EJ MGT LLC v. ZILLOW GROUP, INC. et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge John Michael Vazquez on 2/28/2019. (JB, )
Not for Publication
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
EJ MGI LLC,
Civil Action No. 18-584 (JMV) (JBC)
ZILLOW GROUP, INC., and ZILLOW, [NC.,
John Michael Vazguez, U.S.D.J.
This case primarily concerns antitrust allegations against a market leader in online real
estate information. Plaintiff EJ MGT LLC brings this action against Defendants Zillow Group,
Inc., and Zillow, Inc. (collectively “Zillow”) for conspiracy under the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C.
and other alleged violations. D.E. 1. The gist of Plaintiffs allegations is that Zillow illegally
contracts with certain real estate brokers and agents to remove Zillow’s estimated price, or
“Zestimate,” as to certain properties while not offering this option to other brokers, agents, and
property owners, such as Plaintiff. Id. Plaintiff does not claim that the Zestimate is completely
removed from the listings of the “co-conspirator brokers,” but that the Zestimate is instead less
Currently pending before this Court is Defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint
under federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1 2(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can
be granted as well as Rule 9(b) for failure to plead a fraud claim with particularity. D.E. 11. The
Court reviewed all submissions’ and considered this motion without oral argument pursuant to
federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b) and Local Civil Rule 78.1(b). for the reasons that follow,
Defendants’ motion to dismiss is granted without prejudice.
Plaintiff EJ MGT is a New Jersey limited liability organization that is the owner of 142
Hoover Drive in Cresskill, New Jersey (the “Property”). Compl.
¶ 22. The Property is 1.5 acres
of land and includes a single-family home measuring 12,000 square feet. id.
¶ 89. Plaintiff spent
significant time and resources restoring the Property since purchasing it in March 2015. Id.
Defendants’ brief in support of their motion to dismiss
1; Plaintiffs opposition to this motion will be referred
reply to this opposition will be referred to as “Def.
supplemental authority will be referred to as “Def. Ltr,”
be referred to as “P1. Resp.,” D.E. 19.
will be referred to as “Def. Br.,” D.E. 11to as “P1. Opp’n,” D.E. 14; Defendants’
Reply,” D.E. 17; Defendants’ letter of
D.E. 18; Plaintiffs letter in response will
The facts are derived from Plaintiffs Complaint. D.E. 1 (“Compi.”). When reviewing a motion
to dismiss, the Court accepts as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint. fowter v. UPMC
Shadyside, 578 f.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). Additionally, a district court may consider “exhibits
attached to the complaint and matters of public record” as well as “an undisputedly authentic
document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiffs claims are
based on the document.” Pension Ben. Gitar. Corp. e. White Consol. Indtts., Inc., 99$ f.2d 1192,
1196 (3d Cir. 1993).
Both parties submitted information that the Court did not consider. Defendants submitted
the “current version of the Zillow webpage” for the relevant property. D.E. 11-3, Ex. B.
Defendants, however, acknowledge that the webpage is different than that on which Plaintiff relied
in its Complaint. Def. Br. at 4 n. 4, 5. It is true that a district court can consider documents integral
to the complaint or relied upon in the complaint. In re Burlington Coat factoiy Sec. Litig., 114
f.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997). Yet, Defendants have not provided any authority to support the
Court considering information that has been changed or altered from the original pleading.
Additionally, in its Opposition, Plaintiff attaches and extensively relies on an interview (not
mentioned in the Complaint) with Zillow’s co-founders, D.E. 15-1, Ex. A, as well as information
regarding how Zillow pages have changed since the Complaint was filed, D.E. 16-1-6. The Court
does not consider the foregoing information in resolving the current motion.
Zillow is a market leader in online real estate infonnation. Id.
¶ 37. Among other things,
it manages websites3 that serve as the central database for all real estate listings (including those
that are not for sale) in the United States. Id.
¶ 37, 41. Its flagship website, www.zillow.com,
includes property facts (such as the number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, and lot size), tax
assessment information, prior transaction data, and listing infonrtation for over 110 million United
States homes.4 Id.
F or all listed properties, Zillow includes a Zestimate Zillow’s own estimate of the current
market value of a home based on an algorithm that considers property facts (location, lot size,
square footage, number of bedrooms/bathrooms, etc.), tax assessments, prior transactions (both of
that property historically, and neighboring properties), and user data. Id.
¶ 45-46. Zillow
represents that the Zestimate is the “starting point” for detennining a home’s value. Id.
