WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced a settlement with Austin Royster Funeral Home and its Chief Operating Officer (COO), Jamelle Royster, requiring them to pay $280,000 in relief to more than 60 eligible consumers who paid for funeral services they never received or suffered other financial losses at the hands of this business. In 2017, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) filed suit against the Brightwood funeral home and Jamelle Royster for misleading seniors, disabled individuals, and grieving families; overcharging for funeral services; charging for services it did not provide; and doing business without the proper licenses. In addition to securing relief for harmed consumers, today’s settlement resolving OAG’s 2017 lawsuit requires the funeral home and Jamelle Royster to pay $20,000 in penalties to the District, permanently terminates the funeral home operation, and blocks Jamelle Royster from doing any kind of funeral business in the District. AG Racine also introduced the “Funeral Services Consumer Protection Amendment Act of 2019” in the Council of the District of Columbia to strengthen protections for District consumers when they are at their most vulnerable.
“This settlement brings closure and monetary relief to families that Austin Royster funeral home misled while they were grieving for their loved ones,” said AG Racine. “The Office of the Attorney General fights hard to protect District consumers and will bring enforcement actions against funeral homes or other businesses that take advantage of D.C. residents.”
Austin Royster is a funeral home located on Kennedy Street in Northwest D.C. that operated from the mid-1990s until it closed in December 2017. Funeral homes arrange memorial services and burial or cremation of the dead. They are also responsible for obtaining necessary paperwork, including obtaining death certificates. Funeral homes frequently work with families after a person passes away, but in some cases, individuals make arrangements for funerals before a death has occurred. Customers may also pay for funeral services in advance, depositing money into what are known as “pre-need accounts.” In the District, funeral businesses are licensed and regulated by District government.
In November 2017, AG Racine and against the funeral home after discovering it was operating without proper licenses and was engaged in numerous deceptive and potentially unlawful practices. According to , filed under the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, Austin Royster allegedly harmed consumers by:
- Misleading consumers about its ability to provide funeral services: Austin Royster claimed to be able to provide funeral services, when in fact it was operating without a license and therefore unable to obtain death certificates, which was one of its most important responsibilities. Without a death certificate, a grieving family cannot conclude their loved ones’ affairs or even legally bury or cremate their body. As a result, numerous families were stuck in limbo, unable to access the deceased’s bank accounts or insurance policies, begin probate proceedings, or lay their relatives to rest.
- Taking money from consumers and failing to refund overpayments: Austin Royster received payments from consumers or from life insurance policies to cover funeral costs. In some instances, the funeral home received payments from life insurance totaling significantly more than the actual agreed-upon costs of the services they provided. Despite requirements that Austin Royster return excess funds to consumers, the funeral home held on to that money. OAG alleges Austin Royster accepted a life insurance payment from one family of $53,000 for funeral services costing only $5,767 and then failed to return the $47,243 owed to the consumer.
- Failing to provide funeral services as promised: Austin Royster deceived consumers about the services it would provide, including failing to forward payments it received that were owed to third parties such as cemeteries (for burial services) or newspapers (for obituary notices).
Austin Royster also allegedly accepted “pre-need” payments from consumers for their future funeral needs but did not hold that money in escrow as required or return the funds to consumers when the funeral home closed.
The settlement agreement resolves OAG’s allegations that Austin Royster violated the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which prohibits companies from engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices. As part of the settlement, Austin Royster and Jamelle Royster will:
- Pay $280,000 in relief to harmed consumers: Austin Royster will provide $280,000 to the Attorney General’s restitution fund. These funds will be paid to more than 60 eligible consumers who have filed complaints with OAG and suffered documented financial harm from doing business with Austin Royster. Austin Royster is required to pay the District by February 26, 2019. OAG will contact eligible consumers about next steps.
- Permanently cease offering funeral services: OAG obtained a permanent injunction against both Austin Royster and Jamelle Royster. This injunction bars the funeral home from re-opening and will prevent Jamelle Royster from offering any kind of funeral services in the District.
- Pay a $20,000 penalty to the District: Austin Royster will pay the District $20,000 in penalties for violating consumer protection law.
A copy of the settlement agreement is available at: http://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-01/ARFH-Royster-Consent-Order.pdf
In addition to securing relief, penalties, and a permanent injunction against Austin Royster and Jamelle Royster, OAG secured a court order that will allow any remaining families who had been unable to obtain death certificates through Austin Royster, to obtain them now. That order is available at: http://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-01/ARFH-Limited-Suspension-Requirements-Issuing-Death-Certificates.pdf
New Legislation to Protect Consumers
Today, AG Racine introduced the “Funeral Services Consumer Protection Amendment Act of 2019” in the Council of the District of Columbia to strengthen protections for District consumers when they are at their most vulnerable. Among its provisions, the bill requires the establishment of a commission that will create a “Funeral Bill of Rights” for consumers. The legislation also requires licensed funeral directors to post the “Funeral Bill of Rights,” distribute it to consumers purchasing funeral goods or services, and retain records of the disclosure for a period of three years. Finally, the legislation will require funeral homes in the District to post their price-lists on their websites to help consumers have information about the costs of funeral services and be able to compare prices easily.
AG Racine’s “Funeral Services Consumer Protection Amendment Act of 2019” proposed legislation is available at: http://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-01/Funeral-Services-Consumer-Protection-Act-of-2019.pdf
Consumer Resources for Planning a Funeral
Planning a funeral can be stressful and trying to understand all the options and costs can be confusing. Consumers can find information about their rights when shopping for funeral services in the District of Columbia on OAG’s website at: . Access OAG’s survey of prices at District funeral homes at:
How to Report Unfair Business Practices
To report scams, fraud, or unfair business practices, you can submit a consumer complaint by calling OAG’s Consumer Protection Hotline at (202) 442-9828 or online through our .