Hearst Magazines Can’t Dodge Subscription Class Action

Hearst Tower in New York City. (By Flip666 via Wikivoyage, CC BY-SA 1.0)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Californians who subscribed to cooking, home improvement and women’s interest magazines published by the Hearst media conglomerate will see their false advertising class action proceed as a federal judge this week declined the company’s request to dismiss their case.

U.S. District Judge William Hayes found California magazine subscribers sufficiently alleged Hearst violated the state’s Automatic Renewal Law and Unfair Competition Law through its alleged false advertising of temporary one and two-year magazine subscriptions. 

The women claim after paying for the temporary subscriptions, they were included in an automatic annual renewal program and their credit cards were charged without their consent.

Fenella Arnold, Kelly Nakai and Michelle Ruppert sued Hearst Magazine Media Inc. in 2019 for being automatically charged for subscriptions to Food Network Magazine, HGTV Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and Oprah Magazine after signing up for the advertised temporary subscriptions.

Had they known they would be charged upwards of $34.97 in the automatic renewal scheme after paying as little as $2.00 for a one-year magazine subscription, the women claim they would not have purchased the magazine subscriptions.

They also claimed disclosures which notified them of the automatic renewal programs through payment portals on the magazine websites’ were written in smaller type than surrounding text. Disclosures made in order confirmation emails were also written in small type, according to Williams’ synopsis of the case.

At least 26 states have implemented their own automatic renewal laws, which are considered an extension of consumer cyber security measures. California’s law, first adopted in 2010, was amended in 2018 to include new requirements for disclosures related to free gifts and trials, affirmative consent to an offer under special pricing and allowing consumers to cancel offers online.

At its core, the law requires “automatic renewal offer terms” be presented in a “clear and conspicuous” manner, including whether the subscription continues until the consumer cancels it and if recurring charges will be posted to a consumer’s credit card.

The law also requires those disclosures be “in larger type than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from the surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks, in a manner that clearly calls attention to the language.”

In their lawsuit, the women claim at each step in the magazine subscription purchase process, there were no disclosures alerting them to the automatic renewal.

“Plaintiffs identify the allegedly deceptive terms on specific advertisements, emails, and webpages, as well as the dates when plaintiffs received the advertisements and emails or viewed the webpages,” Hayes wrote in his 15-page order declining to dismiss the case. 

“Plaintiffs attach copies of defendants’ paper forms, emails, and webpages in their possession to the complaint, which support plaintiffs’ allegations that the terms of the continuous service program were not presented at all or were presented in text smaller than the surrounding text.” 

But because the women did not claim they intended to purchase any of Hearst’s two dozen magazines in the future, and therefore would not suffer a potential future injury, Hayes dismissed their claim for injunctive relief.

The class members are represented by La Jolla, California-based attorneys James Hannink and Zach Dostart of Dostart Hannink & Coveney. Hearst Magazine Media Inc. and GDS Global Inc. are represented by Hearst General Counsel Jonathan Donnellan and Greenberg Traurig attorney Robert Herrington.

Attorneys for both parties did not immediately return phone and email requests for comment.

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