Plaintiff alleges that “Zillow itself acknowledges” that this starting point is “false, inaccurate, or
otherwise misleading.” Id.
¶ 21. Yet, Plaintiff fails to mention that Zillow also publishes the error
rate of its Zestimate publicly on its website (7.9% nationally as of January 5, 2015), and discloses
the shortcomings of this estimate, namely, “homes in luxury markets” that have new renovations
or “many custom features, which aren’t’ accounted for in the Zestimate model.” Paul Moore, The
https ://www .zillow.comlagent-resources/blog/the-zestimate-explained/.5
In 2014, Zillow purchased its top competitor, Trulia, and now operates both of the leading online
real-estate databases. Id. ¶ 25.
An address’ Zillow page is also one of the first links to appear when someone uses a search
engine, such as Google, for the address. Id. ¶ 38.
Plaintiff cited to, and relied on, this article in its Complaint. Compi. ¶ 59. As discussed in note
2 above, the Court can therefore consider the article in reviewing this present motion.
In January 2017, Plaintiff listed the Property for sale. Compl. ¶ 92. Keller Williams served
as the broker and listing agent; Zillow displayed the Property on its website. Id.
¶J 92, 93.
alleges that Zillow’s use and placement of its Zestimate on Zillow’s website has prevented the
Property from being sold. Id.
listed on Zillow for $7,788,000. Id.
for example, on January 2, 2018, Plaintiffs Property was
63(f). Immediately under the sale price, the Zestimate
reflected a price of $3,703,597. Id. Plaintiff alleges that potential buyers have advised Plaintiff
that the difference between the listed sales price and the Zestimate informed their decision not to
purchase the Property. Id.
Plaintiff alleges an anticompetitive conspiracy in Zillow’s contracting with specific brokers
and agents, or “co-conspirator brokers,” to omit Zestirnates of particular properties from under the
listing price. Id. ¶11. As noted, the Property’s Zestimate was listed directly below its sales price,
which is the typical placement of the Zestimate. Id.
63(f). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant
entered into “Zestimate Agreements,” which allows certain brokers to relocate the Zestimates of
their properties so that they do not appear directly under the listing prices. Id.
17, 6 1-62. The
co-conspirator brokers include Sotheby’s International Realty, Inc.; Coldwell Banker Real Estate
LLC; Century 21 Real Estate LLC; The Corcoran Group ERA; and Weichert Realty. Id.
63. To be clear, Zillow does not completely remove the Zestirnate for any listing. Id.
when it removes the Zestimate from under the listing price, Zillow still makes the Zestimate
available under the “Zestimate details” tab on the property’s Zillow page. Id.
Plaintiff contacted Zillow to remove the Property’s Zestimate from directly underneath the
Property’s listing price, but Zillow refused. Id. A Zillow representative explained that “this feature
is only available on our premiere agent program for real estate agents” and forwarded Plaintiff
information on that program. Id.
The Zillow representative later clarified that “Zillow has
various partnerships with Agents, Brokerages, and Vendors that may display a listing page
differently than others.” Id. Plaintiff alleges that even premier agents cannot gain this preferential
treatment unless they are members of the co-conspirator brokers. Id.
brokers, agents, and individual homeowners
¶ 66. Plaintiff asserts that
who are not associated with the co
conspirator brokers “are left no choice but to have the inaccurate and otherwise misleading
Zestimates appear prominently” on their properties’ Zillow pages, putting them at a distinct
competitive disadvantage and harming overall competition in the local and national real estate
¶ 9, 79.
Plaintiff does not claim that the Zestimate provided for the Property did not reflect fair
market value. Id.
¶J 11, 89-96. Similarly, Plaintiff does not allege that its listing price represented
the fair market value of the Property. Id. Plaintiff also does not argue that it has not been able to
sell the Property due to the positioning of the Zestimate below the asking price. Instead, Plaintiff
claims certain, unnamed “[p]otential buyers” indicated that the difference between the Zestimate
and the list price for the Property has “impacted and/or informed” the potential buyers’ decision
not to purchase the Property. Id.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed its Complaint on January 1, 2018 alleging five causes of action: (I)
conspiracy to restrain trade under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C.
§ 1; (II) conspiracy to
restrain trade under the New Jersey Antitrust Act, N.J.S.A. 56:9-3; (III) fraud under the New Jersey
Consumer fraud Act (“NJCfA”), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 et seq.; (IV) slander of title/product
disparagement under New Jersey common law; and (V) interference with prospective economic
advantage under New Jersey common law. Compi.
