Category Archives: Fraud/Misrepresentation

Atkins diet website gets First Amendment protection from negligent misrepresentation claim

In the Spring of 2001, Plaintiff Gorran decided to go on the wildly popular low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet. His cholesterol skyrocketed by almost a hundred points within the first two months, but he stayed on the diet anyway until 2003. After he experienced chest pains, he underwent an angioplasty to unclog an artery.

So Gorran sued Atkins Nutritionals and some other parties, claiming, among other things, that the information on the Atkins website about the diet constituted negligent misrepresentation. The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted the motion.

The court held that the content on the Atkins website that Gorran complained of could not be the source of any negligent misrepresentation, as it was fully protected by the First Amendment. Gorran had argued that the website functioned “as an electronic store to promote various [D]iet-related food products” and contained, therefore, commercial speech.

The court saw it differently. Indeed the site contained some commercial content (e.g., products for sale). But the content that Gorran alleged was negligent misrepresentations was merely general advice pertaining to the diet. That content was non-commercial. Accordingly, the information was “afforded full First Amendment protection,” and the claim was dismissed.

Gorran v. Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., — F.Supp.2d —-, 2006 WL 3586267 (S.D.N.Y., December 11, 2006).

Selling fake software on Amazon.com can get you five years in prison

[Thanks to Tech Law Advisor for alerting me to this case.]

Defendant Banks devised a scheme where he would make copies of various Microsoft products and sell them through Amazon.com to buyers who purchased them cash-on-delivery. After getting orders for at least $300,000 worth of software in this way, the plan began to collapse. Dissatisfied customers turned Banks into the FBI, and a federal grand jury indicted him on several counts, including mail fraud, possessing false securities, and criminal copyright infringement. A jury convicted him, and he got five years in prison.

Banks appealed his conviction and sentence, but the Third Circuit affirmed. On the criminal copyright infringement claim, Banks argued that the government had not introduced sufficient evidence to show that the Microsoft software was protected by copyright.

The criminal provisions of the Copyright Act, at 17 U.S.C. §506 state that

Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under [18 U.S.C. §2319], if the infringement was committed– (A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain; (B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000…. (Emphasis added.)

The court held that evidence introduced at trial through an “antipiracy specialist associated with the Microsoft company” was sufficient to show Microsoft’s ownership of the copyrights in the works. In the specialist’s unrebutted testimony, she stated her “belief” that Microsoft copyrights covered the works at issue. Further, the specialist had testified that Microsoft sent Banks the same type of cease and desist letter as it did to others who were suspected of violating Microsoft’s copyrights.

One is left to wonder why the government did not introduce any of Microsoft’s copyright registration certificates in the course of proving the element of copyright ownership. One would think that that would be the best practice for making such proof. In any event, the question before the court was whether the jury correctly concluded that Microsoft owned the copyrights in the works. The antipiracy specialist’s testimony — even if a bit weak on this point — apparently was enough.

United States v. Vampire Nation, (Slip Op.) — F.3d —, 2006 WL 1679385 (3d Cir., June 20, 2006).

State consumer fraud action unavailable to nonresident website user

Plaintiff Shaw, a U.S. citizen but resident of London, used Hyatt International Corporation’s website to make a reservation for three nights in the Ararat Park Hyatt in Moscow, Russia. On the website, Hyatt quoted Shaw a rate of $502 USD per night. When checking out of the hotel, however, Shaw was charged some 15% more than the quoted price, allegedly because of an inflated exchange rate Hyatt used to convert between dollars and rubles.

Shaw filed suit against Hyatt in federal court in Chicago, alleging two causes of action under Illinois law: (1) violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act 815 ILCS 505/1 et seq. (“ICFA”), and (2) common law unjust enrichment. Hyatt moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The court granted the motion and dismissed the complaint.

In dismissing Shaw’s ICFA claim, the court applied the test set forth in the recent Illinois Supreme Court decision of Avery v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 835 N.E.2d 801 (Ill., 2005) which held that a nonresident plaintiff may sue under the ICFA only if the fraudulent transaction occurred “primarily and substantially” within Illinois. In the present case, the court found that:

[T]he overwhelming majority of the circumstances relating to the transaction between Plaintiff and Hyatt concern events outside of Illinois. Even assuming, as the Court must for purposes of a motion to dismiss, that Hyatt’s currency inflation scheme originated in its principal place of business in Illinois, Avery makes clear that this fact alone does not warrant application of the ICFA.

