‘Zestimates’ Are Estimates; Not Fraud – 7th Circuit

The Seventh Circuit recently affirmed the Illinois Northern District’s Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of class action plaintiffs’ fraudand deceptive practices claims against the owners of the Zillow.com online real estate valuation site.

The lower court in Patel v. Zillow, Inc. found the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege colorable consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices claims based mainly on the site’s “Zestimate” feature an algorithm-based property estimator program.

The plaintiffs alleged Zillow scared off would-be buyers by undervaluing properties.  When Zillow refused plaintiffs request to remove the low-ball estimates, plaintiffs sued under various Illinois consumer statutes.  

Plaintiffs first alleged Zillow violated the Illinois Real Estate Appraiser Licensing Act, 225 ILCS 458/1 et. seq. (the “Licensing Act”) by performing appraisals without a license.  In their fraud and deceptive practices complaint counts, plaintiffs alleged Zillow used distorted property value estimates to tamp down true property values and engaged in false advertising by giving preferential listing treatment to sponsoring real estate brokers and lenders.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ Licensing Act claim on the ground that the Licensing Act doesn’t provide for a private cause of action.  Instead, the statute is replete with administrative enforcement provisions (fines of up to $25K) and criminal penalties (Class A misdemeanor for first offense; Class 4 felony for subsequent ones) for violations.  Since there was no express or implied private right of action for the Licensing Act violation, that claim failed. [3]

Jettisoning the plaintiffs’ statutory Deceptive Trade PracticesAct and Consumer Fraud Act claims (815 ILCS 510/1 et seq.; 815 ILCS 505/1 et seq., respectively), the Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court that Zestimates were not actionable statements of fact likely to confuse consumers.

Instead, like its name suggests (‘estimate’ is “built in”), a Zestimate is simply estimates of a property’s value.    This point is confirmed by Zillow’s disclaimer-laden site that makes clear it is only a “starting point” for determining property values.  

Expanding on the deceptive practices and consumer fraud claim deficits, the Court disagreed with plaintiffs’ thesis that removing faulty valuations would improve the algorithm’s overall accuracy.  The Court noted that if Zillow was forced to remove estimates each time someone disagreed with a published value, it would “skew distribution,” dilute the site’s utility and either unfairly benefit or penalize buyers or sellers; depending on whether the retracted data was accurate. [4]

Turning to plaintiffs’ false advertising component of its claims, the Seventh Circuit held that all web and print publications rely on ad revenue to finance operations.  The mere fact that Zillow sold ad space didn’t transmute property estimates into verifiable (therefore, actionable) factual assertions.  Zestimates are estimates: “Zillow is outside the scope of the trade practices act.” [5]

Afterwords

The Seventh Circuit’s Zillow opinion cements the proposition that an actionable deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud claim requires a defendant’s assertion of a verifiable fact to be actionable.  

The case also confirms where a statute – like the Licensing Act – sets out a diffuse administrative and criminal enforcement scheme, a court will not imply a private right of action based on a statutory violation.

 

Landlord’s Double-Rent Holdover Claim Barred by Res Judicata – A Deep Cut (IL 2012)

A commercial lease dispute sets the backdrop for an appeals court’s nuanced discussion of statutory holdover damages and when res judicata and claim-splitting defeat a second lawsuit involving similar facts to and subject matter of an earlier case.

For many years, the tenant in Degrazia v. Levato operated “Jimbo’s” – a sports bar set in the shadow of U.S. Cellular Field (nka Guaranteed Rate Field) and perennial favorite watering hole for Chicago White Sox fans.

Lawsuit 1 – the 2006 Eviction Case

In 2006, plaintiff filed an eviction lawsuit when the lease expired and defendants refused to leave.  In addition to possession of the premises, the plaintiffs also sought to recover use and occupancy damages equal to double the monthly rent due under the lease through the eviction date.

The trial court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion in the 2006 eviction suit and struck defendant’s affirmative defense that plaintiff went back on an oral promise to renew the lease.  Defendant appealed and the trial court’s eviction order was affirmed.

Lawsuit 2 – the 2007 Damages Case

Plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit in 2007; this time for breach of lease.  In this second action, plaintiffs sought to recover statutory holdover damages under Section 9-202 of the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act (the “FED Act”).  The court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that plaintiff’s second lawsuit was barred by res judicata and the policy against claim-splitting.  The plaintiffs appealed.

Rules and Reasoning

For res judicata to foreclose a second lawsuit, three elements must be present:  (1) a final judgment on the merits rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) an identity of
causes of action; and (3) an identity of the parties or their privies.

Illinois courts also hew to the rule against splitting claims or causes of action. Under the claim-splitting rule, where a cause of action is entire and indivisible, a plaintiff cannot divide it by bringing separate lawsuits.  A plaintiff cannot sue for part of a claim in one action and then sue for the rest of the claim in a second suit.  Like res judicata, the claim-splitting rule aims to foster finality and protect litigants from multiple lawsuits.

The First District held that the trial court’s order in the 2006 lawsuit granting plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment was a final order only on the issue of possession but not on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees since the court expressly granted plaintiffs leave to file a fee petition.  And since there was no final order entered on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees in the 2006 case, plaintiffs could seek the same fees in the 2007 lawsuit.

The Court did, however, affirm summary judgment for the tenants on plaintiffs’ statutory holdover claim.  FED Act Section 9-202 provides that a tenant who willfully holds over after a lease expires is liable for double rent. 735 ILCS 5/9-202.

