A Florida lawyer who got a telephone call asking for money on behalf of a charity frequently criticized in this space has filed a small-clams-court lawsuit alleging fraud and deceptive practices.
The civil lawsuit by St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew D. Weidner names Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund; its parent unit, Community Charity Advancement, of Pompano Beach, Fla.; and something called The Fundraising Center. The action, which alleges “furtherance of a fraudulent charitable solicitation scheme,” was filed on August 14 in the Small Claims Division of Pinellas County Court and carries the case number 15-006598-SC.
I sent a request for comment about the lawsuit to BCRSF/CCA through its website and will update this if I hear back. Based on my past experience with this charity, that’s not too likely.
Three times I have nominated BCRSF/CCA for my list of America’s Stupidest Charities. Why? Its paid telemarketers kept calling the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money despite previous negative write-ups (click here, here and here).
Why the previous negative write-ups? According to the charity’s own filings, 82% of the cash raised went for fundraising. (In 2014 that figure rose to 87%, according to data in a handwritten filing the charity just sent to the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Office). Only 1% of that cash went toward breast cancer research or breast cancer support, which a casual (or uninformed) donor might think is the major purpose of a charity using the name Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund. Moreover, the charity on its website falsely claimed affiliations with at least one reputable medical institution, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, here in Seattle.
In you were wondering, BCRSF/CCA is not part of the pending civil lawsuit that the Federal Trade Commission and all state attorneys general brought in May alleging fraud against Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Breast Cancer Society and Children’s Cancer Fund of America. These four are run by the Reynolds family of Knoxville, Tenn. Control of BCRSF/CCA–founded just a few years ago as Seven Sisters of Healing Inc., with no mention of cancer in its original charitable mission–remains murky.
According to the suit, on August 12 at 9:34 a.m., Weidner received a call on his cell phone. “A prerecorded female voice began speaking identifying herself as an agent of the ‘Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund” and asking for money, the complaint says. “At some point after the monologue began it became apparent that the voice was a prerecorded script because the voice would not respond to inquiries or questions.” (In my experience, the voice is computer controlled but monitored by a real human and capable of answering some basic questions.)
Following the call, the complaint said, Weidner called the number on his cell phone’s caller ID and got a message identifying the number as one belonging to The Fundraising Center. (Again in my experience, fundraising calls from BCRSF/CCA came from Courtesy Call Inc. of Las Vegas.) Weidner then found the charity’s website, which lists many prominent cancer institutions as “program partners” or recipient of research grants. Weider wrote that he “suspects that these reputable institutions are not in fact affiliated in any way with the Defendants and that their identity is being used in furtherance of a fraudulent charitable solicitation scheme.”
Weidner filed his lawsuit just two days later. He cited three claims for relief:
–Violation of the Federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227, which generally prohibits “using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice” to call a cell phone or a home landline. That law, however, contains an exemption for calls “by a tax-exempt nonprofit organization.”
–Violation of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, because the BCRSF/CCA website lists about 20 “well-regarded institutions” as “program partners” or recipient of research support, including Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “Any contributions that would be made would not in fact be directed toward legitimate charitable purposes,” the complaint states.
–Fraud. “The representations made during the telephone solicitation that money provided to the Defendants would be used to research cancer treatments and care for cancer patients was not a true statement of fact,” the complaint said.
Weidner’s lawsuit seeks unspecified money damages. Since the maximum award in Florida small claims courts is just $5,000, the single lawsuit by itself has no big-bucks potential. In a telephone call today, Weidner told me that to establish standing, or the legal right to sue, he made a $10.00 contribution–arguably the extent of his individual damages–and is already out of pocket the $320.00 filing fee.
However, as a “consumer justice” lawyer, Weidner is clearly trolling for business himself. “When you’re called by strange numbers, DO NOT IGNORE THOSE CALLS,” he just wrote on the blog of his law firm’s website. “Answer the call, and then take down detailed notes, AND THEN CALL ME! So we can file a lawsuit like the one I filed.” In another post, Weidner, who alerted me to his lawsuit, linked to one of my New To Seattle essays.
Weidner told me today his goal is to shut down BCRSF/CCA through multiple small lawsuits that have to be defended by spending money on lawyers. “Death by a thousand cuts,” he declared.
Like I said, this could get interesting.