Zillow ‘Zestimates’ Not Actionable Value Statements; Homeowner Plaintiffs’ Not Consumers Under IL Consumer Fraud Act – IL ND 2018

Decrying the defendants’ use of “suspect marketing gimmicks” that generate “confusion in the marketplace,” the class action plaintiffs’ allegations in Patel v. Zillow, Inc. didn’t go far enough to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

The Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed the real estate owning plaintiffs’ claims against the defendants, whose Zillow.com website is a popular online destination for property buyers, sellers, lenders and brokers.

The plaintiffs alleged Zillow violated Illinois’s deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud statutes by luring prospects to the site based on fabricated property valuation data, employing “bait and switch” sales tactics and false advertising and giving preferential treatment to brokers and lenders who pay advertising dollars to Zillow.

Plaintiffs took special aim at Zillow’s “Seller Boost” program – through which Zillow provides choice broker leads in exchange for ad dollars – and “Zestimate,” Zillow’s property valuation tool that is based on computer algorithms.

The Court first dismissed Plaintiffs’ Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act (IDTPA) claim (815 ILCS 510/1 et seq.). Plaintiffs alleged Zestimate was a “suspect marketing gimmick” designed to lure visitors to Zillow in an effort to increase ad revenue from real estate brokers and lenders, and perpetuated marketplace confusion and disparaged properties by refusing to take down Zestimates that were proven inaccurate. Plaintiffs also alleged Defendants advertise properties for sale they have no intention of actually selling.

The Court found that Zestimates are not false or misleading representations of fact likely to confuse consumers. They are simply estimates of a property’s market value. As Zillow’s disclaimer-laden site says, Zestimates are but “starting points” of a property’s value and no proxy for a professional appraisal. As a result, the Court found Zestimates were nonactionable opinions of value.
Plaintiffs’ allegation that Zestimate creates consumer confusion also fell short. An actionable IDTPA claim premised on likelihood of confusion means a defendant’s use of a given trade name, trademark or other distinctive symbol is likely to mislead consumers as to the source of an advertised product or service. Here, the plaintiffs’ allegations that Zestimate was falsely vaunted as a legitimate valuation tool did not assert confusion between Zillow’s and another’s products or services.

Plaintiffs’ “bait and switch” and commercial disparagement claims fared no better. A bait and switch claim asserts that at a seller advertised one product or service only to “switch” a customer to another, costlier one. A commercial disparagement claim, based on IDPTA Section 510/2(a)(8) prevents a defendant from denigrating the quality of a business’s goods and services through false or misleading statements of fact.

Since plaintiffs did not allege Zillow was enticing consumers with one product or service while later trying to hawk a more expensive item, the bait and switch IDTPA claim failed. The court dismissed the commercial disparagement claim since Zestimates are only opinions of value and not factual statements.

The Court next nixed Plaintiffs’ self-dealing claim: that Zillow secretly tried to enrich itself by funneling For Sale By Owner (FSBO) sellers to premier brokers. While Illinois does recognize that a real estate broker owes a duty of good faith when dealing with buyers, the Court noted that Zillow is not a real estate broker. As a result, Defendants owed plaintiffs no legal duty to abstain from self-dealing.

The glaring absence of likely future harm also doomed the plaintiffs’ IDTPA claim. (The likelihood of future consumer harm is an element of liability under the IDTPA.) The Court found that even if Plaintiffs were confused or misled by Zillow in the past, there was no risk of future confusion. In IDTPA consumer cases, once a plaintiff is aware of potentially deceptive marketing, he can simply refrain from purchasing the offending product or service.

Next, the court jettisoned plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims which alleged Zestimates impeded homeowners efforts to sell their properties. A business (or another non-consumer) can still sue under ICFA where alleges a nexus between a defendant’s conduct and consumer harm. To meet this consumer nexus test, a corporate plaintiff must plead conduct involving trade practices addressed to the market generally or that otherwise implicates consumer protection concerns. If a non-consumer plaintiff cannot allege how defendant’s actions impact consumers other than the plaintiff, the ICFA claim fails.

