prisoner’s consumer protection claim against false advertising of music player should proceed

Mendoza v. Inch, 2019 WL 1901811, No. 18cv66-RH/CAS (N.D.
Fla. Feb. 20, 2019) (report & recommendation)
Prisoners are an extremely vulnerable population; here a
consumer protection claim may offer some hope despite the usual barriers to
relief.  Mendoza alleged that the Florida
Department of Corrections and its vendors (Access, Trinity, and Keefe)
advertised an MP3 digital music player with various options and accessories. Buying
the player player supposedly included updates of the latest music releases and
the ability to own an unlimited amount of music. If the music player failed,
purchased music could be transferred to a new device and there was no “mortality”
date listed for the player. Mendoza bought a player and accessories, and as
well as music which, at the time the complaint was filed, totaled over six
hundred dollars.
Four years later, the DOC told inmates that it was ending
its contract with Keefe/Trinity/Access and was entering a new contract with
“JPay” to provide multimedia services. Inmates were told to mail out their
existing music players, and that they would be required to obtain a new tablet
to listen to music. Mendoza then learned that a “mortality timer” had been
installed on his music player and it would become non-operational on January
23, 2019.
The magistrate recommended rejecting most of the defendants’
motions to dismiss, including that “no degree of redressability within this
Court” because this “Court has no power to require a state agency to enter into
any specific contract or remain contractually obligated to a specific entity.” The
magistrate pointed out that it was far from clear that even injunctive relief
would interfere with a DOC contract—requiring Mendoza to surrender his own
property “appears to be a matter of DOC policy, not contract.” 
Eleventh Amendment immunity: Ex Parte Young allows injunctive relief, though not money damages,
against the DOC.  The defendants argued
that Mendoza wasn’t entitled “to any damages as he fails to state a physical
injury.”  But anti-prisoner laws reject claims
for mental or emotional injury; the relevant statute “does not specifically
preclude an inmate from seeking compensatory damages for an actual injury such
as the loss of property.”  A disparate
impact claim failed, though (based on the idea that requiring surrender of the
music player to someone outside the prison deprived inmates with longer/life
sentences of more property).
The Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act claim
was sufficiently pled, according to the magistrate. Defendants argued that
allegations of “bait and switch” alone, without pointing to any unfair or
deceptive practices, was insufficient to state a claim. But Mendoza alleged
that the defendants made false representations in their ads on which he relied,
including a promise that he could “own unlimited music” and Access Corrections
would store all purchased songs, including deleted songs, and “give them back”
to him whenever he desired “for free.” If the player ceased to function, the
music would “be transferable to a new device, and there was absolutely no
mortality (end) date advertised in advance.” This was sufficient.
The magistrate rejected Mendoza’s argument that he had a constitutional
right not to be defrauded by the government—the law establishes that law
enforcement is allowed to deceive people (though why that applies here, without
a law enforcement purpose in sight, is mysterious to me)—but fortunately for him,
he does have a statutory right not to
be defrauded of his money in a sale, even without a constitutional right to buy
a music player in the first place (as defendants argued).
Two of the private defendants argued that they weren’t
“state actors” for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Mendoza argued that the State
“significantly encouraged the Defendant(s) to advertise and sell” him and other
prisoners mp3 players and music, and that the State and all defendants profited
from those sales; further, Florida allegedly “was a joint participant” with the
private companies and engaged in collusion to render his device
non-operational.  That was enough for “color
of state law” for now. “Plaintiff’s allegation of a conspiracy and joint action
distinguish this case from the cases cited by Defendants which hold that
private parties operating canteens or selling commissary items are not acting
under color of state law.”  [Again, the
law leaves prisoners very, very exposed here.]
The magistrate also recommended preserving Mendoza’s state-law
breach of contract claim.

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