VW Clean Diesel Fraud and the “Goodwill” Package

I spent most of last week at the National Consumer Rights Litigation Conference in San Antonio. Among the many benefits is the chance to visit with colleagues who are the best consumer-side advocates in the country. I caught up with my colleague, Elizabeth Cabarser, one of the most talented consumer lawyers I know, and we had a chance to visit about the VW customer goodwill package. Elizabeth pointed out this order StipOrdReGoodwillProgram USDC MI from the U.S. District Court in Michigan, in which Volkswagen stipulated that participation in the program would not impact claims in the fraud case against it.

This is an important development for those who are concerned about the fine-print in the loyalty cards. Elizabeth and her team in Michigan have done a great job in getting this order entered. It’s stronger because Volkswagen stipulated to the order. That means that the issue is completed, and there is no effective means of appealing. This is a good development.

Let’s not lose sight of a few things. These benefits are mixed, and they are tiny. There is still a problem that it looks to me like VW is trying to establish a direct link with customers. Also, it’s possible that part of this is being done so that VW lawyers can point to all the good things they did, in order to argue that VW should not be punished for their misconduct.

That said, for those consumers who wish to take advantage of these benefits, the order provides protection.

David

VW Customer Care Diesel Fraud: Hello South Dakota

Volkswagen announced its customer care program for consumers cheated by the clean diesel fraud. The program gives consumers who register a $500 Visa gift card, a $500 dealer coupon, and three years of free roadside assistance.

The last two benefits are nothing more than slick marketing, designed to drive sales. The first–that Visa card–comes with some wicked fine print.

You have to root around in the shiny website to find the cardholder agreement, and then you have to page through that to get to this gem:

“10. WAIVER OF RIGHT TO TRIAL BY JURY
YOU AND WE ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THE RIGHT TO TRIAL BY
JURY IS A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT BUT MAY BE WAIVED IN CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES. TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, YOU AND WE KNOWINGLY AND VOLUNTARILY WAIVE ANY RIGHT TO TRIAL BY JURY IN THE EVENT OF LITIGATION ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THIS AGREEMENT. THIS JURY TRIAL WAIVER SHALL NOT AFFECT OR BE INTERPRETED AS MODIFYING IN ANY FASHION THE DISPUTE CLAUSE SET FORTH IN THE FOLLOWING SECTION, IF APPLICABLE, WHICH CONTAINS ITS OWN SEPARATE JURY TRIAL WAIVER.

IN THE EVENT OF ANY DISPUTE OR CLAIM RELATING IN ANY WAY TO THIS AGREEMENT, CUSTOMER AGREES THAT SUCH DISPUTE SHALL BE RESOLVED BY BINDING ARBITRATION WITH THE AMERICAN ARBITRATION ASSOCIATION, UTILIZING THE RULES OF PROCEDURE OF SUCH ARBITRATION SERVICE, FURTHER, ANY SUCH ARBITRATION SHALL TAKE PLACE IN SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA AND THE LAWS OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA SHALL APPLY. THE DECISION OF AN ARBITRATOR WILL BE FINAL….”

Show of hands: So who wants to go to Sioux Falls to have their case decided by a professional, corporate arbitrator?

It is unclear whether VW is trying to capture the Diesel Fraud claims in this arbitration clause, but the language is broad enough to raise serious questions.

And of course, VW is trying to buy consumers’ loyalty for $1,000. Seems kind of cheap, given the scope of this multi-billion dollar fraud.

At bottom, this is risky business.

-David

VW Diesel Fraud–New filing: Bricker v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

Catching up. Last week, we filed Bricker v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., U.S. District Court Case No. 3:15-cv-01785-PK (D. Or.) Along with my frequent collaborator, Oregon attorney Tim Quenelle, I joined forces with my friends at colleagues at Cohen & Malad from Indianapolis.

For those who like such things, here is a copy of the complaint: 1 – Complaint. The case is filed as a national class action. It protects the interests of anyone who purchased or leased one of the affected VW Group vehicles.

