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Doe v. Great Expectations

SCNY 3034/05 (N.Y. Civ. Crt., November 9, 2005)

Online Dating Service Subject To New York Dating Services Law

Court finds that the defendant Internet dating service Great Expectations, also known as GE Management Group of N.Y., Inc., violated New York’s Dating Services Law, General Business Law Section 394(c), by charging two clients $1000 and $3790, respectively, pursuant to contracts which failed to promise to provide either client with a specified number of social referrals per month.  In such situations, held the Court, New York’s Dating Services Law only permits the clients to be charged $25 for ‘social referral services’.  As a result, the Court awarded each client damages in an amount equal to the payments they made to Great Expectations, or $1000 and $3790 respectively.  In reaching this result, the Court found that the Dating Services Law applied to Great Expectations even though it only provided the means, via the Internet, for clients to contact each other, but apparently did not actually refer clients to one another.  Finally, the Court held that Great Expectations was subject to New York’s Dating Services Law because GE Management Group of N.Y., Inc., the entity that contracted with plaintiffs, was a New York business, and the transactions in question occurred in New York.

No Promise Of Referrals

GE Management Group of N.Y., Inc. apparently does business in New York under the name “Great Expectations.”  GE Management operates a dating service which allows pre-screened members to obtain information about other members from an Internet website.  Interested members may use this website to initiate and facilitate contacts with other mutually interested members.

Plaintiffs Roe and Doe are two Great Expectations clients who entered into contracts with GE Management.  Printed on GE Management forms, these contracts expressly provided that defendant “will provide zero number of social referrals” and “is not promising to furnish the member with any social referrals and the member does not desire or expect the Company to furnish social referrals.”  Plaintiff Doe paid $1000 pursuant to her contract, which had a six month term, and met no one through the service. 

Plaintiff Roe paid $3790 pursuant to her contract, which had a 36 month term.  Appended to her contract was a handwritten notation that indicated she had orally been promised introductions to twelve people through the program.  Ms. Roe testified she met only one person through the program, who approached her after seeing her posted information.

Dissatisfied with the program’s performance, plaintiffs brought suit before NewYork Civil Court Judge Diane Lebedeff.

Fees Charged Exceed Those Permitted Under NY Dating Service Law

After a trial, Judge Lebedeff determined that the transactions at issue were subject to New York’s Dating Service Law, General Business Law section 394 (c).  This law applies to companies offering “social referral services,” defined in §394(c)(1)(a) to “include 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.”

The Court, relying in part on a prior court decision involving Great Expectations, determined that defendant fell within the ambit of the Dating Services Law.  The Dating Service Law, held the Court, was applicable to companies that provide members with the means of locating appropriate matches via the Internet, even if they do not actually match individual members.  Said the Court:

In relation to the application of the Dating Services Law, more than a decade ago, it was judicially determined that the Law did cover services which match members by creating a location and mechanism for members to assess each other by reviewing another member’s video, photograph and profile in a substantially similar service to the one defined by the written contract terms here (Great Expectations Creative Management, Inc. v. Attorney General of the State of New York, 162 Misc. 2d 352, 356-357 [Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 1994, Greenfield, J] member profile, photos and video maintained at company’s center for perusal by other members, such services were covered by statute because “It does not matter whether defendant actually matches its members.  It is sufficient if defendant made available the matching of members … or supplied the means for matching the members.”)

Further, the fact “that the basic social introduction process was to be conducted on the Internet in this case does not place the dating service outside the scope of the law.”  Because this “is a New York business and a transaction located in New York …” defendant was subject to New York’s Dating Services Law.

Defendants violated the Dating Services Law because they charged each client in excess of $25 without promising a specified number of social referrals a month.  Said the Court:

[T]here was a massive overcharge by the dating service.  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 (G.B.L. §394(c)[3], “Every contract for social referral service which requires payment by the purchaser of such service of a total amount in excess of twenty-five dollars shall provide that the seller of such service must furnish to the purchaser a specified certain number of social referrals per month”).  The subject dating service contracts assured that there would be no referrals and, even as the oral assurances given to claimant Roe of twelve introductions to be provided over the course of 36 months, failed to commit to any number of introductions in any given month.  Accordingly, $25 was the maximum lawful charge for each contract.

In addition, the Court found that the form contract provided by defendant violated numerous provisions of the Dating Services Law concerning terms that must be contained in such contracts, including provisions providing for the return of personal information after the conclusion of the contract.

Pursuant to Dating Services Law section 394(c)(9)(b) the Court awarded each plaintiff their “actual damages,” which the Court interpreted as “the difference between each contract price and the $25 fee which is the maximum fee permitted under the Dating Services Law for their contracts.”

Finally, the Court awarded each plaintiff a return of the $25 defendant was permitted to charge, on the grounds “that each claimant would not have signed a contract containing terms violating applicable law had she known of her rights.”  Such an award thus achieves “substantial justice” in accordance with N.Y.C.C.A. §1805 (a).

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