California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) is one of the most important consumer protection laws in the country. California courts tend to interpret the UCL broadly so that it applies to a wide range of unethical business practices. The statute explicitly prohibits companies from engaging in unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent business actions. It also prohibits companies from using false advertising. Businesses that violate the UCL may be subject to penalties that include financial compensation, monetary fines, and injunctions to stop committing certain acts. This means that consumers who purchase a product or service from a business that violates the UCL may be able to have an experienced California consumer fraud lawyer file a lawsuit and seek financial restitution.
To learn more about the California Unfair Competition Law, keep reading this blog.
What Is the California Unfair Competition Law?
The California Unfair Competition Law (UCL) is codified in Bus. & Prof. Code section 17200. The UCL protects consumers against business fraud, false advertising, and other deceptive practices by placing limits on companies doing business in California. The statute also protects honest companies and ensures that competition remains fair and strong, with no one company allowed to stifle competition and gain a competitive advantage by breaking the law.
Importantly, the UCL applies to all private companies doing business in California. This means that if a company is based in another state, if they sell to consumers located in the state, or even if they advertise in the state, they can be sued under the UCL.
What Is “Unfair Competition”?
The California Unfair Competition Law defines “unfair competition” as any of the following:
- An unlawful business act or practice.
- An unfair business act or practice.
- A fraudulent business act or practice.
- Unfair, deceptive, untrue, or misleading advertising.
- Any other act prohibited by the UCL.
Courts have interpreted the UCL broadly so that just about any violation of the law by a business can also constitute a violation, so long as the action or practice injured consumers or gave the business an advantage over its competitors. One of the most common examples of unfair competition in consumer transactions is when a company makes misrepresentations to customers about the type, quality, or cost of a product or service.
Examples of deceptive advertising that may violate the UCL include robocalling customers, using bait and switch advertising to trick customers, using fake endorsements in ads, exaggerating product descriptions, omitting important information about a product or service in an advertisement, manipulating prices, using false reference pricing in ads, and infringing on another company’s intellectual property.
Unlawful, Unfair, and Fraudulent Business Acts
The UCL defines “unlawful” business acts or practices as any action taken by a company that violates state or federal law. Even if the company committed the unlawful act just once, that can be enough to trigger legal action under the UCL.
An “unfair” business act or practice, as defined by the UCL, is typically committed by either a company or a business competitor. Generally speaking, a company violates the UCL when they attempt to sell goods or services that harm consumers. In the context of a business competitor, it is considered an unfair business act when the company does something that broadly undermines competition in the marketplace.
The UCL also prohibits “fraudulent” business acts or practices, which means any conduct that misleads or deceives consumers. When a consumer relies on false statements made by the company in an advertisement or at the point of sale and subsequently suffers an economic injury, they may be able to bring a UCL claim for restitution.
Private Right of Action Under Section 17200 of the UCL
The California Unfair Competition Law (UCL) allows both private parties and public prosecutors to take legal action against companies that commit fraudulent business acts. In most cases, an individual who has suffered an injury because of unfair competition must have their lawsuit filed by a county or city prosecutor. When the lawsuit is filed as a class action, however, a consumer may bring the action as a private plaintiff.
Standing to sue under the UCL can be established by showing that the plaintiff sustained an economic injury because of the business’ conduct. If the plaintiff bought an item from the business, then this would be enough to meet the UCL standing requirement.
False advertising claims brought under the UCL must establish that the plaintiff sustained economic injury because the defendant company engaged in misleading advertising of goods or services. Basically, this means that the consumer needs to show that they purchased an item or service and that they did so because of a deceptive advertisement.
Section 17200 of the Unfair Competition Law imposes strict liability on businesses that commit fraud, which means that it does not matter whether they intended to commit fraud. The mere fact that their actions were unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent is enough to violate the statute. Additionally, it is not a defense against a UCL claim that the company’s ad was true or accurate. That’s because the plaintiff in a UCL case merely needs to show that the ad was likely to mislead consumers.
Moreover, it is important for businesses to understand that they can be sued under the UCL even if their actions are not technically unlawful. That’s because the statute explicitly prohibits “unfair” business acts and practices.
Restitution and Damages Available in UCL Claims
There are two remedies available to plaintiffs in an Unfair Competition Law claim:
- Actual economic damages, which means the defendant company is ordered to pay back any money received from the consumer.
- An injunction ordering the defendant to stop committing the fraud.
There are no punitive damages allowed in UCL cases. This is one reason that individual consumers often join forces to file a UCL claim as a class action, which can make it harder for the defendant to avoid paying a large damages award. A knowledgeable California UCL attorney can help the plaintiffs determine if it would be better to bring a class action lawsuit.
What Is the Statute of Limitations for UCL Claims?
The statute of limitations for a UCL claim is four (4) years, with the clock starting as soon as the business commits the fraudulent act or as soon as the plaintiff discovers the fraud. The standard used in these cases is a reasonable person standard, which means that the court will ask whether a person who exercised reasonable diligence would have discovered the unlawful business act when the statute of limitations period started to run.
Consumer Fraud Defense: Answering UCL Claims
Sometimes, a consumer brings a UCL claim against a company without merit. These claims can be tricky for businesses to answer because the statute is interpreted broadly by courts, and plaintiffs are typically given wide latitude to prove their case. If you have been sued in state court for allegedly violating the Unfair Competition Law, you need to speak with a knowledgeable consumer fraud defense lawyer immediately.
Related Laws: CLRA, ARL, and FTC Act
There are a few other related statutes that California consumers should be aware of when deciding whether to file a UCL claim.
Unfair Competition Law claims are often accompanied by claims under the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA). The CLRA is more limited than the UCL because the CLRA includes protections for specific actions by businesses, whereas the UCL applies broadly to business fraud. It may be in the best interests of a plaintiff to bring a claim under both statutes because the remedies are cumulative. Beyond that, only the CLRA allows for punitive damages to be imposed against the defendant. Additionally, the CLRA allows plaintiffs to recover attorney’s fees.
It is also possible for California consumers to use the Unfair Competition Law to bring a private civil action against companies that violate California’s automatic renewal laws. This is significant because the California ARL does not allow for a private right of action, which means that consumers who are deceived into signing up for an auto-renewal subscription may still be able to sue for full restitution under the UCL.
There are also federal laws, such as the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), that protect California consumers against business fraud and false advertising. One advantage for plaintiffs filing a UCL claim is that the state statute has broad consumer protections that go beyond the protections provided under federal law.
Keep in mind that defendants may argue that more lenient federal law should apply in a particular case instead of the stringent California state law. That’s why it is important to have a skilled Los Angeles false advertising attorney on your side throughout the case.
Contact the California Consumer Protection Attorneys at Tauler Smith LLP
Tauler Smith LLP is a Los Angeles law firm that represents consumers in civil litigation, including class actions based on UCL violations. Our Los Angeles consumer protection lawyers understand the nuances of the California Unfair Competition Law, and we can help you get financial restitution from a company that used fraudulent business practices. Call us today at 310-590-3927 or email us to discuss your case.