Some Consumer Protection Laws in Massachusetts
Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 93A: What Is It?
Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 93A (“Chapter 93A”), also known as the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, is a state statute that places limitations on business practices. This statute contains prohibitions that businesses must follow and provides legal remedies for consumers. Under Chapter 93A, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has the right to adopt rules and regulations in order to interpret and enforce the law. Chapter 93A also gives the Attorney General and private consumers the right to take legal action against any business that engages in unfair or deceptive practices during trade or commerce. The law allows private consumers to file either an individual lawsuit or a class action lawsuit pursuant to Chapter 93A.
What is prohibited?
According to Chapter 93A, a business’ use of any unfair or deceptive acts or practices during the course of trade or commerce is prohibited. While the law does not provide specific examples of unlawful actions, the broad language used in this prohibition is understood to include a number of acts and practices. Some types of unfair practices include false advertising (such as providing false statements or false representations for a product or a service), deceptive pricing (such as misrepresenting the price of a good), breach of warranty (such as the failure to abide by a written or implied warranty), and breach of contract. Some specific examples of violations of Chapter 93A include, but are not limited to:
- A business charging a consumer a price that is higher than what was marked or advertised; and
- A business concealing or failing to post a clear and understandable refund or return policy; and
- A business using bait and switch advertising; and
- A business, for example, a repossession company, taking a consumer’s collateral without having the present right to do so; and
- A business not giving full and proper disclosures in a financing agreement or lease agreement; and
- A business using unfair, unconscionable, deceptive, misleading, and harassing methods in attempts to collect on a consumer debt; and
- A business knowingly, willfully, and/or recklessly reporting inaccurate information on a consumer’s credit report(s); and
- A business rolling back the odometer on a vehicle before selling it to a consumer; and
- A business committing auto fraud in general; and
- A business invading a consumer’s right to privacy; and
- A business, such as a creditor or debt collector, calling a consumer more than twice in a period of seven days in violation of 940 CMR 7.04(1)(f); and
- A business failing to disclose relevant information about the product or service that the consumer is purchasing, and subsequently misleading the consumer.
Additionally, it is possible that personal injuries and wrongful death claims may be actionable under Chapter 93A. Consumers could collect damages from these types of claims if the injuries were suffered as a result of the violation of another law and if the violation that occurred was unfair or deceptive, as defined by Chapter 93A.
Who does the law apply to, and how can consumers sue?
Chapter 93A applies to any business that engages in trade or commerce. Under Chapter 93A, a consumer can bring suit against a business, but the law does not apply to “consumer versus consumer” cases. In the case of a “consumer versus business” claim, if a consumer is injured by an unfair or deceptive practice that was committed by a business, they have the right to bring an action against the offending business. In their claim, the consumer should be able to prove that they are a private individual “consumer” plaintiff (that they engaged in commerce for household, family, or personal purposes) as opposed to a “business” (where you are engaged in commerce for business purposes); that the actions of the defendant were unfair or deceptive; and that the consumer suffered an ascertainable loss of money or property as a result of the unlawful act or practice.
Businesses buy things too, from other businesses, so it should be noted that M.G.L. c.93A, Section 11 allows a business to sue another business that has acted unfairly or deceptively towards it, for similar relief as is available to individual consumers under Section 9 of Chapter 93A.
In order to have the possibility of attaining treble damages and attorney’s fees and costs from a business, a consumer has to send a pre-suit demand letter to a business, giving the business the opportunity to respond with a reasonable settlement offer within 30 days of its receipt of the demand letter. If the business does not provide a reasonable settlement offer within thirty days of its receipt of the demand letter by a) not responding to the demand letter; b) responding with a refusal to provide a reasonable settlement offer; or c) by making an offer of settlement that is not reasonable, then the consumer is at that point entitled to sue the business for three times its damages, plus its reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. So, as soon as a business does not provide a reasonable settlement offer in response to a 93A demand letter, a consumer can file suit against that business knowing that it can then seek treble damages and attorney’s fees and costs, in addition to the other remedies provided under the statute.
If a consumer does not send a pre-suit demand letter to a business, the consumer can just file suit under Chapter 93A for the other remedies provided under the statute.
A demand letter pursuant to Chapter 93A that is sent directly by a consumer to a business must contain the following information: 1) the full name, and the address of the consumer, 2) a description of the alleged unfair or deceptive act that occurred, and 3) a description of the injury that the consumer suffered. A consumer’s legal representative can also send a Chapter 93A demand letter to a business on the behalf of the consumer.
In the case of consumer class action claims, both federal courts in Massachusetts and Massachusetts state courts allow nationwide class action lawsuits against Massachusetts businesses to be filed in their respective courts under Chapter 93A. Courts have determined that in regard to class action lawsuits pursuant to Chapter 93A, and whether plaintiffs residing in other states can be a part of them, as long as Chapter 93A does not conflict with the state laws of those from other states, class action claims can encompass plaintiffs from across the nation.
What damages are consumers entitled to?
If the consumer’s lawsuit is successful, they are entitled to recover actual damages. A consumer is also entitled to statutory damages of $25.00. Additionally, if the court determines that the unlawful practice was willingly or knowingly committed or that the business refused to provide a reasonable settlement offer in bad faith, the court can increase the consumer’s award to double or triple the amount of their damages, and the consumer could also be awarded with reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.