¶J 97-127. In lieu of answering, Defendants
filed this present motion to dismiss, D.E. 11, which Plaintiff opposed, D.E. 14, and Defendants
replied, D.E. 17.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a defendant to move to
dismiss a count for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]” To withstand a
motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a claim to
relief that is plausible on its face.” Belt Att. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A
complaint is plausible on its face when there is enough factual content “that allows the court to
draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although the plausibility standard “does not impose a probability
requirement, it does require a pleading to show more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has
acted unlawfully.” Connellv v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 786 (3d Cir. 2016) (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted). As a result, a plaintiff must “allege sufficient facts to raise
a reasonable expectation that discovery will uncover proof of [his] claims.” Id. at 789.
In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, a district court must accept all factual
allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.
Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008).
A court, however, is “not
compelled to accept unwarranted inferences, unsupported conclusions or legal conclusions
disguised as factual allegations.” Baraka v. McGreevev, 481 F.3d 187, 211 (3d Cir. 2007). If,
afler viewing the allegations in the complaint most favorable to the plaintiff, it appears that no
relief could be granted under any set of facts consistent with the allegations, a court may dismiss
the complaint for failure to state a claim. DeFazio v. Leading Edge Recoveiy Sots., 2010 WL
5 146765, at *1 (D.N.J. Dec. 13, 2010).
Pursuant to Rule 9(b), when “alleging fraud or mistake, a party must state with particularity
the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake
[rn]alice, intent, knowledge, and other
conditions of a person’s mind may be alleged generally.” fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). “Independent of
the standard applicable to Rule 12(b)(6) motions, Rule 9(b) imposes a heightened pleading
requirement of factual particularity with respect to allegations of fraud.” In re Rockefeller Ctr.
Props., Inc. Sec. Litig., 311 f.3d 198, 216 (3d Cir. 2002). A party alleging fraud must therefore
support its allegations with factual details such as “the who, what, when, where and how of the
events at issue.” US. ex reL Moore & Co., P.A. v. Majestic Bitte Fisheries, LLC, $12 F.3d 294,
307 (3d Cir. 2016). Accordingly, “[t]o satisfy the particularity standard, ‘the plaintiff must plead
or allege the date, time and place of the alleged fraud or otherwise inject precision or some measure
of substantiation into a fraud allegation.” feingoldv. Graff 516 F. App’x 223, 226 (3d Cir. 2013)
(citing Frederico v. Home Depot, 507 F.3d 188, 200 (3d Cir. 2007)). This heightened pleading
standard is designed to “ensure that defendants are placed on notice of the precise misconduct with
which they are charged, and to safeguard defendants against spurious charges of fraud.”
Craftmatic Sec. Litig. v. Kraftsow, 890 F.2d 628, 645 (3d Cir. 1989) (internal quotation marks
Section 1 of the Sherman Act states that “[e]very contract, combination in the form of trust
or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with
foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.” 15 U.S.C.
§ L To maintain a claim under Section
I, a plaintiff must allege (1) that defendant was a party to a “contract, combination
conspiracy” (2) with an unlawful objective to put an “unreasonable restraint on competition.”
Monsanto Co. v. Spray-Rite Serv. Corp., 465 U.S. 752, 761 (1984); see also In re Ins. Brokerage
AntitrustLitig., 618 F.3d 300, 315 (3d Cir. 2010); Rossi v. Standard Roofing, Inc., 156 f.3d 452,
461 (3d Cir. 1998). The unlawful objective must relate to antitrust activities. In re Ins. Brokerage
Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d at 331. In other words, an unlawful objective
such as fraud
from antitrust conduct may be otherwise actionable but not under the antitrust statutes. Id.
Moreover, plaintiff must assert an antitrust injury, “which is to say injury of the type the antitrust
laws were intended to prevent and that flows from that which makes defendants’ acts unlawful.”
