Whether it is a landlord unreasonably refusing to return a security deposit, a service company racking up hidden charges and sending your bill sky high, or a business refusing to give you a refund when they haven’t done what was promised, unfair business practices can feel like someone is stealing from you.
The Fort Leonard Wood Legal Assistance Office works every day with these types of problems. If you have experienced any questionable dealings with a business here, the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act might provide you with a remedy.
Types of MMPA violations
A wide variety of practices can be in violation of the MMPA, including deception, fraud, false promises and misrepresentation in both the advertising and sale of merchandise. The statute identifies merchandise as “any objects, wares, goods, commodities, intangibles, real estate or services.” Sales include both the sale or leasing of goods or property. Merchants are prohibited from unfairly concealing, suppressing or omitting any material fact relating to the advertisement or transaction. The MMPA’s definition of unfair practices is quite broad and Missouri courts have accepted this broad definition, stating that it covers “every practice imaginable and every unfairness to whatever degree.” This means that you could file a complaint or take action for many types of dishonest behavior on the part of the business.
Examples of common consumer protection issues include:
— purchases made over the internet with late or no delivery.
— warranty issues with home appliances.
— harassment from debt collectors.
— service issues with automotive dealers.
— telephone billing practices in which customers were charged for services they did not order.
— contractors charging upfront fees and then not or poorly performing workmanship on a home.
— billing issues with hospitals.
— actions taken against professional service providers such as funeral homes or towing companies.
Businesses included under the statute
Ultimately, the MMPA has provisions that cover any person or company and its employees engaging in deceptive business practices in Missouri.
The statute has specific provisions that relate to new motor vehicle warranties, vehicle rentals and subleasing, rent-to-own businesses, new farm machinery, the sale of outdoor power equipment, educational institutions, the sale of assistive medical devices like wheelchairs, as well as the sale or lease of real estate. This means the MMPA applies to almost every type of business including car dealerships, apartment complexes, colleges and universities, real estate agents and many service providers and retail stores.
There are certain exceptions under its various provisions for specific types of activities. For example, newspapers, where advertisements are simply published, cannot be sued, and insurance providers are generally protected as well.
Bringing a claim
Any consumer harmed by a person or business covered under the MMPA may make a complaint to the Missouri Attorney General. The Attorney General’s Office has a team of investigators and may bring enforcement actions on behalf of the state. The AG has the power to fine or bring civil court actions, but it does not represent private individuals in court cases. If you would like to preserve any legal rights you may have to bring a civil claim yourself and recover money from a violation of the MMPA, a private attorney may bring a case on your behalf.
To bring a civil action, you must have purchased or leased “merchandise” that is primarily for personal, family or household purposes and suffered an identifiable loss of money or property because of the seller’s violation of the MMPA.
Complaints can be filed with the Attorney General of Missouri by filling out an online form found at https://ago.mo.gov/app/consumercomplaint. The form may also be printed and filled out by hand. You can also call the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-392-8222.
If you qualify as someone who can bring a civil action, you can take your claim to the circuit court of the county in which the seller/business resides. If you do decide to bring a claim in court, you will need to prove the following:
— That you acted as a reasonable consumer would in your transaction.
— That the company’s actions were unlawful under the MMPA and that those actions would cause a reasonable person to enter into the transaction; and
— That you suffered damages that can be shown with objective evidence so that the court can calculate how much money/property you lost.
Specific assistance for service members
As a current or retired member of the armed forces, you may access assistance from the Missouri Attorney General’s Military Legal Assistance Team. MLAT provides free legal assistance on a variety of issues, with consumer protection claims under the MMPA being one. Although MLAT cannot guarantee the availability of an attorney in your area, you may be able to receive assistance from MLAT with your consumer issue.
Call the Legal Assistance Office at 573.596.0629 for more information or to set up a telephonic appointment.
(Editor’s note: This article was submitted to the GUIDON by David Jordan, a law student and intern at the Fort Leonard Wood Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.)