The case arises out of the well-publicized diesel engine fraud for Volkswagen “clean diesel” vehicles. In selling various VW and Audi diesel vehicles, the Volkswagen Group represented that these vehicles were high mileage and way low on emissions. As has been widely noted in the press, the high-dollar fraud rested upon sophisticated cheat code or defeat device that switched the vehicles’ operating modes when they were being operated in a parked condition for emissions testing.

The “clean” low-emissions mode did not and could not operate while actual consumers drove the vehicles. Instead of driving green, clean diesel cars, class members were driving dirty diesel vehicles that violated pollution standards.

People paid premium prices for these clean vehicles. In Oregon and Washington, especially, green consumers pay extra for earth-friendly products. VW hyped that clean, green technology in its sales and marketing efforts, and they made a mint. The clean diesel products pushed VW to the number one position in worldwide car sales.

No surprise that we’re hearing from a lot of people. We’ve developed an initial information email for those who have questions. Feel free to email me at david@davidsugerman.com if you need more information, and we’ll mail out the initial information. (I have not posted it here because doing so destroys confidentiality. And we really, really don’t want to do that.)

The case is almost certainly going to be treated as a multi-district litigation (“MDL”) case. When cases are assigned to the MDL, the rules and processes are different. Once it is assigned–probably not for a few months–I’ll update with more information.

In addition to our email packet, I would recommend connecting with us on Facebook if you are concerned about these issues. We tend to post there more frequently.  And of course, if our information and FB posts don’t answer your questions, feel free to call or email.

-David

Update: Scharfstein v. BP West Coast Products (Oregon ARCO gas debit card fees)

There have been two important developments in our win over BP. The case involves illegal debit card charges for gas purchases at Oregon ARCO stations. Details on the history are here with a few additional posts here.

A bit of a summary first. Our claim process was a smashing success. Over 1.7 million people, roughly 83 percent of the class, made claims. That’s an awesome result in any class action.

So two things happened this month. First, the Oregon Legislature passed and Gov. Kate Brown signed HB 2700, a bill that changes how unclaimed money is handled in class actions. BP opposed the bill. Here is an awesome insider’s view of some of the many gyrations and personalities that BP hired to kill the bill. (Love the comments, especially!)

Anyway, the bill appears to apply to this case. BP disputes that, of course. So what does it mean? Well, it means that Judge LaBarre must sort out whether it applies and–if it does–how to go forward to finish what needs to be done before entry of judgment. As a lawyer who practices in these areas, I am fairly certain that the bill applies to our case. So that’s the easy part. Then comes the “Now what?” portion, and my guess is that that will slow entry of judgment.

The good news is that BP must pay 100 percent of the value of the verdict. They don’t get to keep the money. Better yet, the money goes to legal aid and other worthy related purposes to benefit consumers. Best of all, we are talking about roughly $60 million dollars.

The only downside is that it slows down our case somewhat, and it gives BP a big issue to argue on appeal. We don’t really get to choose here, so we’ll take the bitter with the sweet and move on toward wrapping everything up in the trial court. Not sure when that will be by the way. But after we get it wrapped up, BP has indicated that it will appeal. As we’ve said many times over, the appeal could take years. And of course, there is always a risk that BP will overturn the verdict on appeal.

But let’s be very clear about something: They want more fight? We got more fight. David is not intimidated by Goliath.

I mentioned two things happened. The second happened earlier this week. Judge LaBarre ruled on the fee petition. As we explained in the class notice, we were going to ask the court for no more than 20 percent, or $40 per class member.  Judge LaBarre granted part but not all of our requested fees.

Each class member’s share of fees is $35.15 or 17.57 percent. (If you want a comparison to an individual case, we usually charge individual consumers 33-40 percent, depending on whether the case settles before trial.) So when and if final payday comes around, each class member should receive $164.85, plus interest, if the case goes all way to the bitter end.

