LEGAL FILE

Judge grants N.J. store arbitration in suit alleging bait and switch

Call it bad luck, maybe, but here’s a tale drawn from court documents in a dissatisfied customer’s lawsuit against a dealership in Cherry Hill, N.J.

A series of mechanical problems occurred in the weeks immediately after Alma Bullock bought a used 2012 Nissan Versa for $13,000 in September 2013 from Cherry Hill Triplex, which sells Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Ram, Kia and Mitsubishi vehicles.

She had come to the store in response to a newspaper ad for a 2010 Honda but instead was shown the Versa. After she brought the Versa back for servicing a third time within a month, the dealership offered to exchange it for a used 2011 Jeep Patriot, plus an additional $1,985.

She agreed.

The Patriot also had mechanical problems and failed inspection, but the store refused to make repairs recommended by an independent technician, the suit claims. It did, however, offer to lease Bullock a new 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport but gave her only $10,000 credit for the Patriot.

She agreed.

After contacting consumer affairs specialists at local TV stations and an attorney, she sued, alleging bait-and-switch tactics involving consumer protection, Truth in Lending, Uniform Commercial Code and Magnuson-Moss violations, plus fraud and related claims.

But what about the six arbitration provisions she signed -- two for each transaction?

‘Simple, straightforward’

Bullock challenged their validity, asserting that “she was besieged by a myriad of contracts, none of which she understood,” and asserted that the dealership didn’t give her copies of some documents. The agreements included a 180-day limitation period for claims to be filed.

A federal judge in Philadelphia has now found the agreements to be enforceable and, siding with the dealership, has ordered arbitration.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky rejected Bullock’s arguments that the arbitration clauses were unconscionable and that the dealership used “coercive sales tactics” and “high pressure sales methods” to force her to sign them.

The judge said the arbitration provisions were printed in bold, capital letters “placed directly above the customer’s signature line.” The clause was “simple, straightforward and not complex.”

And even if Bullock’s dealings with the store had been a “harrowing experience for her,” that was insufficient to invalidate the arbitration agreements, the judge said. He didn’t discuss the merits of the claims.

Lesson for dealers

Dealership lawyer Laura Ruccolo of Mt. Laurel, N.J., said the lesson for dealers is that “the cleaner the arbitration agreement, the more prominent it is and the easier it is to read, the more likely it is to be enforced.”

Ruccolo also said Bullock has already filed an arbitration demand and the case may proceed to arbitration by next March.

Plaintiff’s lawyer Jason Greshes of Ambler agreed that arbitration generally moves quickly but said the key issue for Bullock was the provision requiring claims to be filed within 180 days. He said that time limit is “extremely short” in comparison to the four-year statute of limitations for Magnuson-Moss and lemon law claims.

You can reach Eric Freedman at freedma5@autonews.edu

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