What Types of Deceptive Trade Practices Are Forbidden in Texas?

Too many Texas consumers regularly lose money on purchases due to misleading advertising and fraudulent business practices. When those events occur – especially when large sums of money are involved – it’s often necessary to contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. That division is charged with enforcing the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA) that’s set forth in the Texas Business and Commerce Code.

A Consumer Protective Division lawyer must then investigate the consumer complaint and decide if any legal remedy like an injunction must be pursued. The wronged consumer should also consider hiring a Houston business law attorney to file a lawsuit seeking Texas DTPA damages from the merchant or company that allegedly violated the DTPA.

Here’s a brief look at those who may want to file these types of complaints and lawsuits, followed by a review of some of the commonly alleged DTPA violations — and the basic types of civil damages available to plaintiffs who win these kinds of cases.

The general categories of plaintiffs under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act

  • The average, individual consumer buying property or goods. When buying a home, a car, indoor furnishings or other personal property, a consumer has the right to complete such transactions without being fraudulently manipulated by false advertising or other schemes that cause the loss of hard-earned money;
  • Those seeking repairs (or other types of service) work. Consumers must be quoted fair and accurate rates. They must also be provided with correct information about the training and experience of those who will be performing the requested services;
  • Individuals or companies seeking to close expensive business transactions, within certain established financial limitations. For example, a person or company seeking to buy a business franchise worth three hundred thousand dollars will usually be covered. However, the Texas DTPA is not intended to cover any business consumer with assets worth more than $25 million or more – or a business entity with $25 million (or more) in assets that’s controlled or owned by another business or corporation that has assets valued at or above $25 million.

Types of complaints and claims often brought under the Texas DTPA

Since highly diverse claims are covered by this statute, the following list only provides a general sampling of the complaints often alleged by consumers.

  • Being sold goods or services that were not actually made by the company that claimed to have created or provided them. In other words, the seller tried to mislead the buyer as to the true maker or provider of what was being sold;
  • Buyers were intentionally misled as to where certain goods or services originated. It’s against the law to sell goods claiming they were grown or made in a specific country when the seller knew that wasn’t true. Likewise, you cannot advertise that certain services will be provided by employees or contractors from one city or region who will be coming from another location;
  • Advertising goods or services as having the approval or sponsorship of specific individuals or groups when that’s a fraudulent claim. For example, you cannot sell certain medical devices and claim they’re backed by the American Medical Association (or a local medical group) when that’s untrue. Likewise, there can be no attempt to claim that the seller had direct ties to another specific company or government entity when that’s a fraudulent misrepresentation;
  • Selling goods or services and saying that they meet certain objective standards (or are made of specific types of materials) when that’s an intentional misrepresentation. For example, a company cannot claim that a couch was made of leather when it knew it was made of Naugahyde. Likewise, a company cannot claim all service personnel have earned specific licensing credentials – or are bonded – when it knows that’s false information;
  • Making purposeful “bait-and switch” sales. It’s a deceptive trade practice to run a print ad (or an online or televised commercial) that states that a store is selling a specific brand of products – or providing a certain grade of service by specially trained personnel – when the seller knows those facts to be false. Likewise, a company cannot claim that highly experienced contractors with over 10 years of experience are being sent to someone’s home to repair a major roof leak – when the actual workers have very little experience handling such tasks;
  • Misleading the buying public as to why certain goods are being sold at a major discount. For example, a merchant cannot claim that an accidental, large shipment of goods came in and they must now be sold at a greatly reduced price – when that merchant is really trying to unload damaged goods on unsuspecting buyers;
  • Selling a car, truck or other vehicle after rolling back the odometer. When a seller has any reason to believe that someone has reset or rolled back an odometer – or has personally done so because that part stopped recording mileage – all such facts must be fully disclosed to each potential buyer;
  • Taking advantage of the buying public after a natural disaster has been formally declared by the state’s governor. The DTPA does not allow anyone to sell goods at excessive or unfair prices, especially after a natural disaster like a flood. Therefore, no store can charge inflated prices for necessities like water, food, fuel, flashlights, batteries or medicine.

While this list isn’t comprehensive, it should provide a clear idea of the types of fraud and misrepresentation that can cause lawyers with the Texas Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division – and individual consumers — to pursue through DTPA litigation.

Penalties or damages that can be sought for Texas DTPA violations 

As your personal lawyer will tell you, the Texas Attorney General’s public remedies may include different types of injunctions, restraining orders and penalties. Should you file a private lawsuit, the penalties awarded to you can be influenced by whether the wrongful conduct was knowingly committed. When a violation of the DTPA was “knowingly” committed, penalties are sometimes awarded at the level of three times the sum awarded for the economic damages.

