Our Chicago consumer protection attorneys were pleased to see a pro-consumer decision from the First District Court of Appeal recently. In Dubey v. Public Storage Inc., Ill. 1st No. 1-09-0094 (Oct. 23. 2009), the appeals court upheld a decision in favor of a woman who lost everything in her storage unit due to a record-keeping error. Varitka Dubey made all of her payments for a rented storage unit on time, but Metropublic Storage Fund repossessed all of the property in her unit and sold it at auction for “nonpayment.” The problem that turned out to apply to a different unit. This decision upholds a jury’s award in Dubey’s favor, but reduces the amount to conform to her agreement to store no more than $5,000 worth of property.
Dubey entered the storage unit rental agreement in September of 2002. At that time, she signed an agreement that the property she would store would be worth no more than $5,000 and that Metropublic wouldn’t be responsible for losses of more than that amount. The agreement also said that Metropublic could pursue all legal remedies if Dubey failed to meet her obligations under the agreement. Dubey testified in court that she did not notice the unit listed on her rental agreement, nor was it emphasized by the Metropublic employee who helped her. She then moved personal property into the unit that she claimed was worth $150,000. She visited the unit several more times through the end of 2002. Her rent was automatically charged to a credit card and always paid on time.
In February of 2003, Dubey returned to her unit and discovered that her key didn’t work. A Metropublic employee told her that the unit was not hers. The employee opened the unit and Dubey discovered that nearly all of her property was gone except for some broken toys belonging to her daughters. Further investigation showed that records showed someone else was listed as the owner of the unit Dubey had used, and that Dubey’s rental agreement listed a different unit. At trial, testimony showed that the unit had already been rented to someone else. The employee told Dubey her property had been auctioned off in January for non-payment of the rent, for total proceeds of $99,145. Dubey asked about personal items like family photos and was told that they were probably thrown out, but denied permission to search the garbage.
Dubey sued Metropublic for breach of contract, conversion and violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. Metropublic countersued for breach of contract because Dubey stored property worth more than $5,000 in her unit. At trial, the jury found for Dubey on all counts, awarding her
$755,000 in compensatory and punitive damages on the common-law claims and $276,580 in compensatory and punitive damages for the Consumer Fraud Act claims. She was also awarded attorney fees. Both parties appealed, with Dubey asking for more compensatory damages to reflect the true value of the lost property, and Metropublic arguing that Dubey shouldn’t have been awarded three different recoveries for the same injury and that she shouldn’t have been awarded more than the $5,000 listed in the contract. It also disputed the decision, the punitive damages and the attorney fees.
The First’s analysis started by agreeing that, under Illinois law, Dubey may recover only once for the breach of contract and conversion claims. Thus, it reduced the compensatory damages for those claims to $5,000 from $10,000. However, its analysis did not extend to the Consumer Fraud Act, and it let the $69,145 awarded under that count stand. The court then addressed the claim that the Consumer Fraud Act award should not have been larger than $5,000. The court found that Metropublic had waived that issue by ignoring chances to bring it up before and during trial. But even if it were not waived, the court declined to reconsider the trial court’s finding that the clause was an exculpatory clause invalid under the Landlord and Tenant Act. In addition to dismissing Metropublic’s arguments, the court found the contract unconscionable because Dubey had no time to read it closely and Metropublic didn’t stress the $5,000 limit.
The court then dispensed with every argument Metropublic made except its argument that the punitive damages award is unconstitutional. Among the tests for whether a punitive award is unconstitutionally excessive is the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages. The U.S. Supreme Court said in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 425, 155 L. Ed. 2d 585, 605-06, 123 S. Ct. 1513, 1524 (2003) that very few ratios significantly exceeding single digits will satisfy due process. The ratio for the conversion award was 149 to 1, a disparity the First found disturbing. It also found that Dubey may be entitled to more compensatory damages for her losses, since the it had found the rental contract invalid. Thus, it vacated those two damages awards and sent them back to trial court for reconsideration.
Based in Chicago and Oak Brook, Ill., the Chicago consumer fraud lawyers at Lubin Austermuehle are dedicated to protecting consumers’ rights and exposing unfair, fraudulent business practices. That includes extreme carelessness with property entrusted to a business by consumers as well as excessive building, automotive fraud and other unfair and anticonsumer practices. Our Chicago, Hinsdale, Lake Forest, Wheaton, Naperville and Evanston Illinois consumer fraud attorneys have more than two decades of experience fighting companies big and small on behalf of consumers, including individuals as well as large groups of consumers pursuing class action lawsuits. If you suspect a company has taken advantage of you and you’re ready to fight back, we can help. To learn more about your legal options at a free consultation, please contact us online or call toll-free today at 630-333-0333.