The plaintiffs’ consumer fraud allegations missed the mark because plaintiffs were real estate sellers, not buyers. Moreover, the Court found that plaintiffs’ requested relief would not serve the interests of consumers since the claimed actual damages were unique to plaintiffs. The plaintiffs attempt to recover costs incidental to their inability to sell their homes, including mortgage payments, taxes, home owner association costs, utilities, and the like were not shared by the wider consumer marketplace. (For example, the Court noted that plaintiffs did not allege prospective consumer buyers will have to pay incidental out-of-pocket expenses related to Zillow’s Zestimate published values.)

Lastly, the Court dismissed plaintiffs’ deceptive practices portion of their ICFA claim. To state such a claim, the plaintiff must allege he suffered actual damages proximately caused by a defendant’s deception. But where a plaintiff isn’t actually deceived, it can’t allege a deceptive practice.

Here, in addition to falling short on the consumer nexus test, plaintiffs could not allege Zillow’s site content deceived them. This is because under Illinois fraud principles, a plaintiff who “knows the truth” can’t make out a valid ICFA deceptive practice claim. In their complaint, the plaintiffs’ plainly alleged they were aware of Zillow’s challenged tactics. Because of this, plaintiffs were unable to establish Zillow as the proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injury.

Afterwords:

Zillow provides a good primer on Federal court pleading standards in the post-Twombly era and gives a nice gloss on the requisite pleading elements required to state a viable cause of action for injunctive and monetary relief under Illinois’s deceptive practices and consumer fraud statutes.

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.

 

 

 

 

‘Surviving Partner’ Statute Defeats Fraud Suit in Mobile Home Spat – IL Court

The plaintiff in Jett v. Zeman Homes sued a mobile home seller for fraud and negligence after it failed to disclose a home’s history of mold damage and location in a flood zone.  The plaintiff’s claims were premised mainly on an agent of the defendant mobile home owner who died during the course of the litigation.  Affirming summary judgment for the owner, the court considered and answered some important questions on the applicability of common law and consumer fraud actions to the real estate context and when the death of an agent will immunize a corporate principal for claims based on the deceased agent’s comments.

The plaintiff’s fraud claims alleged that defendant’s agent made material misrepresentations that there was not a mold problem in the mobile home park and that any mold the plaintiff noticed in her pre-purchase walk-through was an isolated occurrence.  Plaintiff also alleged the seller’s agent failed to disclose a history of flooding on the property the mobile home occupied and the home’s lack of concrete foundation which contributed to flooding in the home.

Plaintiff’s negligence count alleged defendant breached duties of disclosure delineated in Section 21 of the Mobile Home Landlord and Tenant Rights Act. 765 ILCS 745/21 (West 2016). Plaintiff alleged defendant breached its duty to her by failing to disclose the home’s history of mold infestation and failure to alleviate the mold problem after plaintiff notified defendant.

The appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s fraud claims based on Illinois Evidence Code Section 301 which provides that a party who contracts with a now-deceased agent of an adverse party is not competent to testify to any admission of the deceased agent unless the admission was made in the presence of other surviving agents of the adverse party. 735 ILCS 5/8-301 (West 2016).  This is an application of the “Dead Man’s Act” (see 735 ILCS 5/8-201) principles to the principal-agent setting.

Applying this surviving agent rule, the Court noted that plaintiff admitted in her deposition that the predicate statements giving rise to both her common law and statutory fraud counts were made solely by the deceased defendant’s agent.  Since plaintiff could not identify any other agents of the defendant who were present when the deceased agent made statements concerning prior mold damage on the home, she could not attribute a materially false statement (a common law fraud element) or a deceptive act or practice (a consumer fraud element) to the defendant.

The appeals court also affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s negligence count.  An Illinois negligence plaintiff must plead and prove: (1) the existence of a duty of care owed to the plaintiff by the defendant; (2) a breach of that duty, and (3) an injury proximately caused by that breach.

Since the lease agreement attached to plaintiff’s complaint demonstrated that the owner/lessor was someone other than the defendant, the plaintiff could not establish that defendant owed plaintiff a legal duty.

Afterwords:

A fraud plaintiff relying on statements of a deceased agent to hold a principal (e.g. an employer) liable, will have to prove the statement in question was made in the presence of surviving agents.  Otherwise, as this case shows, Illinois’ surviving partner or joint contractor statute will defeat the claim by barring the plaintiff from presenting evidence of the deceased’s statements or conduct.