If you believe your consumer rights under the Texas DTPA have been violated, you should contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with the timely advice you’ll need while we help you decide whether to file a DTPA lawsuit on your behalf.

A Few “Factors” to Consider

Should a Subcontractor be allowed to assign, sell, or otherwise transfer (factor) an account receivable due from a general contractor for work performed on a construction project? We say, absolutely not. Here’s the problem.

Construction funds are trust funds. Texas Property Code §162.001(a) (commonly referred to as the “Trust Funds Statute”). Even loan receipts are trust funds. Texas Property Code §162.001(b).

A contractor, subcontractor or owner, or an officer, director, or agent of a contractor, subcontractor, or owner, who receives trust funds or who has control or direction of trust funds, is a trustee of the trust funds. Texas Property Code §162.002.

An artisan, laborer, mechanic, contractor, subcontractor, or materialman who labors or who furnishes labor or material for the construction or repair of an improvement on specific real property is a beneficiary of any trust funds paid or received in connection with the improvements. Texas Property Code §162.003.

A general contractor is a trustee of construction funds paid to it by the owner. A subcontractor would be a beneficiary of the trust funds paid to the general contractor in connection with the improvements at the project. In turn, once paid, the subcontractor becomes a trustee.

A trustee who, intentionally or knowingly or with intent to defraud, directly or indirectly, retains, uses, disburses, or otherwise diverts trust funds without first fully paying all current or past due obligations incurred by the trustee to the beneficiaries of the trust funds, has misapplied the trust funds. Texas Property Code §162.031.

A trustee who misapplies trust funds amounting to $500 or more in violation of Chapter 162, with intent to defraud, commits a felony of the third degree. Texas Property Code §162.032 (b). If the misapplication of trust funds by a trustee constitutes another offense punishable under the laws of this State, the State may elect the offense for which it will prosecute the trustee. Texas Property Code §162.033.

Under Section 9.406 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code, once the account debtor (General Contractor) receives notification of the assignment of an account (invoice), the account debtor cannot discharge its obligation by paying the assignor (Subcontractor). After receipt of the notification, the account debtor (General Contractor) may discharge its obligation only by paying the assignee (Factor Company).

This situation results in a legal paradox.

1. On the one hand, Subcontractor has relieved itself from the implications of the Trust Fund Statute. Subcontractor is no longer receiving “trust funds” for its services provided at the construction project. It is receiving funds for the work from a third source, Factor Company. After receipt of these funds, Subcontractor can “retain, use or disburse” those funds any way it chooses without worry of the implications imposed by the Trust Fund Statute.

2. Factor Company would argue that it is not a Trustee, subject to the Trust Fund Statute. Thus, after receiving payment of trust funds from the account debtor, it does not have to pay any beneficiaries of Subcontractor.

3. On the other hand, General Contractor is required to pay Subcontractor under the Trust Fund Statute. If General Contractor pays Factor Company, General Contractor, its owners, or officers, or directors face potential criminal liability. Further, if General Contractor pays Factor Company, and Factor Company does not pay Subcontractor beneficiaries, the project is subject to lien. If General Contractor does not pay Factor Company, then General Contractor is subject to liability under Section 9.406 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code.

By factoring the accounts receivable, Factor Company, Subcontractor, its owner or officers, and directors have circumvented the trust fund statute, is not a trustee, and thus can use those funds for any purpose thus avoiding a criminal penalty. This unintended result cannot be tolerated in the construction setting.

Keeping an owner’s construction project property free and clear of liens is a constant concern for general contractors. Because subcontractors typically purchase materials to be incorporated into the construction project from third parties, it is important that the flow of funds from the owner to the general contractor to the subcontractor make their way to the suppliers to prevent liens filed by these outside third party suppliers. If a subcontractor were allowed to assign (factor) its account receivable due under a construction contract, and if payment would have to be made to the assignee, how would the assignor’s (subcontractors) suppliers, materialmen, and laborers be paid to prevent liens?

It could be argued that Subcontractor could (and should) pay the funds it receives from the factor to the beneficiaries. However, in the real world that does not happen. That’s why we have the Trust Fund Statute. It is for these reasons that the factoring, sale, or assignment of a right to payment under a construction contract for construction or repair of an improvement on specific real property in this State be declared void as against public policy. A seemingly legal means to avoid criminal prosecution should not be tolerated and in the interest of public policy should be invalidated and voided.