The court went on to dismiss Shaw’s unjust enrichment claim, because the “Terms and Conditions” displayed on the Hyatt website at the time of the reservation were an express agreement between Shaw and Hyatt. Because the specific transaction giving rise to the dispute was governed by an express agreement, the extra-contractual claim for unjust enrichment was unavailable.

Shaw v. Hyatt International Corp. 2005 WL 3088438 (N.D.Ill., November 15, 2005).

Earthlink off the hook in phishing-alert case

The well-known Internet service provider Earthlink offered its customers a free service to protect from “phishing” scams by alerting users to potentially fraudulent websites. The service redirected users who are attempting to visit a suspicious site to a Scam Alert page, asking the user to “not continue to this potentially risky site.”

Plaintiff Associated Bank-Corp operated an online banking site which mistakenly ended up on Earthlink’s list of potentially fraudulent sites. Although Associated Bank’s site was legitimate, visitors using Earthlink were presented with the Scam Alert page. Associated Bank filed suit in federal court against Earthlink alleging various tort and fraud claims.

Earthlink filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act shielded it from liability. This portion of the Act provides immunity for interactive computer services that publish information received from third party information providers. The court granted Earthlink’s motion for summary judgment.

It held that a reasonable trier of fact could not infer that Earthlink, by providing the alert service, was an information content provider. Instead, the evidence before the court demonstrated that third-party vendors identified potentially fraudulent sites, and that such information was directly input into a database without any alteration by Earthlink. Accordingly, because the information came from another provider, Earthlink could not be liable for the republication of untrue statements about Associated bank.

Associated Bank-Corp. v. Earthlink, Inc., 2005 WL 2240952 (W.D. Wis., September 13, 2005)(Not selected for official publication).

More coverage at Professor Goldman’s blog.

Court allows false advertising suit over calling take-out pizza restaurant “fast-casual”

Marketing firms take note: what you say about one client on your website will get noticed by other clients, and they may sue.

Plaintiff San Francisco Oven hired defendant Fransmart to market San Francisco Oven’s “fast-casual brick-oven” pizza restaurant to potential franchisees. After San Francisco Oven and Fransmart entered into an agreement, Fransmart changed its website to describe another pizza restaurant, Z-Pizza, as also employing the “fast-casual brick oven” concept.

San Francisco Oven believed that this information about Z-Pizza was false, and that Fransmart had changed the description to steer potential franchisees away from San Francisco Oven and to Z-Pizza. Before San Francisco Oven hired Fransmart, the Fransmart website had listed Z-Pizza as having merely “take-out and delivery and limited in-restaurant dining.”

After learning of the changed information on the website, San Francisco Oven sued Fransmart for false advertising under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1125(a). Fransmart moved to dismiss, arguing that San Francisco Oven’s complaint did not allege sufficient facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction could be based. The court disagreed, and denied Fransmart’s motion.

In its analysis, the court looked to the case of Scotts Co. v. United Indus. Corp., 315 F.3d 264 (4th Cir. 2002) to recast the elements of a 43(a) claim as follows: (1) the defendant made a false or misleading description of fact or representation of fact in a commercial advertisement about his own or another’s [goods or services]; (2) the misrepresentation is material, in that it is likely to influence the purchasing decision; (3) the misrepresentation actually deceives or has the tendency to deceive a substantial segment of its audience; (4) the defendant placed the false or misleading statement in interstate commerce; and (5) the plaintiff has been or is likely to be injured as a result of the misrepresentation, either by direct diversion of sales or by a lessening of goodwill associated with its [goods or services].