Brttnswick Corp. v. Piteblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc., 429 U.S. 477, 489 (1977); see also Philadelphia
Taxi Ass’n, Inc v. Uber Techs., Inc., 886 F.3d 332, 344 (3d Cir.) (explaining that plaintiffs “fail[ed]
to aver an antitrust injury, such as a negative impact on consumers or to competition in general”),
Plaintiff brings claims both under the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, Compl. ¶ 97-102, and New
Jersey Antitrust Act, N.J.S.A. § 56:9-3, Compl. ¶ 103-105. “[T]he New Jersey Antitrust Act shall
be construed in harmony with ruling judicial interpretations of comparable federal antitrust
statutes.” Eisai, Inc. V. SanofiAventis US., LLC, 821 F.3d 394, 402 n. 11 (3d Cir. 2016) (quoting
State v. Ni Trade Waste Ass’n, 96 N.J. 8, 19 (1984)). Both parties concede this. Def. Br. at 12;
see P1. Opp’n at 30-40 (failing to individually evaluate its New Jersey Antitrust Act argument,
instead implicitly relying on its Sherman Act argument). Therefore, the federal Sherman Act claim
and its analogous New Jersey counterpart will be analyzed together.
cert. denied sub nom. Philadelphia Taxi Ass’n, Inc. v. Uber Techs., Inc., 139 S. Ct. 211, 202 L. Ed.
2d 126 (2018).
In determining whether conduct imposed an unreasonable restraint on trade, courts use one
of three standards of review: “per se,” “quick look,” or “rule of reason.” In re Ins.
AntitrttstLitig., 61$ f.3d at 315-18; see also Catfornia Dental Ass’n v. F.T.C., 526 U.S. 756, 770
(1999) (analyzing the quick look standard); F.T.C. v. Indiana Fed’n ofDentists, 476 U.S. 447, 45$
(1986) (discussing the per se and rule of reason standard); Monsanto, 465 U.S. at 761 (same);
Tttnis Bros. Co. v. Ford Motor Co., 952 f.2d 715, 722 (3d Cir. 1991) (applying rule of reason
standard). Yet, these three categories are not necessarily distinct; there may be some overlap or
blurring of boundary lines. California DentalAss’n, 526 U.S. at 779.
“The usual standard applied to deterniine whether a challenged practice unreasonably
restrains trade is the so-called rule of reason.” In reIns. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 f.3d at
315 (internal quotations and alterations omitted). Under this standard, “the factfinder weighs all
of the circumstances of a case in deciding whether a restrictive practice should be prohibited.” Id.
A plaintiff “bears the initial burden of showing that the alleged [agreement] produced an adverse,
anticompetitive effect within the relevant geographic market.” Id. “Successful attempts to meet
this burden typically include a demonstration of defendants’ market power, as a judgment about
market power is a means by which the effects of the challenged conduct on the market place can
be assessed.” Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted). However, “proof of
actual detrimental effects, such as a reduction of output, can obviate the need for an inquiry into
market power, which is but a surrogate for detrimental effects.” Id. (quoting Indiana fed’n of
Dentists, 476 U.S. at 460-61). Then, “[i]f the plaintiff carries this burden, the court will need to
decide whether the anticompetitive effects of the practice are justified by any countervailing pro
competitive benefits.” Id.; see also Eichorn v. AT& TCorp., 248 F.3d 131, 143 (3d Cir. 2001)
(explaining that courts “balance the effect of the alleged anti-competitive activity against its
competitive purposes within the relevant product and geographic markets”).
The per se standard recognizes the fact that “some classes of restraints have redeeming
competitive benefits so rarely that their condemnation does not require application of the fullfledged rule of reason.” In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d at 316. Courts apply aper
se rule “when the practice facially appears to be one that would always or almost always tend to
restrict competition and decrease output.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).
examples are ‘horizontal agreements among competitors to fix prices or to divide markets.” Id.
(quoting Leegin Creative Leather Prod., Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., 551 U.S. 877, 886 (2007)). In these
limited circumstances, “plaintiffs are relieved of the obligation to define a market and prove market
power”; the restraints are “conclusively presumed to unreasonably restrain competition” and
considered “illegal per Se.” Id. at 316-17.
The “quick look,” or abbreviated rule of reason, standard applies when restraints are
“highly suspicious” but “sufficiently idiosyncratic that judicial experience with them is limited.”
Id. at 317. In other words, “[p]er se condemnation is inappropriate, but at the same time, the
inherently suspect nature of the restraint obviates the sort of elaborate industry analysis required
by the traditional rule-of-reason standard.” Id. (internal quotations omitted); see also Caflfornia
Dental Ass’n., 526 U.S. at 770 (explaining that the quick look standard is appropriate when “an
observer with even a rudimentary understanding of economics could conclude that the
arrangements in question would have an anticompetitive effect on customers and markets”).
