$3.10 in incorrect sales tax leads to $158k in attorney’s fees
Retailers need to be careful when implementing any automated system for calculating sales tax. Even minor errors can lead to a lawsuit if a customer is charged the incorrect sales tax amount. Indeed, there are a number of class action law firms and “professional plaintiffs” who prey upon such mistakes. And even when the amount sought is just a few dollars, any judgment may be accompanied by a substantial bill to pay the successful plaintiff’s attorney fees.
A recent Illinois case illustrates this problem perfectly. The retailer in this case was Sears, one of the country’s best known department stores. The plaintiff was a customer who claimed he paid $3.10 too much in sales tax when he purchased a digital television converter box from Sears.
Converter boxes are a device used to allow older televisions to receive digital broadcast signals. In 2008 and 2009, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a federal agency, distributed $40 “coupons” to subsidize individual purchases of converter boxes. In July 2008, the Illinois Department of Revenue advised retailers in that state they should deduct the coupon before assessing sales tax. In other words, the sales tax only applied on the net price paid by the customer.
In this case, the plaintiff presented a NTIA coupon when he purchased his converted box at Sears, which reduced the net price paid from $59.99 to $19.99. The sales associate, however, added the sales tax to the higher price before applying the coupon. As a result, the plaintiff paid an incorrect sales tax of $4.65 when he only should have paid $1.55, a difference of $3.10.
A law firm later sued Sears, purportedly on behalf of the plaintiff and anyone else who was similarly overcharged. While the law firm eventually abandoned its quest for class action status, a judge agreed the plaintiff was entitled to $3.10 in damages because Sears violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act. The court rejected Sears’ argument that this was a case of predatory lawyers “shopping for a lawsuit,” even though the same plaintiff had reportedly filed “23 class action complaints in the past eight years, using the same attorneys that represent him in this action.”
The judge also awarded the plaintiff’s law firm approximately $158,000 in attorney’s fees. Sears appealed the decision. In December 2015, an Illinois appeals court upheld the $3.10 judgment in favor of the plaintiff but threw out the award of attorney’s fees. It turned out the law firm did not submit proper billing records to the trial court. As the appeals court explained, the attorneys prepared written time sheets detailing their work, entered that information into a computer system, then threw the time slips out and only gave the printouts from the computer system to the court. The appeals court said the trial judge erred in admitting these printouts as evidence in lieu of the original time sheets. While the attorneys are still entitled to compensation, the appeals court said, the trial judge must reconsider the matter using only admissible evidence.
S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info