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Plain Language Consumer Contract Act: An Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Come Yet.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | June 15, 2010

A  tenant posting a question on the AVVO website wanted to know if a lease was unenforceable if the print was below a specified font size.  We’ve all seen the “fine print.”  It is usually not only very small, but quite lengthy and filled with difficult terms.

The Landlord and Tenant Act doesn’t say anything about print size in pre-printed leases.  However, a little known statute called the “Plain Language Consumer Contract Act” 73 P.S. 2202 – 2212 does.  While it doesn’t specify the font size, it does contain guidelines, including the following “visual guideline”: ” The contract should have type size, line length, column width, margins and spacing between lines and paragraphs that make the contract easy to read.”

Most of the statute contains guidelines, including a preference for using pronouns, like “you” and “me”, over legal words like landlord and tenant and for putting captions in boldfaced type.

How provisions such as this translate into legal remedies is interesting, to say the least.  They include actual damages and statutory damages of $100.00 (or the amount of the contract, if less). Also included are attorneys fees and equitable relief ordered by the court.

But here’s the zinger: Section (b) states: “A violation of this act is deemed to be a violation of . . . the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.”

The Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”, no kidding) is a consumer protection statute that authorizes treble damages.  It has to do with consumer fraud and has been heavily litigated.  The application of UTPCPL has been rather tricky and grounded in case law.

So what kind of violation of the Plain Language statute will get you into the treble damages jackpot?  Certainly not violation of a group of guidelines that look like a style sheet for a writing class. (eg “The contract should not use double negatives or exceptions to exceptions.”)

But how about this one:” A contract shall have a statement that contains the following:

(i) A general description of the property that may be taken or affected by reason of a security interest or contract, if the consumer does not meet the terms of the contract.  The statement is not required to list all possible exemptions. As it may apply, the following statement may be used: ‘If you do not meet your contract obligations you may lose your house, the property that you bought with this loan, other household goods and furniture, your motor vehicle or money in your account with us.’

(ii) contract waivers of consumer’s rights in residential leases.”

What exactly is this section trying to get us to do?  Does this mean that whenever there is the potential of suing for damages and getting a money judgment, the contract must warn that the consumer (sorry, you) might lose house, car, goods and money in the bank?  Apparently so.

And what might be the consequence of failing to mention the possibility of wage garnishment, a remedy that landlord sometimes have against tenants?  Taking the act literally, your damages would be the amount of the judgment.  Then triple it under  UTPCPL.  Does anyone think a judge has ever been minted who will buy that one?

As to contract waivers in a lease, how are landlords to obtain waivers unless they put them in leases?

There is one provision that is quite clear, both as to meaning and consequence.  If you wish to create a contract under seal, you must say the following or its equivalent:”This is a contract under seal and may be enforced under 42 Pa. C.S. Sec. 5529(b) (relating to 20 year statute of limitations.)”  Wow.  Maybe I ought to be putting this in all of my contracts!

There hasn’t been much litigation involving this Plain Language statute — a fact that you might have guessed by now.  There were a couple of cases involving releases found in small print on the back of admission tickets.  Frankly, there is a lot of difference between small print on the back of a ticket to a ski lift, where the available space is about one square inch and a rental contract, where the space is in theory endless.



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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