Under the quick look analysis, “competitive harm is presumed and the defendant must set forth
some competitive justification for the restraints.” In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 f.3d
at 317. If a defendant cannot assert a plausible justification, the restraint will be deemed unlawful.
Id. “If the defendant offers sound procompetitive justifications, however, the court must proceed
to weigh the overall reasonableness of the restraint using a full-scale rule of reason analysis.” Id.
Here, Plaintiff alleges that “vertical Zestimate Agreements are directly aimed at restraining
horizontal competition in both the market for the sale of residential real estate and for the listing
of residential real estate.” Compi.
83. The Third Circuit has ruled that certain horizontal
agreements can be subject to the per se or quick look analysis, but vertical agreements are subject
to the full rule of reason review. In reIns. BrokerageAntitrttstLitig., 61$ F.3d at 31$. Thus, the
Court conducts a full rule of reason review.7
Defendants argue that (1) not offering Plaintiff a Zestimate Agreement was not a concerted
effort, but Defendants’ own unilateral decision, (2) that Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged
anticompetitive effects, (3) that Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged proximate cause, and (4) that
Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged an antitrust injury. Def. Br. at 6-12.
Plaintiff first disagrees that Zillow’s decision was wholly unilateral and argues that it
adequately alleged agreements to support this position. P1. Opp’n at 12-15. Regarding this point,
the parties appear to be talking past each other. Defendants appear to argue that they have taken
unilateral action in determining whether to enter into the agreements with the alleged co
Plaintiff pleads that “[t]he alleged contract, combination, or conspiracy is a per se violation of
the federal antitrust laws.” Compi. ¶ 101. The Third Circuit has held that “[w]hile pleading
exclusivelyper se violations can lighten a plaintiffs litigation burdens, it is not a riskless strategy”
because “[i]f the court determines that the restraint at issue is sufficiently different from the per se
archetypes to require application of the rule of reason, the plaintiffs claims will be dismissed.” In
re Ins. Brokerage Antitrttst Litig., 61$ F.3d at 317. Although Plaintiff does not expressly invoke
the rule of reason standard, the Court finds that Plaintiff provides enough information in its
pleadings and briefing to warrant an analysis of this correct standard. If the Court employed the
per se standard, as Plaintiff alleges, then the motion to dismiss would be granted without further
analysis because the standard is inappropriate in light the actual allegations here.
conspirator brokers. Def Br. at 7-8. In other words, it appears that Defendants are claiming that
there are no plausible allegations indicating that Defendants are prohibited
through the Zestimate
from entering into similar agreements with any other party, including Plaintiff.
Plaintiff responds that the alleged Zestimate Agreements are sufficient proof of an agreement to
satisfy Section 1. P1. Opp’n at 12-13. for purposes of the current motion, the Court finds that
Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged vertical agreements for Section 1 purposes.
Plaintiff then argues that unilateral conduct can also violate antitrust laws. P1. Opp’n at 22.
This is accurate, but it pertains to a Section 2 violation of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C.
§ 2, which
addresses monopolies or attempted monopolies. In fact, in support of its argument, Plaintiff cites
to Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585, 601 (1985), where the
Supreme Court evaluated alleged violations of Section 2. Here, Plaintiff has asserted a violation
of Section 1, so the unilateral conduct argument is inapposite. Unilateral or independent conduct
is not subject to Section 1. E.g., Monsanto, 465 U.S. at 761 (explaining that “[i]ndependent action
is not proscribed” by Section 1; a “contract, combination.
or conspiracy” is required); In re Ins.
Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 61$ F.3d at 315 (same); Tunis Bros., 952 F.2d at 722 (same).
Plaintiff also asserts that Defendants’ argument falls short because they have not
demonstrated the procompetitive aspects of the Zestimate Agreements. P1. Opp’n at 15, 21.
However, such an argument puts the cart before the horse, because under a rule of reason analysis,
Plaintiffs must first demonstrate the harm (or potential harm) to competition before the Court (or
Defendants) turn to the pro-competition attributes. In this regard, Plaintiff fails to analyze, much
less cite any relevant authority regarding, the fact that the Zestimates are not completely omitted
from the alleged co-conspirator brokers’ listings. Instead, the Zestimates are still displayed but
not immediately under the listing price. Compi.
In that regard, this case concerns the
prominence of certain information as opposed to the information’s complete omission.
More fundamentally, Plaintiffs opposition takes a position inconsistent with the
allegations in its Complaint. In its Complaint, Plaintiff argues that the Zestimates are unreliable
and inaccurate. E.g., Compi.
