Hotel companies could soon be facing class action suits over fees for morning newspapers in the wake of a recently filed complaint in federal court in California. A Sacramento man accuses Hilton Group, PLC, Hilton International, Inc. and Hilton Hotels Corporation (collectively "Hilton") of unfair business practices for allegedly concealing a 75-cent per newspaper fee after his stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Sonoma County Airport.
In the complaint filed July 27, 2011, the hotel guest alleges Hilton hid confirmation of the daily fee and an opt-out provision in fine print on the guestroom keycard sleeve handed to him at check-in. The hotel's itemized invoice made no reference to the fee: "The word 'newspaper' does not appear anywhere on this invoice and there is no mention of any charge relating to a newspaper." If a guest opts out of receiving the newspaper, then a 75-cent credit appears on the invoice. The plaintiff alleges that he did not read or otherwise use the newspaper. In a lengthy diatribe, the plaintiff alleges that the newspaper policy results in waste of resources and environmental pollution because newspapers produce greenhouse gases, cause deforestation and result in garbage accumulation. The complaint seeks to certify a nationwide class and alleges that an estimated 7 million U.S. residents unwittingly paid the newspaper fee at Hilton hotels.
The suit asserts three claims: unfair business practices under California's Unfair Competition Law (UCL), violation of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), and common-law unjust enrichment.
The complaint may not survive a pleadings challenge. A fair reading of the allegations is that a newspaper is included in the room charge and that one can opt out of receiving the newspaper by notifying the front desk. That is why there is no charge on the invoice and that is why there is a credit on the invoice if one opts out. Understood in this light, the allegations should not be held to support a claim under the fraud prong of the UCL or any fraudulent activity under the CLRA: the conduct is not deceptive; the element of reliance is missing; and there is no loss of money or property under the UCL nor damages under the CLRA.
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