So that’s the news from the trenches. Thanks for your continuing patience. Keep in mind that we do updates on our Facebook page, so if you’re a user, you can find news there about this case and other pending major cases against KBR and Career Education Corp. If you’re a Twitter user, I am @DavidSug, though that’s not really a work account. Note that I do not offer legal advice in response to comments on our blog or on Facebook or Twitter. It’s not that I’m unwilling to answer questions. It’s more that we are required ot protect your confidentiality. And we take that seriously. So feel free to call (503.228.6474) or email me davidATdavidsugerman.com if you have questions.

-David

BP class action update: Claim time!

The claim process has started in our consumer fraud class action against BP for illegal debit card fees at Oregon ARCO stations. We’re getting a lot of calls, emails, and questions on our Facebook page.

And on top of it all, ice and snow have moved into Portland. So it looks like I may not be able to get to my office to answer calls today.

A few details and updates.

1) One common question is “How do I make a claim?

There are two ways. If we recover your name and address, you’ll get a notice that says you’re in. If you get a letter, you don’t have to do anything more to make your claim.

The notices are starting to go out this week and will continue as we get more names and addresses. We have about 500,000 letters going out this week. I’m hoping that we’ll get another million names and addresses.

To keep your data secure, I do not have direct access to it, so I can’t look up whether we’ve recovered your data.

For those people whose records we do not recover, you will need to file a claim form. Very important: We can’t file for you because you need to fill out the form.

Here is the link to the claim form

2) More information

The official court-approved website is here

FAQ’s on the official website are here.

If you want more of a flavor of the history of this fight, you can read blog posts collected here.

3) What will consumers who make claims get?

The jury verdict means a maximum of $200 for each consumer who paid the illegal debit card fee between January 1, 2011 and August 30, 2013. The court may deduct up to $40 from each claim to contribute to fees and expenses. We’re asking the court to order BP to pay all the fees–we don’t know how the court will rule. Bottom line: Depending on the court’s ruling, each person who makes a valid claim will get $160-200.

4) When do I get my money?

Great question. Don’t go spending it yet. BP tells us they will appeal. That may well take years. If BP wins on appeal, we may not collect a dime. (And by “we,” I mean you and me!) But if we keep winning, you also get interest at 9 percent on your claim.

5) What’s next?

We hope to finish the claim process by December 31. There is an attorney fee hearing in February. (Sorry, I don’t have the date at fingertips but will make sure it gets posted on the official site.)

We’re pleased with our progress, but there is far to go. My promise to you: Our legal team will keep fighting until we see this thing through.  We’ll also do our best to answer questions and get back to you, but we’re buried in this, so please be patient.

Best contact for me is david@davidsugerman.com or by phone 503.228.6474. Thanks for you patience and your support.

David Sugerman

Sallie Mae collections against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland students?

In our ongoing case against Career Education Corp. and Western Culinary Institute/ Le Cordon Bleu Portland, we’re continuing our work on the appeal. Background here.

There is an interesting development that may or may not be related. We’re hearing occasional reports that Sallie Mae may be upping its collection activities.

Sallie Mae recently sued a family from the Southern California culinary school in court. We also know that Sallie Mae has been contacting WCI/Le Cordon Bleu Portland students about outstanding balances.

The team is on the lookout for cases in which Sallie Mae has filed a collection lawsuits in court against Western Culinary/Le Cordon Bleu-Portland graduates.  If Sallie Mae starts to sue Oregon culinary students in Oregon court, we want to hear about it. It could have major impact on our case and help many, many graduates of Western Culinary/Le Cordon Bleu Portland.

So this is a bit of a reach out to WCI/Le Cordon Bleu-Portland graduates: If you are sued in a collections case by Sallie Mae, please call or contact us immediately. While it would certainly be a frightening prospect if Sallie Mae sues, it may provide us with significant opportunities.

If you are sued, it is very important that you act act quickly upon receipt of the papers. Usually we have 30 days from the date you are served within which to file an appearance. So that would make quick action important.

