Companies operating or conducting business in Massachusetts are aware of an all-too-familiar statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 93A. This statute provides individual consumers and businesses a right to bring legal action if they are harmed by an unfair business practice. The statute eloquently, although perhaps ambiguously, states that a violation shall exist when a company commits an “unfair or deceptive act or practice, or unfair method of competition,” against another who is engaged in commerce within the Commonwealth. Violations can cover a litany of topics, such as a company that unfairly demands more money to complete its contract obligations after having already executed the contract (Anthony’s Pier Four, Inc. v. HBC Associates, 411 Mass. 451), or where insurance providers fail to offer a fair and equitable settlement amount within the required time period (Rhodes v. AIG Domestic Claims, Inc., 461 Mass. 486), or against landlords who fail to provide habitable units to their residential tenants (Haddad v. Gonzalez, 410 Mass. 855). Although Chapter 93A is far-reaching, it does have its limitations.
Recently, Strang Scott attorneys Cole Young and Jennifer Lynn argued to the Massachusetts Appeals Court that litigation tactics alone are not unfair or deceptive acts or practices, such that they violate Chapter 93A. Agreeing, the Appeals Court held that demanding payment under a contract, filing suit, and continuing to litigate a claim over a disputed amount is a simple contract dispute and nothing more. Aggregate Industries – Northeast Region, Inc. v. Hugo Key & Sons, Inc., 90 Mass.App.Ct. 146 (2016). Said another way, the Appeals Court held that plaintiffs should not be punished for deciding to litigate, rather than accepting a lower settlement amount. The Appeals Court went on to hold that the unfair or deceptive practice must arise from an independent act of trade or commerce, “not tangentially from litigation concerning that conduct.”
The precedent of this case will be far-reaching and provides security to companies and businesses who choose to file suit, as opposed to being forced into settlement for fear of committing an “unfair” act. Because the breadth of Chapter 93A can be complicated and nuanced, potential litigants should speak with an experienced Massachusetts litigator.