Attorney Tamara Kagan Levine of Green & Levine ()
Hundreds of thousands of people turn to online dating services to help find romance. Many come away disappointed. And some of them file lawsuits.
That includes a 75-year-old Connecticut woman who says she was scammed by a website eLove.com, which promised her 16 introductions to men for $9,500. “This is an unfair situation and I hope something good comes out of it,” said attorney Tamara Kagan Levine, of Green & Levine in Farmington, who represents Bernice Schaefer.
Schaefer, whose husband of 41 years died in 1997, signed a membership agreement with Connecticut Introductions Inc., doing business as eLove Matchmaking, in February 2013. Since then, she claims that she met three men, none of whom had anything in common with her. One showed up drunk, said Schaefer, who was in a relationship with a man from 1998 until he died in 2012.
She asked for her money back, but the company did not comply, she claims.
According to the complaint, eLove — based in Norwell, Mass. — has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau and has 143 complaints listed against it. Levine is claiming the company breached its contract and violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. “I think that both claims are equally valid,” Levine said.
CUTPA allows anyone who lost money or property due to unfair or deceptive trade practices to sue a company and collect damages for losses. It grants the court discretion to award punitive damages, attorney fees and other relief. “They clearly solicit the public. They were looking for seniors,” Levine said, adding that Schaefer received a mailing from the company.
Levine, who typically is a real estate transactional lawyer, said that she took the case because she knows the client personally and was upset to hear how little she received for her payment. “She’s an extremely bright woman. She’s got her act together. She felt humiliated and annoyed,” Levine said.
Levine said that eLove hasn’t yet formally responded to the lawsuit, which was filed in January. ELove did not respond to emails from the Law Tribune seeking comment. A phone call was answered by a customer service representative, who hung up the phone before any questions could be asked.
There have been a number of high-profile lawsuits brought against dating websites in recent years.
In 2010, eHarmony Inc. settled a national class action brought by gay and lesbian couples who said the dating site violated their civil rights. The case, Carlson v. eHarmony, was filed in 2007 on behalf of a class of gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals in California who alleged that they were unable to use the company’s website to be matched with same-sex partners.
The company did not admit any wrongdoing, but agreed to make changes, so consumers could select “man seeking man” or “woman seeking woman” options from a drop-down menu on the eHarmony.com homepage.
Also in 2010, plaintiffs in a class action filed against Match.com claimed the website breached its contract by luring customers to join even though profiles of potential mates were inactive or fraudulent. A federal judge in 2012 dismissed most of those claims.
Late last year, another class action lawsuit was filed against Match.com in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. In that lawsuit, a Florida swimsuit model claims Match.com violated copyright law and committed common law fraud by allowing fake profiles that used real people’s pictures without their consent.
The complaint calls the fake profiles on Match.com “one of the biggest conspiracies ever executed on the internet.” The complaint, which was filed by Manhattan attorney Evan Spencer, seeks $500 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. Match has denied most of the claims, but the case remains pending.
Individuals have also filed claims against the websites, complaining about the people they were matched up with. A Las Vegas woman asked for $10 million in damages after a dating site matched her with a man who stabbed her 10 times and was later arrested for murdering another woman.
“The basis of the lawsuit is the advertising that is utilized by Match.com, lulling women and men into a false sense of security,” attorney Marc Saggese told a Las Vegas television station.
Connecticut lawyers who typically deal with consumer-related complaints said they have not encountered many complaints against dating websites here.
New Haven lawyer Elizabeth Yen, a member of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Consumer Law Practice Section, said that it appears to her that such sites are fairly well-protected against lawsuits by their user agreements. She glanced at the Match.com website and found a lengthy, 24-section agreement that potential customers must sign off on.
For example, in one section, in all capital letters, the user agreement states that consumers are “solely responsible for interactions with other members.” It goes on to say the site doesn’t conduct background checks of other members. The next subsection states that “in no event shall the company, its affiliates or its partners be liable (directly or indirectly) for any losses or damages whatsoever, whether direct, indirect, general, special, compensatory, consequential, and/or incidental, arising out of or relating to the conduct of you or anyone else in connection with the use of the website.”
Said Yen: “That’s the core contract right there. That’s the starting point, that’s the legally binding document you must indicate you understand to become a member.”
Another member of the CBA Consumer Law Section, who did not wish to be identified for this article because of potential conflicts, agreed the sites would be hard to sue. They don’t “make promises” about the quality of their match-making, he said.
“They may say ’1 out of x [people] found a mate on our site,’ but that does not strike me as false advertising. It is a subjective view,” the lawyer said. “Of course, there are attorneys with fertile imaginations and disaffected clients who did not meet the match of their dreams, and maybe [met] only frogs.”
Daniel Blinn, managing partner of the Consumer Law Group in Rocky Hill, said he represented three different plaintiffs in lawsuits against a dating service, but that was over 10 years ago, “before the online dating websites started taking off.”
From what he could recall of the cases, which all settled, they involved claims that “buyers’ remorse clauses,” which would allow dating service customers to opt out of the service within three days, were not being honored.
“I think the emergence of online dating websites have removed the need for what used to be aggressive sales pitches,” Blinn said. “So people sign up on their own, without talking to a sales person. I think we don’t hear as many complaints, when a person makes the decision to sign up for something on their own, without a sales pitch.”
As for the current Connecticut case, Bruce Elstein, of Goldman, Gruder & Woods in Norwalk, said that attorney Levine and client Schaefer might have a good CUTPA case. He said they need to prove just one of three elements: whether a company’s conduct offends a public policy, whether it’s immoral or unethical or whether there is substantial injury to the consumer.
Elstein, whose specialty is commercial litigation and personal injury law, said CUPTA is designed to address a business practice where a company is “telling clients one thing and doing another.”