Reports of restaurants adding a “COVID surcharge” have become widespread during the pandemic. In recent months, cities and states across the nation have implemented a number of measures designed to help struggling restaurants adapt to the new normal. These include allowing restaurants to implement a “surcharge,” as well as capping fees that third-party delivery services can charge restaurants. However, while “surcharges” may be more benign than direct price increases, a recent California price gouging lawsuit demonstrates that restaurants still need to be vigilant in their compliance with state price gouging laws.

In an effort to help struggling restaurants, Cleveland has become the latest city to implement a cap on the amount of fees that third-party food delivery services may charge restaurants. The limitation, passed on December 15, caps third-party delivery fees at 15% of the order. Similarly, Chicago implemented a ban in November, prohibiting third-party food delivery services from charging a delivery fee that is greater than 10% of the order price. Washington Governor Jay Inselee also signed a proclamation in November, capping third-party delivery fees at 15%, and total fees at 18% of the purchase price. Prior to these caps , Los Angeles and Portland implemented similar restrictions.

While some places are implementing food delivery caps, other cities, like New York City, have taken a different approach to helping restaurants during the pandemic, by passing legislation to allow restaurants to add surcharges. In September, the city imposed a temporary “COVID-19 recovery charge” that allows restaurants to add up to 10% to in-person dining bills. According to the bill’s sponsor, “New York was actually the only city that we knew of that actually had a ban . . . [that] prevent[ed] restaurants . . . from applying a surcharge.”

However, the majority of states have not explicitly authorized restaurant surcharges like New York City, and this may create legal uncertainty about their use in those jurisdictions. As we reported, a class action lawsuit was recently brought in California against a restaurant group accused of unjustifiably charging a 10% or 15% so-called ‘service or packaging fee’ for takeout orders. Like most states with price gouging laws on the books, California’s price gouging law applies to consumer food items. Barring any defenses or justifications, such “surcharges” possible could be construed as price increases in contravention of price gouging restrictions if the surcharge exceeds the allowable price increase under the statute.

With indoor dining season underway at significantly reduced capacities, many are hopeful that the coming months will bring additional legislation and measures as cities seek to keep their restaurants afloat. In the meantime, restaurants should be aware of the relevant state price gouging restrictions in the jurisdictions in which they operate when considering whether to implement a surcharge.

 

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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.