Update: Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland and CEC consumer fraud class action

For those tracking this case, two updates worth noting.

1. As noted recently, Western Culinary/LCB Portland and Career Education Corp filed a motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss this case. More info on that motion here. The hearing date on the motion has been changed to October 7, 2011.

2. There have been many media reports on the settlement of California Culinary Academy (CCA) class action. Some have erroneously reported that the settlement includes this case against Western Culinary Institute. Not correct. I am not connected with the CCA case, so I don’t pretend to know what is going on there. But our case has not settled. That is why we are pushing forward toward trial.

Thanks for checking back and for your continuing patience and interest in the case. If you’re a class member, know that our team continues the long fight. Call or email if you have questions.

David

Western Culinary Institute class action update: Defendants seek another dismissal

This is an update on our culinary school consumer fraud class action against Western Culinary Institute, now known as Le Cordon Bleu Portland, and its parent corporation, Career Education Corporation.

A few weeks ago, defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration of Nathan Surrett and Jennifer Adams’ claims and to stay or dismiss the case.

Some background: Nate is the current class representative. The case is being pursued in his name and through his efforts. Before Nate, Jennifer Adams served as the class representative. She had to step down after the Court narrowed the scope of the class in a way that excluded Jennifer. (If that’s not confusing enough, Adams is Jennifer’s married name. She was previously Jennifer Schuster, which is why that name appears on some of the pleadings.)

Anyhow, back in April, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a really significant anti-consumer decision in the case of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. The case is bad for consumers because it strengthens big businesses’ ability to take away consumers’ rights to trial by jury through mandatory arbitration.

So four months after that decision, the lawyers for WCI/Le Cordon Bleu Portland/CEC decided to ask the trial court to dismiss our case because Nate and Jennifer were required to arbitrate their claims. Their motion is long and legally complex. It was filed under seal because it uses student records of the two named plaintiffs. That’s a long way of saying I can’t provide a copy.

While their arguments were complicated, there were a number of glaring problems. We filed our response on Friday. Here is a pdf copy: Response to Def Motion to Compel Arb and Dismiss

Fair warning: it’s a technical brief that may not make much sense if you don’t have a law degree and an interest in this very narrow area. The issues are important for this case and for other consumer cases. I’m posting it here for those following this case and, also, for consumer attorneys out there facing post-AT&T Mobility motions to compel arbitration.

I’m pleased with our opposition. Oral argument is scheduled for Friday, September 23 in front of Judge Baldwin. I don’t know whether Judge Baldwin will rule from the bench. We will update you when we know more.

 

Comcast Oregon cable TV late fee class action settlement update

This seven year old consumer class action case is coming into its final stages. The time to file claims ended. Next Monday, July 11, the money for fees and charitable contributions gets paid. A month later, August 11, 2011, consumers who made claims should begin to see credits on their bills for those who continue as Comcast subscribers and checks for those who are former subscribers.

Keep in mind that Comcast can dispute claims. We have not been notified that Comcast intends to do so. We continue to serve the class through the claims process in case there are any problems.

We’ll keep watching, of course. If you made a claim and do not receive your credit or check. Keep in mind that Comcast is entitled to off set unpaid balances.

Feel free to contact us if you have questions.

 

Career Education Corp and Western Culinary Institute consumer fraud class action: Notice out

We finally moved to the next phase in our Oregon consumer fraud class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland and its parent, Career Education Corporation. Class notice went out last week. It took longer than expected because of a few unanticipated changes in the class brought about by the trial court’s rulings.

Here is a link to the class notice website if you have questions about the case. As class counsel, I represent all members of the class. Feel free to call or email us if you have questions about the case–it is part of my job as class counsel to respond.

My co-counsel, Portland attorney Brian Campf, and I have been working on this case since 2008. We are now engaging in merits discovery. That means reviewing thousands of pages of documents and taking depositions of defendants’ employees.

Trial lawyers often dream about trial. This is one of those dream-inducing cases. While we don’t yet have a trial date, I am eager to move us forward. It’s been a long road, and there is far to go. The good news is that last week represents major progress.

Comcast Oregon late fee class action settlement receives final approval

On Monday, May 2, 2011, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Henry Kantor granted final approval to the class settlement entered between Comcast and Oregon consumers billed cable TV late fees. Under the terms of the settlement, Comcast pays $16 per late fee to claiming class members, up to $23 million, together with attorney fees and costs of $5 million, and a $75,000 charitable contribution split between the Oregon Food Bank and the United Way.

Class counsel decided to leverage the charitable giving by adding $100,000 from our fees to be divided between five groups that provide legal services to low and moderate Oregonians and national groups that advocate for consumers. The five non-profits that will split the legal team’s contribution are Oregon’s Campaign for Justice, St. Andrews Legal Clinic, Oregon Law Center (through the Campaign for Justice), National Consumer Law Center, and Public Justice Foundation. We’re really pleased to be able to make these contributions.

If you’re a consumer who was billed a late fee you need to file your claim before July 1. Here is the link to the claim form. Fill it out. If you paid one or two late fees, you only need to sign it and return it. If you paid more than two, you need to sign the claim form in front of a notary or provide documentation of how many late fees you paid.

Under Oregon law, unclaimed monies are returned to Comcast. So if you paid a cable TV late fee in the class period and you want to make a difference, it would be a good thing to make a claim.

As this thing winds to completion, it’s hard not to reflect on the ups and downs of a long (seven year!) case. It’s been a tough haul, but we knew it would be. In the end I am pleased with the outcome. It’s a big settlement, and a win for consumers. Those are rare, so we savor them.

