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Great Expectations, an Internet dating service, fell short of the expectations of two Manhattan women and must refund their membership fees, a Manhattan judge has ruled. The women’s transactions with Great Expectations, one of the nation’s oldest and best-known dating services, are subject to New York state’s Dating Services Law, Civil Court Judge Diane A. Lebedeff ruled. Under this law, Great Expectations charged vastly beyond the legal limit for the services provided, Lebedeff concluded. The company’s contract also “violated every mandate of the Dating Service Law” except one, the provision of a three-day “cooling-off” right to cancel. “Where, as here, the dating service does not assure it will furnish a client with a specified number of social referrals per month, the service may charge no more than twenty-five dollars,” Lebedeff wrote in Doe and Roe v. Great Expectations, 3034/05 and 3824/05. Under this ruling, essentially all of Great Expectations’ New York clients have been charged hundreds or thousands of dollars above the legal limit. In this case, one woman was charged $1,000 and the other $3,790. Lebedeff forwarded copies of the ruling to the Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Unit and the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. “You’re talking about putting the whole singles industry out of business” if the case is upheld and followed, said Great Expectations’ owner, attorney Mitchell Brandt. Great Expectations contends that the Dating Services Law does not cover the services it provides. The plaintiffs, Jennifer Doe and Debra Roe, initiated the actions separately. Lebedeff consolidated the actions because of the similarities of the claims. She also changed the names of the plaintiffs, who both filed pro se, to protect their privacy. Doe paid Great Expectations $1,000 for a six-month contract. Roe paid $3,790 for a 36-month contract, which was subsequently extended to 54 months, according to the decision. Great Expectations, founded in 1976, agreed to post their videos and profiles on a Web site, which other Great Expectations clients could review. Those clients could then contact Doe or Roe. During the course of their memberships, one person contacted Doe and none contacted Roe. The two women filed suit separately in Manhattan’s small claims court, seeking the return of their membership fees. Lebedeff determined that General Business Obligation Law �394[1][a], also known as the Dating Services Law, applied to the contracts. The law regulates “social referral services,” which it defines as “any service for a fee providing matching of members of the opposite sex, by use of computer or any other means, for the purpose of dating and general social contact.” After determining the controlling statute, Lebedeff found two “departures” from compliance. ‘MASSIVE OVERCHARGE’ “First, there was a massive overcharge by the dating service,” Lebedeff ruled. “Where, as here, the dating service does not assure it will furnish a client with a specified number of social referrals per month, the service may charge no more than twenty-five dollars.” Because Great Expectations made no such assurances — indeed, its contract explicitly denied any such assurances — the maximum legal charge for each contract was $25, Lebedeff ruled. “Second,” she wrote, “in both cases the defendant’s form contract violated every mandate of the Dating Service Law,” other than the “cooling-off” provision. The contracts failed to assure the requisite number of contacts and failed to state that the clients had an option to cancel if that number was not met, Lebedeff ruled. The contracts omitted both guarantees that Great Expectations would not reveal private information without consent and clauses granting Doe and Roe the right to freeze the contract. The contracts did not commit to return all of the plaintiffs’ property, specify the maximum distance for face-to-face meetings or set forth any policy regarding permanent moves. “The court is fully satisfied that ‘actual damages’ includes the difference between each contract price and the $25 fee which is the maximum fee permitted under the Dating Service Law,” the judge concluded. The case is not the first legal action taken against the 29-year-old dating service. Great Expectations agreed to a $215,000 payment to 86 Kansas clients following an investigation into its practices by that state’s attorney general. Numerous “gripe sites” about the service have also appeared on the Internet, including one entitled “The Anti-Great Expectations Page.” A ‘PASSIVE’ ROLE Charles Sagel, a solo practitioner who represents Great Expectations, said his client will appeal. He said that, like the popular Internet dating site JDate, Great Expectations takes a passive role in introducing singles and is therefore not a social referral service. He cited the Appellate Division, 1st Department, decision Grossman v. MatchNet PLC, 10 AD3d 577. “[W]hereas a social referral service takes an assertive role in matching single persons with one another, [JDate] merely provides people with the opportunity to seek out and communicate with each other,” Justice Joseph P. Sullivan wrote in his concurring decision in Grossman. “[JDate's] role is passive, more akin to those who provide personal advertisements, which distinguishes its service from one which, as the DSA requires, ‘provides matching.’” Sagel added, “My client’s business is exactly that. They do not make introductions. They provide a means for checking out peoples’ profiles.”

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