¶ 2, 8,9, 13, 21. Plaintiff continues that the Zestimate Agreements
create a competitive disadvantage because the misleading Zestimate is displayed directly under its
listing price, while the same is not true for the Zillow listings of the co-conspirator brokers. id.
9, 12, 61. The thrust of Plaintiffs entire case, as alleged in the Complaint, is that it wants the
Zestimate removed from directly under its listing price.
Yet, in its opposition. Plaintiff makes a materially different argument. Plaintiff asserts that
the Zestimates reflect “critical” price information and that consumers are banned by Zillow and
its alleged co-conspirators “suppress[ing] [this] price-related information from consumers’ view.”
P1. Opp’n at 15, 16, 19. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants facilitate the selective suppression of this
“critical” price information and give co-conspirators the ability to conceal it as well. Id. at 19.
Essentially, in its opposition, Plaintiff claims that Zestimates are critical pieces of information and
that the Zestimate Agreements reduce the usefulness of Defendant’s product for consumers
because the Zestimates are not displayed in a prominent position. Id. at 23, 26. This is an entirely
new theory of liability that was not pled in the Complaint.
As a result, the Court is unable to conduct the appropriate analysis in light of the motion to
dismiss. The Court dismisses Plaintiffs Section 1 and analogous New Jersey Antitrust Act claims
(Counts I and II) without prejudice.
New Jersey Consumer fraud Act (“NJCFA”)
Plaintiff next alleges that Defendants violated the NJFCA, N.J.S.A.
§ 56:8-1 etseq. Compl.
¶J1J 106-112. The NJCFA proscribes the use of any “unconscionable commercial
deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, or the knowing, concealment,
suppression, or omission of any material fact with intent that others rely upon such concealment,
suppression or omission, in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise or real
§ 56:8-2. To establish a prima fade claim under the NJCFA, a plaintiff must
demonstrate: “(1) unlawful conduct by the defendant; (2) an ascertainable loss by the plaintiff and
(3) a causal relationship between the unlawful conduct and the ascertainable loss.” Valli v. Avis
Bttdget Grp., Inc., No. 14-6072, 2017 WL 1956777, at (D.N.J. May 10,2017) (citing Int’l Union
of Operating Engineers Local No. 68 Welfare fund v. Merck & Co., 192 N.J. 372, 389 (2007)).
Defendants first argue that the NJCFA does not apply because their actions do not
constitute a “sale or advertisement” as required by the statute. Def. Br. at 13-14. Defendants then
argue that the Zestimate is an unactionable opinion and Plaintiff has not identified any
misrepresentation made by Defendants. Id. at 14-15. Defendants add that Plaintiff has not met
the heightened pleading requirements for fraud under Rule 9(b) and that Plaintiff fails to plead
connection with ascertainable loss. Id. at 15-18. Plaintiff responds that it does not just rely on the
Zestimates, but on the Zestirnate Agreements for the Defendants’ misrepresentations and calls
Defendants’ conduct a form of “Databuse” (essentially a reckless misuse of personal data). P1.
Opp’n at 30-34. Plaintiff argues that Defendants’ use of “Big Data” is similar to the abuses
outlined by the Federal Trade Commission in certain press releases. Id.
Notably, Plaintiffs opposition does not substantively address Defendants’ argument.
Plaintiffs misrepresentation claims in its Complaint appear to be grounded in Defendant
“developing,” “displaying,” and then selectively “conceal [ing]” the “inaccurate or misleading
Zestimate on its platform.” Compl.
¶ 110. Yet, Plaintiff fails to allege any misrepresentations as
to the Zestimates. To the contrary, the Complaint recognizes that the Zestimate is Defendants’
“own self-prepared estimate of current market value of a home based” based on property facts
(location, lot size, square footage, number of bedrooms/bathrooms, etc.), tax assessments, prior
transactions (both of that property historically, and neighboring properties), and user data. Id.
45-46 (emphasis added). Plaintiff acknowledges that the Zestimate is a “starting point” when
determining a home’s value. Id.