If you’re class member and you have questions, feel free to contact me, as I will work with class members to make sure that you get your claim filed.

David Sugerman

Reviving the plutocracy–U.S. Supreme Court ends consumer class actions

 

A win for the plutocracy*

Yesterday’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion represents a breathtakingly bad opinion that does profound harm to consumers. It’s a bit geeky, but the takeaway is that this is a huge win for the rich and powerful.

The problem-One of the favorite great business abuses of consumers is the nickel and dime charge. It’s no doubt happened to you. Your bank, credit card company, phone provider, utility, car dealer or cable company has incorrectly charged you a few bucks. Maybe it was a one-time $10 fee on your checking account, or maybe the cable TV company illegally collected a six dollar late fee. But of course, in this era of massive corporate sizing, you are one of a million customers. So at the same time you got billed ten bucks, so did a million other customers. And zotz…just like that…the bank has collected $10 million illegally from its customers.

Here is the tally for those keeping score at home: Bank illegally enriched $10 million. Consumers hosed. That’s why consumers have class actions. With capable counsel and a willing representative, consumers had the tools to fight the nickel and diming problem.

The ruling: The Court effectively ended future consumer class actions with yesterday’s decision. The Court broadly interpreted federal preemption under the Federal Arbitration Act. The Federal Arbitration Act requires courts to enforce valid arbitration agreements. State courts have been ruling that arbitration agreements that limit consumer remedies and ban class actions are not valid under state law. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that those state law rulings were entitled to no deference and were of no effect. Here is the bottom line: No state law may prevent a corporation from: 1) requiring arbitration of all disputes between the consumer and the business; and 2) from prohibiting class actions for those disputes.

What it means for consumers. The problem is that now there will be no class actions for nickel and diming cases, so when a bank, cable company, cell phone provider or car dealer illegally charges a million customers $10, their arbitration clause will be upheld, and consumers will not be able to band together into a class to recover the money.

This will take place soon with emails and letters from cable companies, credit card providers, banks, cell phone companies and the like. It will start with revisions to your credit card agreements, cell phone terms and conditions, and cable terms of service. Buried in that long document will be a change in terms that will add or change the arbitration clause. They will all contain class action bans. Thanks to the Supreme Court, they will likely be enforceable.

Consumers have now been stripped of their abilities to enforce state consumer laws by an over-zealous Supreme Court. Consumer protection will stand and fall on state regulation and state enforcement. Have you seen the state budget lately? I’m sure there’s plenty of extra cash available for consumer protection enforcement. Even with those states that can afford enforcement, the Supreme Court has forced states to increase regulation if states want to have consumer protection. Because God knows–or at least the Roberts Court knows–that private enforcement by consumer class action lawyers is bad for business.

We will either see more regulation, or–more likely–we will see no control. Most businesses operate rationally. If you tell someone that ripping off consumers for $10 million may subject them to a class action case that will cost them that much or more, they will act to avoid facing that liability. But if bending the rules gets you $10 million without consequences, we all know how it ends.

Load up the troughs and get out of the way. Those hogs are hungry!

It’s a win for the plutocrats.

____

*Plutocracy: “[Gk ploutokratia, fr. ploutos wealth] 1: government by the wealthy 2: a controlling class of rich men.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 878 (1979)

 

Culinary schools face regulatory pressure

Here is the link to a recent NPR story regarding culinary schools and the disconnect between culinary careers and the costs of culinary school. Interesting quote from the of Career Education Corp. executive Kirk Bachmann about the calculations of placement rates. He notes that CEC schools do not include Starbucks barristas in their placement rates. As we say at the beginning of a deposition, “Swear the witness. I have a few questions.”

On a side note, Le Cordon Bleu Portland/Western Culinary Institute recently announced plans to drop its associates degree.  We’ll be interested in finding out more about that as well.

Meanwhile, our class action case continues forward against these defendants.  Cases like this are slow, but we are on track.

 

Debt trap: for-profit colleges

One of the best articles I’ve seen recently on for-profit colleges. Please, please, please read this if you or anyone in your family is  thinking about a for-profit school.

From the trenches, we continue to pursue our class action against Le Cordon Bleu Portland (formerly known as Western Culinary Institute) and its parent, Career Education Corp. Consumer fraud class actions are difficult cases.

Best to avoid the damage in the first place by saying no to overpriced for-profit colleges.  Don’t let the slick marketing fool you; you’re often better off at a less-costly community college.

One more thing. To our leaders in Congress, your active oversight can fix this problem. But you need to do more than regulate for the future. A generation of students are effectively underwater for life because of lax regulation. Seems to me that you need to fix this problem.

Smoking gun in toxic injury case against KBR and Halliburton

In today’s Oregonian, Julie Sullivan reports here about a document provided to the soldiers in discovery that is one of those classic smoking guns. In our case, Bixby v. KBR, KBR and Halliburton claim that they didn’t know about the sodium dichromate until late July or August, they claim that they told the Army immediately, they claim that they never used sodium dichromate, and they claim that no one was injured from the exposure.

Against those claims, this pdf document,  Team RIO Mtg Min 02 Oct 2003 MCM00739, tells a very different story. The document is a summary of a meeting in Oct 2003 of members of Team RIO (Restore Iraqi Oil). Representatives from KBR, the Army Corp of Engineers (“USACE”) and Iraq’s Southern Oil Company (“SOC”) were discussing the sodium dichromate contamination of the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant.

Qarmat Ali is where our troops provided security to KBR employees as they worked under their secret, no-bid, $7 billion, cost-plus contract to rebuild Iraqi oil production. The document raises a few questions.   No doubt the soldiers’ legal team will be exploring those questions when we get to trial.