’ expression as opposed to the idea underlying that expression.

Williams, Harris and Thicke now have the option of asking for review from the entire Ninth Circuit or seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For more information on copyright law or the  Ninth Circuit’s decision, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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