Because of the importance of this issue, feel free to circulate this to other graduates of Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland who are facing collections from Sallie Mae.

Meanwhile, we continue our work on the case against CEC. They may have slowed down the process, but we remain confident that they will face their day of reckoning.

David Sugerman

 

Case update: Consumer fraud case against BP headed to trial

Yesterday, Judge LaBarre ruled from the bench on the parties’ motions for summary judgment in our pending consumer fraud against BP. He denied all motions. The case is going to trial.

Background on the case is here, here, and here. It arises out of BP gas sales at ARCO and am-pm mini-markets.

BP charges debit card customers a $.35 debit card fee but does not disclose the charge on its street signs, on its price signs or on its pumps.

Consumers argue that BP’s undisclosed debit card charge violates Oregon rules on gasoline sales.  The consumer fraud claim arises under the Oregon Unlawful Trade Practices Act, ORS 646.608(1)(u).

The Court deferred hearing the class certification motion until August 30, but that motion is fully briefed and ready to go. The Court took up the summary judgment motions. BP argued that it was entitled to summary judgment for a number of reasons, including that it wasn’t required to tell consumers that debit card users would be charged a fee on gas purchases.

A three-hour oral argument put both parties’ positions to the test.

Judge LaBarre announced his decision from the bench, ordered BP to obtain electronic data, and set a schedule for the remainder of the case, including a trial that starts January 13, 2014.

Good progress, to be sure. But far to go.

David Sugerman

Update: Career Education Corp files its appeal brief

For those interested, Career Education Corp and Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland filed their appeal brief in our long-running consumer fraud class action, Surrett v. Western Culinary Institute. The brief is long and technical. It focuses on things like arbitration clauses and class action procedure. If you’re really interested, I’ve uploaded it here: Brief – CEC WCI Opening Brief.   (Note: if you’re interested enough to read it for fun, it occurs to me that you might need a hobby. But I digress.)

We are fortunate to have recruited Portland attorney Maureen Leonard to lead on the appeal. In addition to being a dear friend, Maureen is a talented and well-respected lawyer who limits her practice to appeals. We will file a responding brief, and then CEC/WCI files a reply. After their final brief, the appeal will be set for oral argument. There is no firm timeline for when we will be through the appeal process. That said, we are committed to the case and will see it through to the end.

I will post our completed brief once it is up and the occasional update when we have more news. Meantime, thanks for your interest and patience.

David

Economic Fairness Oregon weighs in on ending the consumer fraud exemption for insurance companies

Nice piece here at Blue Oregon from Economic Fairness of Oregon relating to the need to end the consumer fraud exemption for insurance companies. Disclosure: When it comes to EFO, I’ve long been an unabashed  fanboy–they do tremendous pro-consumer work.

HB 3160-A is pending in the Oregon Senate. To my way of thinking this isn’t a blue or red issue. Last I checked, insurance companies don’t discriminate based on political affiliation. They hose the D’s and the R’s, those who live in the city and those who live in the country, the rich and the poor. The things that divide us simply do not matter when it comes to insurance companies taking advantage.

Let’s hope our State senate is listening to EFO and constituents who are pushing on this issue. It’s time to end the special break for insurance companies. Like every other business, they should be covered by Oregon consumer fraud laws.

Let’s end Oregon insurance companies exemption from Oregon consumer protection laws

Great KOIN-6 News report here KOIN-6 Iteam Hold Oregon insurers accountable highlighting the loophole that gives Oregon insurance companies a pass on Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practice Act, our signature consumer protection law.

A pending bill, HB 3160-A would close the loophole. The bill amends the Oregon Unlawful Trade Practices Act to cover insurance companies.  Like all other Oregon businesses, insurance companies should be held to basic levels of fairness when dealing with consumers. It is time that our legislators act to rein in those insurance companies that engage in fraud and abuse.

That’s why we support HB 3160-A. You should too.