On November 24, 2020, a class action price gouging claim was filed against a California based operator of casual fine dining restaurants. The class action lawsuit against Hillstone Restaurant Group alleges price gouging in violation of California Penal Code §396. According to the lawsuit, “Hillstone engaged in unfair and unlawful business practices by increasing its price on food items and also unjustifiably charging a 10% or 15% so-called ‘service or packaging fee’ for takeout orders.” The lawsuit further states that “despite increasing the cost of its food items and adding this Fee, there has been no change in the quality or quantity of the food sold or the packaging being offered for pickup by consumers as compared to Hillstone’s pre-pandemic offerings.” Plaintiffs seek restitution, injunctive relief, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages. The complaint is striking not only because it shows the extent to which plaintiffs will bring claims at the margins of price gouging restrictions, but also for the glimpse it gives into what may be the coming wave of price gouging claims in 2021.

When California’s price gouging law was activated on March 4, 2020, observers expected the focus of price gouging enforcement and litigation would be on goods and services most readily associated with the pandemic: necessary food products, medical supplies such as facemasks or hand sanitizer, and other goods required in emergencies.  In a move, however, that is being seen with increasing frequency, plaintiffs are finding broad application of the pricing restrictions, and a swath of potential claims. In the Hillstone case, a restaurant group was sued for, among other allegations, adding a $13.50 service charge to a $90 dollar order of sushi and barbecue ribs. While Hillstone started charging a “service and packaging fee,” the complaint alleges that it is “unclear what precisely the Fee is being charged for” given that plaintiffs allege that paper receipts referred to either a “service fee” or a “packaging fee.” Nationwide, prospective plaintiffs are scrutinizing all aspects of pricing decisions.

At least two key takeaways come immediately to mind: (1) plaintiffs will continue to not only target businesses operating well above relevant state price gouging baselines, but also those who operate right at the margin set by state law; and (2) any company whose product is covered by a state price gouging law must maintain strict compliance measures to guard against potential claims. While many price gouging lawsuits in the early days of the pandemic targeted companies for increasing prices on emergency supplies by two or three times what they were charging before the pandemic, the fact that plaintiffs in this case are targeting a 10-15% service packaging fee in a state that caps price increases at 10% serves as reminder that compliance with all applicable pricing restrictions will be critical for the foreseeable future – we are in unusual times.

The Hillstone matter also provides a case study for all businesses dealing with price gouging restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some restaurants like Hillstonehave found themselves on the punitive side of California’s attempt to protect consumers, elsewhere California restaurants have benefited from local ordinances that cap fees for app-based delivery companies like Uber and Doordash at 15%. These measures, currently gaining steam in Santa Clara County and already in effect in San Mateo County and elsewhere, are meant to protect restaurants as their revenue streams shift increasingly towards delivery and takeout food, and away from in restaurant meals. Restaurants find themselves as both the target, and the intended beneficiary, of price gouging laws in California.  

As lawmakers continue to lean heavily on pricing controls to protect consumer welfare during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as prospective plaintiffs look for foot-fault opportunities to bring high dollar claims, compliance with the patchwork of pricing controls in place has become the order of the day.

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Visit Proskauer on Price Gouging for antitrust insights on COVID-19.

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Proskauer’s cross-disciplinary, cross-jurisdictional Coronavirus Response Team is focused on supporting and addressing client concerns. Visit our Coronavirus Resource Center for guidance on risk management measures, practical steps businesses can take and resources to help manage ongoing operations.

Photo of Christopher E. Ondeck Christopher E. Ondeck

Chris Ondeck is co-chair of the Firm’s nationwide Antitrust Group. He represents clients in civil and criminal antitrust litigation, defending mergers and acquisitions before the U.S. antitrust agencies, defending companies involved in government investigations, and providing antitrust counseling.

Chris has handled antitrust matters…

Chris Ondeck is co-chair of the Firm’s nationwide Antitrust Group. He represents clients in civil and criminal antitrust litigation, defending mergers and acquisitions before the U.S. antitrust agencies, defending companies involved in government investigations, and providing antitrust counseling.