If the defendant does not provide a reasonable response to the pre-suit demand letter pursuant to Chapter 93A that the consumer sent it before filing a lawsuit, the consumer is entitled to sue for treble damages and attorney’s fees and costs, as mentioned above.
However, if the consumer had previously rejected the defendant’s settlement offer and the court determines that the offer was a reasonable one, the amount of damages that the consumer would be able to receive would be limited to the original amount that was offered in said settlement offer, and a consumer could also not be entitled to treble damages and having their reasonable attorney’s fees and costs paid for by the business.
What is the statute of limitations period?
The statute of limitations period is a legal provision that sets forth the maximum amount of time that a party has to initiate legal proceedings in regard to a particular claim for relief; generally starting from the date that an alleged unlawful action accrued. For claims under Chapter 93A, the statute of limitations period is four years. This means that a consumer generally has to file their lawsuit within four years of the day that the alleged unlawful act was committed.
Are there exemptions?
Chapter 93A does not apply to any transactions or actions that are permitted by laws that are administered by state or federal authorities.
940 CMR 7.00, et seq.: What Is It?
940 CMR 7.00, et seq. (“CMR 7.00”) comprises Massachusetts’ law in regard to debt collection. In Massachusetts, unfair, deceptive, and unreasonable debt collection practices are illegal. CMR 7.00 protects the interests of consumers who face debt collection attempts, by establishing standards for the collect of debts from persons within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, through defining unfair or deceptive acts or practices in regard to debt collection.
What is prohibited?
Under the CMR 7.00, businesses – which includes both creditors and third-party debt collectors – are prohibited from committing a wide variety of unfair and deceptive actions during the debt collection process. For example, they cannot commit illegal acts which include, but are not limited to:
- Threatening that nonpayment of a debt will result in the arrest or imprisonment of any debtor; and
- Threatening action that cannot legally be taken or that is not intended to be taken; and
- Using profane or obscene language; and
- Placing telephone calls at times known to be times other than the normal waking hours of a debtor, or if normal waking hours are not known, at any time other than between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.; and
- Visiting the place of employment of a debtor, unless requested by the debtor, excluding visits which are solely for the purpose of repossessing any collateral or property of the creditor; and
- A creditor implying the fact of a debt, orally or in writing, to persons who reside in the household of a debtor, other than the debtor; and
- Third-party debt collectors and creditors initiating telephone communications (which can include text messages) with debtors more than twice per week, as if a consumer were to receive more than two phone calls from a debt collector or creditor in a period of seven days, a debt collector or creditor would be in violation of this law and would owe the consumer damages, pursuant to 940 CMR 7.04(1)(f); and
- Giving any false or misleading representation that a creditor is an attorney or any other officer of the court; and
- Giving any false, deceptive, or misleading representation, communication, or means in connection with the collection of any debt or to obtain information concerning a debtor.
Who does the law apply to and how can consumers sue?
CMR 7.00 only applies to the collection of debts. No conduct that is not having to do with the collection of debts or any part thereof is affected. A violation of CMR 7.00 would constitute an unfair or deceptive act or practice in violation of Chapter 93A. There is no private right of action under CMR 7.00. Chapter 93A is the vehicle for consumers to use to pursue violations of CMR 7.00 in court through individual civil actions and class actions.
What damages are consumers entitled to?
As mentioned, there is no private right of action under CMR 7.00. A violation of CMR 7.00 is deemed to be a violation of Chapter 93A. Chapter 93A is the vehicle for consumers to use to pursue violations of CMR 7.00 in court through individual civil actions and class actions. Therefore, a consumer would be able to pursue the damages that are available under Chapter 93A as they are outlined above.
What is the statute of limitations?
The statute of limitations period is a legal provision that sets forth the maximum amount of time that a party has to initiate legal proceedings in regard to a particular claim for relief; generally starting from the date that an alleged unlawful action accrued. A violation of CMR 7.00 is deemed to be a violation of Chapter 93A, and therefore the four-year statute of limitations period for filing a claim pursuant to Chapter 93A would apply if pursuing a CMR 7.00 violation through a civil litigation action regarding Chapter 93A.
The statute of limitations period for debt in Massachusetts:
In Massachusetts, most debts generally have a six-year statute of limitations period (the maximum amount of time that a party can have to initiate legal proceedings against a consumer for nonpayment of an alleged debt). That said, different types of debt have different statute of limitations periods. In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations period for auto loan debt is four years, it is six years for credit card debt, it is six years for medical debt, and it is twenty years for mortgage debt. Once the statute of limitations period expires, a creditor cannot successfully sue a consumer for nonpayment of the debt. If a consumer promises to make a payment on an alleged debt, or makes even a small payment, it could potentially restart the clock on the statute of limitations.
Some of the places that a consumer can look to for help or answers to questions:
The laws and statutes discussed above can change. So, in the state that a consumer resides in, a consumer protection agency, the Office of the Attorney General, and/or a consumer protection attorney who is licensed in a consumer’s respective state can help a consumer in getting help, up to date information and interpretations, and/or with determining the answers to their questions in regard to the aforementioned laws. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can assist as well.