The Sixth Circuit recently affirmed dismissal of a putative class action against a car rental company based on the voluntary payment doctrine. See Salling v. Budget Rent-A-Car Sys., Inc., No. 10-3998, Slip op. (6th Cir. Feb. 29, 2012).
In Salling, Plaintiff challenged Budget's EZ FUEL fee. Under the rental contract, Budget will charge you the EZ FUEL fee (a flat, $!3.99 fee) for gas if you have driven the car less than 75 miles. To avoid having the fee charged, you have to fill the tank with gas and provide a receipt. The receipt requirement makes sense, since the amount of gas used on short trips may not be visible from looking at the gas gauge.
Plaintiff objected to paying the fee when he returned his car. But he apparently did not have his gas receipt with him. Ultimately, he paid the fee, receiving a receipt that broke out the EZ FUEL fee that he disputed. He then filed a class action against Budget. Budget removed it to federal court and moved to dismiss based on the voluntary payment doctrine. The trial court granted the motion, and Plaintiff appealed.
The Sixth Circuit first examined its jurisdiction, It observed that Budget bore the burden of proof on the jurisdiction question, but held that it met its burden with a spreadsheet that listed more than 1 million renters who drove less than 75 miles, were charged the EZ FUEL fee, and had a fuel gauge reading of "full" upon return of the car. The spreadsheet indicated that Budget collected $11.2 million from those drivers. This was enough to satisfy CAFA's pre-requisites.
The court then turned to the voluntary payment doctrine, finding that it is recognized by Ohio law. The doctrine is best described in this way: "money voluntarily paid by one person to another on a claim of right to such payment, cannot be recovered merely because the person who made the payment mistook the law as to his ability to pay." Slip op. at 5. The court noted that the Plaintiff had paid the fee in anticipation of filing suit, and held that the payment was voluntary. It explained that a payment that is made on a disputed construction of a contract term is not made under a mistake of fact, but rather under a mistake of law. Although a payment made under a mistake of fact might be recoverable, a payment made under a mistake of law is still voluntary and cannot be reversed. Slip op. at 6.
A little over a year ago I had written about an opinion from the Seventh Circuit written by none other than Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which applied the "voluntary payment doctrine" with even more discussion. That opinion, along with the Sixth Circuit's opinion in Salling, reiterate that the voluntary payment doctrine is alive and well as a defense in consumer class action litigation.