Three consumers who said a pair of Cherry Hill car dealers defrauded them must put their claims before an arbitrator, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled.
The court unanimously ruled on June 5 that fraud claims against Mall Chevrolet and Cherry Hill Mitsubishi are clearly subject to arbitration agreements in their sales contracts, even though the consumers said they’d been duped into signing the deals. The decision reverses an Appellate Division order that favored the consumers, whose cases were initially tossed out by trial courts.
The ruling is a victory for the car dealers, who argued that the question of enforcing arbitration agreements is up to an arbitrator to decide. One of the dealers, Cherry Hill Mitsubishi, is owned by Foulke Management Corp., a politically connected car dealer that has run into legal trouble over its alleged business practices.
Laura Ruccolo, a lawyer for Mall Chevrolet and Foulke Management, did not return a request for comment.
Consumer advocates say arbitration unfairly benefits businesses over consumers.
The customers, Janell Goffe, Sasha Robinson, and Tijuana Johnson, are represented by attorney Charles Riley, who declined comment.
The case stemmed from separate allegations of consumer fraud, but the customers argued the sales contracts they signed were invalid because they said they had been duped into signing the agreements through “fraud and trickery," according to court filings.
Since the consumers challenged the overall contracts -- not just the arbitration clauses -- the disputes are subject to arbitration, the state Supreme Court ruled.
“It is clear to us that plaintiffs attack the sales contracts in their entirety, challenging their formation process and arguing that they are, at best, unenforceable," Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the court opinion. “They do not challenge the language or clarity of the agreements to arbitrate or the broad delegation clauses contained in those signed arbitration agreements.
"In this setting, the Supreme Court’s precedent compels only one conclusion. On the question of who gets to decide plaintiffs’ general claims about the validity of their sales contracts, we hold that an arbitrator must resolve them.”
Goffe says a salesperson told her she was approved for financing a 2013 Buick Verano and would pay $390 per month after a $1,000 down payment and a trade-in. She paid $250 that day in October 2016, with the remaining $750 due two weeks later.
When she returned with the $750, she was told the financing was not approved and she’d have to return the car unless she made a larger down payment and higher monthly payments, according to court filings. She instead took her old car back but says the dealership refused to return her $250 until after she filed a lawsuit seeking treble damages and attorneys’ fees.
In November 2016, Mall Chevrolet allegedly told Robinson she would have two days to return a 2016 Chevy Malibu she purchased and get her money back. When she tried returning the car two days later with her mother, Johnson, car dealer employees said she couldn’t return the car, that the dealer’s previous statement that the deal could be canceled within two days was a mistake, and that she was bound by the documents she signed, according to the opinion. She was ultimately allowed to leave with her former car and promises to get her $1,000 deposit back.
James Appleton, president of New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, said the Supreme Court ruling gives businesses clarity on how they can use arbitration agreements to settle customer disputes.
“The questions surrounding the use of arbitration clauses in consumer contacts have been something that have been bouncing around the state court system in New Jersey for some time,” Appleton said. “We’re gratified the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued a really definitive decision upholding the legitimate use of an arbitration agreement in a consumer contract.”
The Consumers League of New Jersey, which had sided with the customers in the case, did not return a request for comment.