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Candice Watkins, On Behalf of Herself, and All Others v. Dineequity

August 28, 2012

CANDICE WATKINS, ON BEHALF OF HERSELF, AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DINEEQUITY, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Jerome B. Simandle

OPINION

SIMANDLE, Chief Judge:

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Candice Watkins, brings a putative class action against Defendants DineEquity, Inc. and Applebee's International, Inc. d/b/a Applebees Neighborhood Grill and Bar ("Applebee's"), d/b/a International House of Pancakes, LLC ("IHOP") (collectively, "Defendants") seeking damages, injunctive relief and other relief under New Jersey's Truth in Consumer Contract Warranty and Notice Act ("NJTCCWNA"). In her single-count Amended Complaint [Docket Item 20], Plaintiff Watkins claims she is a consumer who has purchased soft drink beverages and beers at Defendant's Applebees' and IHOP restaurants in New Jersey that were offered on the menus without prices; she alleges that offering such beverages for sale without indicating the prices violates New Jersey law, in the NJTCCWNA, and is contrary to clearly established New Jersey law requiring point-of-purchase notice of an item's selling price. This action is before the Court on Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). [Docket Item 22.] As will be explained below, Plaintiff has failed to state a prima facie case for violation of NJTCCWNA. The Court will dismiss Count I without prejudice to Plaintiff's right to seek leave to file a curative amendment that states a claim for relief.

II. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Defendants own and operate restaurants, and Defendants' restaurants "use menus created by or on behalf of DineEquity, Applebee's, and/or IHOP." Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 6. The menus Defendants provide to customers do not provide the prices of "soda, beer, mixed drinks, wine, coffee, and ... other beverages." Id. at ¶¶ 8, 9. Ms. Watkins is a consumer who has purchased food and beverages at Applebee's and IHOP franchise locations in New Jersey, and she has purchased beverages (soft drinks and beers) despite the absence of prices on their menus. Id. at ¶ 13.

On October 31, 2011, Ms. Watkins filed this action in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Camden County-Law Division. Notice of Removal ¶ 2. Defendants subsequently removed the action to this court based on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(2)(A)*fn1 and (d)(6).*fn2 Id. at ¶ 8.

On March 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 15(a)(1)(A). On April 9, 2012 Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss. Briefing on the motion is now complete and it is ripe for decision.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard for Motion to Dismiss

In deciding a defendant's 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)).

Thus, "to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 565 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009).

"While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff[] [must] provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' [beyond] labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).

Therefore, after Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to "show" such an entitlement with its facts.

Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-211 (citations omitted). The Court will thus look at Plaintiff's single count to determine what would be required for a plausible case then decide whether the alleged facts are sufficient to satisfy the requirement.

B.Count I: Truth in Consumer Contract Warranty and Notice Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. 56:12-14 et seq.

Plaintiff's sole asserted claim arises under the New Jersey TCCWNA. "The TCCWNA ... prohibits a seller from entering into a contract with a consumer that includes any provision that violates a federal or state law." Bosland v. Warnock Dodge, Inc., 396 N.J. Super. 267, 278 (App. Div. 2007); see also Kent Motor Cars, Inc. v. Reynolds and Reynolds Co., 207 N.J. 428, 457 (2011) ("The purpose of the TCCWNA ... is to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties in consumer contracts.").

The statute provides in relevant part:

No seller, lessor, creditor, lender or bailee shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written consumer contract or give or display any written consumer warranty, notice or sign . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller, lessor, creditor, lender or bailee as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made or the consumer contract is signed or the warranty, notice or sign is given or displayed.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-15. A person who violates NJTCCWNA "shall be liable to the aggrieved consumer for a civil penalty of not less than $100.00 or for actual damages, or both at the election of the consumer, together with reasonable attorney's fees and court costs." N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-17.

In order to bring a claim under NJTCCWNA, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) the plaintiff is a consumer within the statute's definition*fn3 ; (2) the defendant is a seller, lessor, creditor, lender or bailee; (3) the defendant (a) offers or enters into a written consumer contract, or (b) gives or displays any written consumer warranty, notice, or sign; and (4) the offer or written contract, warranty, notice or sign included a provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller.

The critical issues in this case are (1) whether a restaurant menu constitutes an "offer" or a "written consumer contract, warranty, notice or sign"; and (2) whether the omission of prices from a menu falls under the statute's language prohibiting the inclusion of a ...


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