Chris has handled antitrust matters for clients in a number of industries, including advertising, aerospace, alcoholic beverages, appliances, building materials, consumer products, defense, franchise, medical devices, metals, mining, natural resources, oil and gas, packaging, pharmaceuticals, software and telecommunications. He also has developed substantial experience advising clients regarding the application of the antitrust laws to the pharmaceutical industry, the agriculture industry, trade associations and the energy industry.

Photo of John R. Ingrassia John R. Ingrassia

When competition or antitrust questions arise, John Ingrassia is sought out for his knowledge, reputation and credentials.

John is a recognized authority on Hart-Scott-Rodino antitrust merger review, and for more than 20 years has counselled businesses facing the most challenging antitrust issues and…

When competition or antitrust questions arise, John Ingrassia is sought out for his knowledge, reputation and credentials.

John is a recognized authority on Hart-Scott-Rodino antitrust merger review, and for more than 20 years has counselled businesses facing the most challenging antitrust issues and helped them stay out of the crosshairs — whether its distribution, pricing, channel management, mergers, acquisitions or joint ventures.

John is a senior counsel at the Firm, advising on the full range of antitrust matters in diverse industries, including chemicals, pharmaceutical, medical devices, telecommunications, financial services and health care, among others.  His practice focuses on the analysis and resolution of antitrust issues related to mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures, and the analysis and assessment of pre-merger notification requirements. John has extensive experience with the legal, practical, and technical requirements of merger clearance and is regularly invited to participate in Federal Trade Commission and bar association meetings regarding Hart-Scott-Rodino practice issues.

Photo of Kelly Landers Hawthorne Kelly Landers Hawthorne

Kelly Landers Hawthorne is an associate in the Litigation Department.

While at Columbia, she served as an articles editor of the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts and was involved with the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic.  She also worked as…

Kelly Landers Hawthorne is an associate in the Litigation Department.

While at Columbia, she served as an articles editor of the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts and was involved with the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic.  She also worked as a judicial intern for the Honorable Sandra Townes of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Kelly is a Teach For America alumnus and taught middle school special education and math in Washington, D.C. prior to law school.

Photo of Jennifer Tarr Jennifer Tarr

Jennifer E. Tarr is a senior associate in the Litigation Department, and a member of Proskauer’s Sports Law and Antitrust Groups. She regularly litigates on behalf of sports leagues and counsels clients active in the sports industry on a variety of matters, including…

Jennifer E. Tarr is a senior associate in the Litigation Department, and a member of Proskauer’s Sports Law and Antitrust Groups. She regularly litigates on behalf of sports leagues and counsels clients active in the sports industry on a variety of matters, including issues pertaining to antitrust, team relocation, league governance, contract disputes, sponsorship and fan-league relationships.

In addition to sports antitrust work, Jennifer also has experience counseling and defending clients on issues related to mergers and acquisitions, claims related to unlawful conspiracy and anticompetitive agreements, monopolization claims, and price fixing claims. Jennifer is also a member of the firm’s price gouging team.

In 2019, she was a panelist on the Environmental Law Institute’s Managing Private Sector Environmental Initiatives panel, where she spoke about the Antitrust Implications of Corporate Environmental Collaborations.

Jennifer maintains an active pro bono practice and is a member of the Firm’s Pro Bono Committee. She received Proskauer’s Golden Gavel Award for excellence in pro bono work in 2018 and 2019.

Prior to joining Proskauer, Jennifer clerked for the Honorable Lorna G. Schofield on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She also was a Staff Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, where she represented clients as lead counsel in litigation before multiple federal district and appellate courts and in federal mediation.

While in law school, Jennifer was a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, one of three honors societies at the law school and the nation’s oldest student-run legal services center. In that capacity, she argued and won a case of first impression before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. She also argued over 20 motions in state trial court and successfully represented clients in federal mediation and before federal administrative tribunals.