Retailer loses federal appeal

The Baltimore Sun

BlueHippo Funding LLC, a Woodlawn-based company that has sparked consumer complaints nationwide for allegedly overcharging or failing to deliver electronic goods to customers, may face additional lawsuits after a federal appeals court ruling this week.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., dismissed an appeal filed by BlueHippo after a federal judge in Baltimore ruled in March that only customers who had had signed agreements to resolve complaints through arbitration were bound by that process. BlueHippo had wanted all disgruntled customers to be required to go through arbitration.

BlueHippo, a national company that markets computers and other electronic equipment to customers with shaky credit, has drawn consumer complaints from across the country and prompted federal and state investigations. Consumers pay BlueHippo by electronic debits from their bank accounts, as often as once a week.

David J. Marshall, an attorney involved in the Maryland case filed by BlueHippo customers, said the appeals court ruling opened the way for other lawsuits.

"We now plan to rejuvenate our case in California and put BlueHippo out of business," said Marshall, who also is co-lead counsel in a lawsuit filed in March 2006 in San Francisco that seeks restitution and damages for multiple consumers whom he estimated represented 10 percent to 15 percent of BlueHippo's customers.

A spokesman for BlueHippo declined to specify whether the company would appeal the latest ruling.

"The company will continue to vigorously pursue the matter," said Peter Holran, a spokesman for BlueHippo. "This is just one step in a continuing and complicated litigation matter."

The Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland has received 1,487 complaints about BlueHippo from across the country over the past 36 months, said Kerri Kelly, spokeswoman for the organization.

In the past 12 months, there were 690 complaints, she said.

That office has one employee devoted almost exclusively to the handling of BlueHippo matters. This month, 57 complaints had been resolved as of yesterday and another 30 remain unanswered by BlueHippo, she said.

The bulk of the complaints over the past 36 months center around delivery, refund and exchange issues, Kelly noted. Currently, 117 complaints are in the dispute resolution process, she said.

In May, while acknowledging no wrongdoing, BlueHippo agreed to a settlement with the Maryland attorney general's office to give refunds to customers for electronic goods they didn't receive or for which they were overcharged.

The settlement resolved allegations that the firm and owner Joseph K. Rensin engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices by selling computers, televisions and other goods for two or more times retail price and placing delivery conditions that prevented many consumers from receiving them at all.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's office said yesterday that consumers will receive $1.4 million in restitution. In addition, BlueHippo will cancel $1.5 million in debt owed by customers.

The computer sales and finance company also was required to pay $300,000 to the attorney general's consumer protection division.

"They are paying us the money," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler's office. "Consumers will start getting their money after the first of the year."

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