¶ 47 (emphasis added). The article on Defendants’ website that
Plaintiff relied on also publicly disclosed the historical error rate of the Zestimate, and explained
that the Zestimate is unable to accurately account for renovations and other custom features. Paul
https ://www.zillow.com/agent-resources/blog/the-zestimate-explained/ (relied upon by Plaintiff at
¶ 59). In light of these disclosures, Plaintiff fails to identify what was allegedly
In addition, Plaintiff fails to address Defendant’s argument that the Zestimate is an
unactionable opinion. “[S]ubjective opinions
cannot serve as the basis for a claim under the
*4 (D.N.J. Sept.
NJCFA.” Robinson v. Kia Motors Am., Inc., No. 13-006, 2015 WL 5334739, at
11, 2015) (citing Rodio v. Smith, 123 N.J. 345, 352 (1991)). As Defendants note, although not in
the context of the NJCFA, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
found that Zestimates “are not false or misleading representations of fact likely to confuse
consumers because they represent opinions of value.” Patel v. Ziltow, Inc., No. 17-4008, 2018
WL 2096453, at *6 (N.D. Ill. May 7, 2018), affd, No. 18-2 130, 2019 WL 491797 (7th Cir. Feb.
8, 2019). The district court in that case, in an earlier opinion, explained that “Zillow clearly labels
Zestimates as estimates, and
Zillow goes above and beyond labeling and specifically makes
clear that Zestimates are not appraisals, are just a starting point rather than a final accurate
valuation, and are not always accurate.” Pate! v. Zitlow, Inc., No. 17-4008, 2017 WI 3620812, at
*12 (N.D. Ill. Aug.23, 2017), affd, No. 18-2130, 2019 WI 491797 (7th Cir. Feb. 8,2019). Thus,
the district court held that “given Zillow’s representations regarding Zestimates, as pled in the
complaint, Plaintiffs have failed to plausibly allege that Zestimates are anything more than
nonactionable statements of opinion.” Id. The Seventh Circuit affirmed and added that “plaintiffs
are mistaken to think that the accuracy of an algorithmic appraisal system can be improved by
changing or removing particular estimates.” Patel v. Zillow, Inc., No. 18-2130, 2019 WI 491797,
at *2 (7th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019). The Court agrees; the Zestimates are non-actionable opinions under
the NJCFA and the Zestimate Agreements have no impact on the veracity of these estimates. The
Court dismisses Plaintiffs NJCFA claim (Count III) without prejudice.
Slander of Title/Product Disparagement
Plaintiff next alleges slander of title or product disparagement. Compl.
Jersey does recognize an action for slander of title or product disparagement. The claims consist
of four elements: “(1) publication (2) with malice (3) of false allegations concerning plaintiffs
property or product (4) causing special damages, i.e., pecuniary harm.” Sys. Operations, Inc. v.
Sd. Games Dcv. Corp., 555 F.2d 1131, 1140 (3d Cir. 1977) (citing Rogers Carl Corp. v. Moran,
103 N.J. Super. 163 (App. Div. 1968) and frega v. Northern New Jersey Mfg. Assn., 51 N.J. Super.
331 (App. Div. 1958)).
Defendants again argue that the Zestimate is a non-actionable opinion
not a “false
allegation.” Def Br. at 18-19. Defendants then assert that they did not possess the requisite
malicious intent and that Plaintiff failed to plead special damages with particularity, as the
conclusory assertion that Plaintiff has failed to sell the house is insufficient. Id. at 19-20.
At the outset, the Court notes that Plaintiff again fails to address Defendants’ argument that
the Zestimate is a non-actionable opinion rather than a false statement. Plaintiff also appears to be
arguing that because Defendants disclose the limitations of their Zestimates, such as the error rate
and the fact that it does not consider renovations in assessing value, the Zestimates are false. As
best as the Court can comprehend, Plaintiff is arguing that when an entity discloses information
and the limitations of that information, the acknowledgement of limitations equates to an
admission of falsity. Not surprisingly, Plaintiff provides no support for this argument. Adequate
disclosures, by their very nature, result in the disclosure of accurate (not false) information.
Plaintiff further asserts that Defendants did act with malice, as Plaintiff only must show
that Defendants’ statements were false or published with reckless disregard for truth or falsity. P1.
Opp’n at 3 8-39 (citing Mayflower Transit, LLC v. Prince, 314 F. Supp. 2d 362, 378 (D.N.J. 2004)).
Plaintiff however fails to point to any information supplied by Defendant that was false or made
with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity. Publishing the Zestimate, an estimate of the
Property’s fair market value with disclosed factors and limitations, does not satisfy the requisite
standard of a reckless disregard for truth or falsity on the information that Plaintiff plead. Again,
adequate disclosures prohibit a finding of falsity.