The Plaintiffs sought the same double rent in both the 2006 (eviction) and 2007 (damages) lawsuit and requested these damages in their summary judgment motion filed in the 2006 case.  The eviction judge in that 2006 case only allowed plaintiffs to recover statutory use and occupancy instead of statutory holdover rent.  The First District held that the use and occupancy order was final.  And since plaintiffs never appealed or challenged the use and occupancy order in the 2006 case, plaintiff’s 2007 Lawsuit was defeated by res judicata.

The Court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the forcible court (in the 2006 Lawsuit) was limited to ordering possession and unable to award statutory holdover damages.  It found that FED Act Section 9-106 expressly allows a landlord to join a rent claim and FED Sections 9-201 and 9-202 respectively allow a plaintiff to recover use and occupancy and holdover damages.  As a result, the First District found there was nothing that prevented the 2006 eviction case judge from awarding holdover rent if plaintiffs were able to show that defendants willfully held over after the lease expired.

Afterwords:

There is scant case law on Illinois’ holdover statute.  While an action for possession under the FED Act is, in theory, a limited, summary proceeding directed solely to the question of possession, the FED Act sections that allow a plaintiff to join a rent claim, to recover use and occupancy payments in addition to double holdover rent give shrewd lessee lawyer’s enough of an opening to argue issue or claim preclusion.

This case demonstrates that the best pleadings practice is for the landlord to join its double-rent claims in the eviction case and put the burden on the tenant to argue the holdover damages claim is beyond the scope of a FED action.  Otherwise, there is a real risk that the failure to join a holdover claim in the possession action will prevent holdover damages in a later lawsuit.

Texas Arbitration Provision Sounds Death Knell For Illinois Salesman’s Suit Against Former Employer – IL ND

(“Isn’t that remarkable…..”)

The Plaintiff in Brne v. Inspired eLearning, 2017 WL 4263995, worked in sales for the corporate publisher defendant.  His employment contract called for arbitration in San Antonio, Texas.

When defendant failed to pay plaintiff his earned commissions, plaintiff sued in Federal court in his home state of Illinois under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“IWPCA”). Defendant moved for venue-based dismissal under Rule 12(b)(3)

The Illinois Northern District granted defendant’s motion and required the plaintiff to arbitrate in Texas.  A Rule 12(b)(3) motion is the proper vehicle to dismiss a case filed in the wrong venue. Once a defendant challenges the plaintiff’s venue choice, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish it filed in the proper district.  When plaintiff’s chosen venue is improper, the Court “shall dismiss [the case], or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a).

Upholding the Texas arbitration clause, the Illinois Federal court noted the liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements except when to do so would violate general contract enforceability rules (e.g. when arbitration agreement is the product of fraud, coercion, duress, etc.)

The Court then turned to plaintiff’s argument that the arbitration agreement was substantively unconscionable.  An agreement is substantively unconscionable where it is so one-sided, it “shocks the conscience” for a court to enforce the terms.

The plaintiff claimed the arbitration agreement’s cost-sharing provision and absence of fee-shifting rendered it substantively unconscionable.

Cost Sharing Provision

Under Texas and Illinois law, a party seeking to invalidate an arbitration agreement on the ground that arbitration is prohibitively expensive must provide individualized evidence to show it will likely be saddled with excessive costs during the course of the arbitration and is financially incapable of meeting those costs.  The fact that sharing arbitration costs might cut in to a plaintiff’s recovery isn’t enough: without specific evidence that clearly demonstrates arbitration is cost-prohibitive, a court will not strike down an arbitration cost-sharing provision as substantively unconscionable.  Since plaintiff failed to offer competent evidence that he was unable to shoulder half of the arbitration costs, his substantive unconscionability argument failed

Fee-Shifting Waiver

The plaintiff’s fee-shifting waiver argument fared better.  Plaintiff asserted  then argued that the arbitration agreement’s provision that each side pays their own fees deprived Plaintiff of his rights under the IWPCA (see above) which, among other things, allows a successful plaintiff to recover her attorneys’ fees. 820 ILCS 115/14.

The Court noted that contractual provisions against fee-shifting are not per se unconscionable and that the party challenging such a term must demonstrate concrete economic harm if it has to pay its own lawyer fees.  The court also noted that both Illinois and Texas courts look favorably on arbitration and that arbitration fee-shifting waivers are unconscionable only when they contradict a statute’s mandatory fee-shifting rights and the statute is central to the arbitrated dispute.

The court analogized the IWPCA to other states’ fee-shifting statutes and found the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees section integral to the statute’s aim of protecting workers from getting stiffed by their employers.  The court then observed that IWPCA’s attorney’s fees provision encouraged non-breaching employees to pursue their rights against employers.  In view of the importance of the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees provision, the Court ruled that the arbitration clause’s fee-shifting waiver clashed materially with the IWPCA and was substantively unconscionable.

However, since the arbitration agreement contained a severability clause (i.e. any provisions that were void, could be excised from the arbitration contract), the Court severed the fee-shifting waiver term and enforced the balance of the arbitration agreement.  As a result, plaintiff must still arbitrate against his ex-employer in Texas (and cannot litigate in Illinois).

Afterwords:

This case lies at the confluence of freedom of contract, the strong judicial policy favoring arbitration and when an arbitration clause conflicts with statutory fee-shifting language.  The court nullified the arbitration provision requiring each side to pay its own fees since that term clashed directly with opposing language in the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.  Still, the court enforced the parties’ arbitration agreement – minus the fee provision.

The case also provides a useful synopsis of venue-based motions to dismiss in Federal court.