Here at the law firm of Thomas R. Breeden, P.C., we fight for consumers who have been wronged in unfair commercial transactions to their detriment. An important tool for protecting consumers in Virginia is the broadly reaching Virginia Consumer Protection Act or VCPA.
We recently wrote an article introducing the main provisions and remedies within the VCPA. As we said there, this legislation provides Virginians the right to sue merchants that have caused financial loss through a variety of fraudulent or deceptive transactions.
VCPA case involving interior-design services
Under the VCPA (and other Virginia state laws), the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2016 ordered an award of about $250,000 for damages, legal fees and lawsuit costs. The case provides instructive application of the Act's legal remedies for a wronged consumer.
According to the unpublished opinion (available on Westlaw at 2016 WL 2739270) in Johnson v. Robert Shields Interiors, Inc., the dispute grew out of a 2014 interior-design contract between Maclean resident Tanya Johnson and a Maryland interior-design company for services in Johnson's home, including space planning, decorating, design and new furniture.
According to the magistrate judge's findings of facts, the parties contracted in September. Defendant agreed to complete work by "Thanksgiving and the holiday season" that year, which did not happen. Johnson had holiday guests without sufficient furniture. In addition, the defendant went over the agreed-upon budgets for services and furniture, and some of the furniture items paid for were "used, damaged, not the item that was ordered, or never delivered."
Johnson also complained of excessive shipping costs, unauthorized markups and commissions benefitting defendant, and unauthorized entry into her home.
Court's application of the VCPA
The court agreed with Johnson that the interior-design company violated the VCPA in the five ways, including having used "deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, or misrepresentation in connection with a consumer transaction ..." under Section 14.
Damages under the VCPA
First, the court may order the defendant for a VCPA violation to pay actual damages or $500, whichever is greater. Here, the judge found:
- Damages of over $46,000 for charging Johnson for furniture that was "damaged, used, or otherwise non-conforming" and unapproved
- Damages of about $24,500 for unauthorized and undisclosed furniture markups
If the VCPA violation was willful, meaning knowing or purposely deceptive, the judge may increase damages to a cap of triple (called treble) the damage amount or $1,000, whichever is higher. Here, the judge found the design company's violations were "clearly willful" when it marked up furniture secretly and without permission, and when it refused to provide evidence of costs.
For this willful violation, the court tripled the markup damages to about $73,500.
The VCPA also allows reasonable legal fees and costs. The court awarded Johnson almost $120,000 in legal fees and about $1,000 in costs. To reach the attorney-fee figure, the court reviewed detailed statements from the plaintiff's law firm.
The court's final damages order was just over $250,000, including:
- About $46,000 for unauthorized or damaged furniture (the court found this violated not only the VCPA, but also was a breach of contract)
- About $73,500 for unauthorized markups ($24,500 in damages times three for willful violation)
- Damages of $10,000 for an emotional distress claim for willful trespass into Johnson's home
- About $120,000 for attorneys' fees
This case clearly illustrates how a court may craft a VCPA damage award. It also shows how the same unlawful anti-consumer conduct can violate more than one state law such as here the VCPA plus state claims for emotional distress plus breach of contract.
We will continue to share in this space information about the VCPA and other consumer-friendly legal remedies for Virginians.