The court held that San Francisco Oven’s allegations of Fransmart’s statements about Z-Pizza satisfied these elements. The statements on the website described goods and services of another company. The representations were material in that they dealt with the actual subject about which Fransmart was hired (i.e., the franchise concept). The representations had the tendency to deceive, due to the alleged mischaracterization of Z-Pizza’s concept. By posting the statements online, Fransmart placed them into interstate commerce. Finally, San Francisco Oven had properly alleged that diverted franchisees to Z-Pizza would cause damage.

San Francisco Oven, LLC v. Fransmart, LLC, 2005 WL 1838125 (E.D.Va., July 27, 2005).

Lost? Don’t bother suing if your GPS fails.

Amiel Dabush was 40 minutes late to a business meeting in Aberdeen, New Jersey, and he blamed his tardiness on the failure of the GPS system in his $70,000 Mercedes S-Class to show him the way. Although he didn’t lose any money or business from being late to the meeting, Dabush must have been pretty ticked-off, because he filed a class action lawsuit against Mercedes under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.

Dabush claimed that Mercedes misrepresented the quality of the GPS system in its marketing brochure which claimed, among other things, that “[i]f there’s a road that goes there, the S-Class can show you the way.”

The New Jersey Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit on summary judgment, finding that Dabush’s “asserted loss was based on an unreasonable expectation of what was ‘promised’ in the brochure – a perfect navigation system that would include data of all locations and provide directions no matter where he happened to be at a particular point.” Such an asserted loss, the court held, was not an “ascertainable loss” required to sustain a cause of action under the state’s Consumer Fraud Act.

Dabush v. Mercedes-Benz USA, Inc., 2005 WL 1240196 (N.J.Super.A.D., May 26, 2005).

Web developer was only “puffing” when it represented the quality of its services

The First Circuit has upheld the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine’s determination that a web developer’s litany of self-laudatory statements to its client did not give rise to actionable misrepresentation. The client was sophisticated enough to distinguish mere “puffery” from real factual assertions about the web developer’s services and abilities.

The case of Uncle Henry’s Inc. v. Plaut Consulting Co., Inc. arose out of “an agreement to create a website that went awry.” After Plaut’s Edgewing division failed to satisfactorily complete the complex auction website for which Uncle Henry’s had paid over a half million dollars, Uncle Harry’s sued, alleging breach of contract and fraud.

The proceedings quickly became complicated, as Plaut counterclaimed for breach of contract and quantum meruit. The hodgepodge of issues raised in the various claims and counterclaims and appeals and cross-appeals makes this case a good read for an insomniac practitioner in the First Circuit. There is too much detail to cover here in full, and in any event most of the issues are simply brick-and-mortar, that is, not unique to the law of the Internet.

One aspect of the case, however, may be of particular interest to web developers and the lawyers who represent them. This has to do with that dialect of commercial language known as “puffing.”

In the District Court, Uncle Henry’s had claimed that numerous statements that Plaut made about the quality of its work were fraudulently misrepresentative. Among these statements were that the developer would “provide Uncle Henry’s a total solution unsurpassed in the industry,” and that the developer “was a proven company with a long track record and many years’ experience.” The court granted summary judgment, holding that the statements constituted nothing more than “puffing” or “trade talk” upon which no reasonable person would rely. Citing to previous authority, the court poetically explained that “dealers talk” is “that picturesque and laudatory style affected by nearly every trader in setting forth the attractive qualities of the goods he offers for sale.”

On appeal, Uncle Henry’s argued that an exception to the rule that puffery should not be believed applies to it. Such exception provides that “puffing” statements are actionable if the hearer of them is so unsophisticated or lacking in information as to be “at the mercy” of the speaker. The Court of Appeals did not buy this argument, however, and affirmed the District Court on this point. As support for the conclusion that Uncle Henry’s was not merely at the mercy of Plaut, the court noted both that counsel for Uncle Henry’s had aggressively investigated and negotiated the contract before signing it, and that Uncle Henry’s had experience in web development before its dealings with Plaut.

Alas, I cannot resist. Isn’t it a coincidence that this puffing case comes from Maine, well known for its puffins?

puffin image

Uncle Henry’s Inc. v. Plaut Consulting Co., 2005 WL 407394 (1st Cir. Feb. 22, 2005).

Puffin photo used courtesy of a Creative Commons license from Martin Burns.