New Jersey Appellate Division Clarifies Rights to Disclosure of School Records Under Public Records Law

In a lengthy, published opinion, the New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled on four appeals from different trial courts (that had reached conflicting results) about the ability of a nonprofit advocacy organization for disabled students and one of the parent’s efforts to obtain copies of settlement agreements from public school districts relating to the provision of special services to other qualified students.

The issue was how to strike a balance between privacy rights in educational records reflected in the New Jersey Pupil Records Act, and the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, on the one hand, and the broad right to obtain public records under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act or OPRA, on the other hand.  (See Litigation Law Blog’s Post on a Series of Recent OPRA Decisions by the New Jersey courts.)

The Appellate Division Panel held that the non-profit entity plaintiffs in three of the cases were entitled to copies of the requested records with personal identifying information redacted, if they establish that they are “bona fide researchers” under the New Jersey Public Records Act or if they obtain in advance an order from the trial court granting them access. The school districts were directed to not turn over the redacted records until first providing reasonable advance notice to the parents or guardians of the affected students.

The Court distinguished one of the cases on appeal in which the requestor sought a report that exclusively mentioned her own child, affirming parents’ right to obtain unredacted records relating to their children.

For more information on OPRA, 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 at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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New Jersey Supreme Court Holds that Consumers Cannot Pursue Class Action Claims Against TGI Fridays for Inflated Drink Prices, But May Do So Against Carrabba’s Italian Grill

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision on two consumer class actions under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”) and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”).  In two separate cases, consumers sought damages against TGI Fridays and the operator of several Carrabba’s Italian Grill, respectively, alleging unlawful practices with respect to the disclosure of prices for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to customers.

With respect to TGI Fridays, the Court held that the named plaintiffs failed to show that common questions of law and fact predominate over individual issues.  The plaintiff had advanced a “price inflation” theory – that the fraudulent marketing drove up the cost of the drinks – but the Court rejected it noting that its prior decisions had found this theory did not support a claim under the CFA.

With respect to Carrabba’s, on the other hand, the plaintiff’s allegations focused on specific pricing practices, which plaintiff claimed are supported by receipts showing that each customer making this claim was charged different prices for the same brand, type, and volume of beverage in the course of a single visit. Because the proposed class had been redefined to only include customers who make that specific CFA claim, they met the predominance requirement for class certification.

In both cases, the Court found that the plaintiffs had failed to meet the standards for a class action as to their TCCWNA claims. Under TCCWNA, a claimant must prove that they received a written sign (here, a menu), which contained information in violation of a consumer law.  Because each individual claimant would have to prove that they received a menu, the Court held, the cases were not suitable for resolution as a class action.

For more information on class actions, the CFA or TCCWNA, 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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N.J. Supreme Court Finds Material Breach by Company That Knowingly Refused to Cooperate with Arbitration Demands Filed in Compliance with the Arbitration Agreement

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that a company’s refusal to cooperate with plaintiffs’ arbitration demands was a material breach of their arbitration agreement, which barred the company from later compelling arbitration. Tahisha Roach v. BM Motoring, LLC 

The plaintiffs had purchased cars from BM Motoring, LLC and Federal Auto Brokers, Inc. d/b/a BM Motor Cars (BM).  As part of the transaction, each plaintiff signed an arbitration agreement requiring resolution of disputes through arbitration in accordance with the rules of the American Arbitration Association (AAA).  The plaintiffs had filed demands for arbitration against BM with AAA.  In one case, despite repeated requests by AAA, BM refused to advance the filing fees that the arbitration agreement obligated BM to pay, resulting in dismissal of the arbitration for nonpayment of fees. In another case, a plaintiff’s claims were dismissed based on BM’s failure to comply with AAA’s rules and procedures.  The plaintiffs then jointly filed the present action against BM, who moved to dismiss the complaint in favor of arbitration.

Ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor, the Court noted that arbitration agreements are governed by general principles of contract law.  BM’s arbitration agreement required arbitration in accordance with AAA’s rules and therefore permitted arbitration before the AAA.  The Court held that BM’s failure to pay the AAA fees or to respond to plaintiffs’ arbitration demands violated BM’s duty of good faith and fair dealing that New Jersey law implies in all contracts.  Specifically, BM’s actions destroyed the benefit plaintiffs expected in signing the arbitration agreement, namely, the ability to arbitrate claims.  Accordingly, BM was barred from later compelling arbitration.

The New Jersey Supreme Court refused to enact a bright-line rule on the issue, emphasizing the fact-sensitive nature of its determination.  Nonetheless, businesses that include standard arbitration clauses in their agreements, should be aware that a failure to cooperate in bringing the case before an arbitrator may result in a waiver of the arbitration agreement.

For more information, 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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Third Circuit Rejects Class Certification for Widener Law Grads

A panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals refused to allow class certification for a group of Widener University School of Law Graduates who allege that the law school inflated postgraduate employment rate statistics in Harnish v. Widener Univ. Sch. of Law, No. 15-3888 (3d Cir. Aug. 16, 2016). The law graduates claimed that, between 2005 and 2011, Widener advertised that up to 97% of students obtained employment after graduation, when, in fact, only 50-70% of graduates obtained full-time legal employment. This misrepresentation, the plaintiffs argued, violated New Jersey and Delaware consumer fraud statutes.

The circuit court rejected the plaintiffs’ theory of damages, predicated on the report of their expert economist, Dr. Donald Martin. Dr. Martin attempted to show a statistically significant relationship between employment rates and tuition prices across 64 private law schools. The analysis, though compelling, was flawed, the Court held. Because the plaintiffs did not present a theory of class-wide damages, they failed to establish that common questions of fact with respect to damages “predominate” over individual questions or that the named plaintiffs’ claims were “typical” of the class—both requirements for class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.

Specifically, the plaintiff’s theory was that Widener’s misrepresentations empowered the school to charge higher tuition across the market. This type of “price inflation” theory is similar (though not identical) to the “fraud on the market” concept that has been accepted in federal securities class actions. Although the Court found that Mr. Martin’s expert approach held some merit since law schools operate in a largely fixed-price market, both the New Jersey and Delaware Supreme Courts have rejected this type of theory of proof outside of the securities context. Because this theory was the only one presented to establish damages on a class-wide basis for the plaintiffs’ state-law consumer fraud claims, the Court found that class certification was inappropriate.

Harnish highlights the importance of expert evidence at the class certification phase. Although plaintiffs are not required to prove their case, they must present a coherent theory showing damages on a class-wide basis, and one that is cognizable under substantive law.

For more information on class certification or consumer fraud claims or the Court’s decision in Harnish v. Widener University School of Law, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair 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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