A lawn care company will pay full restitution to thousands of consumers, change its practices, and pay penalties as a result of a settlement to resolve claims it used abusive and illegal debt collection practices, Attorney General Maura Healey announced today, Sept. 22.
The consent judgment, entered in Suffolk Superior Court, resolves AG Healey’s lawsuit against Foreman Turf Specialties, Inc. d/b/a TLC The Lawn Company (TLC), and owner Jack R. Foreman, Jr., for unfair and deceptive debt collection practices.
“This lawn care company tricked customers into signing contracts with hidden fees and then sued more than 1,500 customers for amounts that they didn’t owe,” said AG Healey in a media statement. “My office will not allow companies abuse our court system and trap consumers in deceptive contracts.”
The AG’s complaint alleges that TLC routinely added hidden charges and fees to consumer’s accounts, causing consumers to pay money that they didn’t owe. TLC also aggressively pursued collection of the hidden fees—both through a third-party debt collection company and by filing small claims actions in Westborough District Court.
According to the terms of the consent judgment, TLC must pay approximately $143,514 in restitution to affected consumers as well as a $150,000 civil penalty. TLC is also required to assist eligible consumers in repairing their credit.
TLC is a Massachusetts-based company that markets chemical application lawn treatments to tens of thousands of homeowners across New England.
According to the complaint filed by the AG’s Office, in 2015 alone, TLC sent approximately 1.9 million pieces of direct mail with marketing and sales information to consumers.
After a customer ordered TLC’s lawn care services, the company automatically renewed a consumer’s original contract or order, until and unless a consumer affirmatively contacted TLC to cancel or otherwise change their order – a practice which was not properly disclosed.
The AG’s complaint also claims that when consumers failed to pay or disputed the so-called “past due” or “outstanding balance,” TLC in most cases referred them to Transworld Systems, Inc., a large, national debt collection firm. Between 2010 and 2014, TLC sent more than 3,000 Massachusetts collection matters to Transworld.
If consumers failed to pay Transworld, TLC would initiate small claims actions in Westborough District Court. TLC filed more than 1,600 small claims actions in Westborough District Court – including more than 200 against out-of-state residents. For many of these consumers, this judicial district was not where they resided at the time the action was filed nor where they signed the original sales contract.
Through this practice, TLC obtained default judgments against consumers. In some instances, TLC then brought post-judgment collection actions, which sometimes resulted in civil arrest warrants against consumers for failure to appear in court.
According to the AG’s complaint, TLC routinely demanded illegal and unauthorized late fees and interest or charges, including a $25 late fee and 1.5 percent monthly interest to the outstanding balance on a consumer’s account.
For consumers who have a judgment from TLC reported on their credit report, TLC has agreed to assist in vacating the judgment in order to correct the public record and to ensure that the consumer no longer owes the debt. This settlement also prohibits TLC from collecting illegal and unauthorized sums and filing actions in distant courts. The company must provide consumers notice about the automatic renewal provision in their contracts and obtain the consumer’s advance consent for that provision.
Consumer restitution will be distributed by a third party administrator. Affected consumers may contact 866-623-0004.
This matter was handled by Sarah Petrie, Special Assistant Attorney General in the AG’s Consumer Protection Division and Investigator Anthony Crespi, of the AG’s Civil Investigations Division, with assistance from Max Weinstein, Chief of the Consumer Protection Division.