Finally, Plaintiff argues that it has incurred special damages. Id. at 40. “[A]n action for
product disparagement requires special damage in all cases,” meaning “the plaintiff must plead
and prove special damages with particularity.” Inten’et, Inc. v. Mileittis, Ltd., No. 15-1371, 2016
WL 740267, at *6 (D.N.J. Feb. 24, 2016) (quoting Mayflower Transit, LLC v. Prince, 314 F. Supp.
2d 362, 378 (D.N.J. 2004)). This requires that Plaintiff “allege either the loss of particular
customers by name, or a general diminution in its business, and extrinsic facts showing that such
special damages were the natural and direct result of the false publication.”
Mayflower Transit, 314 F. Supp. 2d at 37$). A general diminution of business claim requires
“facts showing an established business, the amount of sales for a substantial period preceding the
publication, the amount of sales for a [period] subsequent to the publication.” Id. (quoting
Mayflower Transit, 314 F. Supp. 2d at 378).
Here, Plaintiff does not allege a general diminution of business. Instead, Plaintiff argues
that it “identified specific individuals who raised concern over the value of the Property given the
low Zestimate.” P1. Opp’n at 39. However, Plaintiff included this information in an exhibit
attached to its brief in opposition, D.E. 16 at ¶ 4, not in its Complaint or attached to its Complaint;
therefore, the Court cannot consider it. Plaintiff failed to adequately plead special damages. The
Court dismisses Plaintiffs slander of title and product disparagement claim (Count IV) without
Tortious Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage
Lastly, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants tortiously interfered with its prospective economic
123-127. Under New Jersey law, a plaintiff must plead the following
elements to establish such a claim:
(1) a plaintiffs reasonable expectation of economic benefit or
advantage, (2) the defendant’s knowledge of that expectancy, (3) the
defendant’s wrongful, intentional interference with that expectancy,
(4) in the absence of interference, the reasonable probability that the
plaintiff would have received the anticipated economic benefit, and
(5) damages resulting from the defendant’s interference.
fineman v. Armstrong World Inthts., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 186 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Printing Mart—
Morristown v. Sharp Elec. Corp., 116 N.J. 739 (N.J. 1989)).
Defendants argue that Plaintiff failed to identify a single customer or single contract that
Zillow purportedly interfered with, and instead only generally alleged that it had “potential buyers”
that were deterred given the Property’s Zestimate. Def. Br. at 2 1-22. Defendants also allege that
Plaintiff failed to show wrongful, intentional interference by Defendants, as the Zestimate simply
relied on the same algorithmic estimation of value derived from publicly available data that it uses
for all properties. Id. at 22-23. Finally, Defendants argue that Plaintiff failed to plausibly show
how Defendants’ wrongful conduct was the cause (as opposed to a cause) for the Plaintiffs
inability to sell the Property to date. Id. at 23-24.
Plaintiff responds that it need not demonstrate the existence of a specific contract that
Defendant interfered with, as interference with the right to conduct negotiations that could lead to
a contract is sufficient. P1. Opp’n at 36-37 (citing McCite v.
21 N.J. Super. 591, 597
(App. Div. 1952)). Plaintiffs reliance on McCue is misplaced. In McCue, the plaintiff identified
a specific buyer who was interested in the property, determined to buy it, and likely would have
purchased it had it not been for the defendant’s wrongful interference. 21 N.J. Super. at 597. Here,
Plaintiff alleges no such buyer with any specificity in the Complaint. Instead, Plaintiff generally
alleges that it “reasonably anticipated that it would be able to sell the Hoover Property in an armslength transaction for a price at or reasonably near the appraised value.” Compl.
allegation is insufficient.
Plaintiff also argues that Defendants acted wrongfully and intentionally as evidenced by
the statements of one of Zillow’s founders. P1. Opp’n at 35, 38. Yet, these statements were not
included in, referred to, or attached as an exhibit to the Complaint; therefore, as explained above,
the Court cannot consider them.
The Court dismisses Plaintiffs tortious interference with
prospective economic advantage claim (Count V) without prejudice.
In sum, the Court grants Defendants’ motion to dismiss (D.E. H) without prejudice.
Plaintiff has thirty (30) days to file an amended complaint, if it so chooses, consistent with this
Opinion. If Plaintiff does not do so, this matter will be dismissed with prejudice. An appropriate
Order accompanies this Opinion.
Date: February 28, 2019
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?