WASHINGTON, D.C. — Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced a lawsuit against Helen Mart, a convenience store located in Ward 7, for price gouging during the District’s state of emergency. In response to a complaint submitted in April, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) investigated and found the store was charging $12.99 for 121-oz. bottles of Clorox Bleach—200 percent higher than prices offered by other District retailers. OAG filed suit after Helen Mart refused to comply with a cease and desist letter ordering the store to reduce its price. Since March 11, OAG has received more than 120 complaints regarding price gouging and issued 23 cease and desist letters. This lawsuit is OAG’s first enforcement action against a company for price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Price gouging in a time of a public health emergency is illegal, and the Office of the Attorney General will enforce the law against stores like Helen Mart that flatly refuse to adhere to a cease and desist letter that it received from my office,” said AG Racine. “Residents who believe they are being overcharged should contact OAG. My office will file lawsuits to stop retailers from taking advantage of consumers’ urgent health needs during this crisis.”
The District’s Natural Disaster Consumer Protection Act (NDCPA) went into effect when Mayor Bowser declared a state of emergency on March 11. The NDCPA prohibits individuals or businesses from charging higher than the normal average retail price for goods and services. Specifically, the law prevents retailers from raising costs for services more than 10 percent above the price charged within 90 days before the declaration. For goods and merchandise, the law bars an increase in markup over wholesale costs above the markup percentage in place 90 days before the declaration. In short, a merchant may increase prices to cover increased wholesale costs during an emergency, but they may not increase their price to increase profits.
Helen Mart, LLC, operates a convenience store registered to do business in the District, located at 4907 Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, NE. Following up on an anonymous complaint, OAG sent an investigator to Helen Mart on April 22, 2020, who confirmed the store had priced 121-oz. bottles of Clorox Bleach at $12.99—a 200 percent increase over the $4.29 price offered by other D.C. retailers. The next day, OAG hand-delivered a cease and desist letter to a store employee, ordering the store to lower the price of Clorox Bleach within 24 hours. On April 29, OAG sent an investigator back to Helen Mart, who confirmed with an employee that the store had not lowered its pricing.
In response, OAG filed a lawsuit against Helen Mart in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. OAG requests that the Court force Helen Mart to cease selling Clorox Bleach at prices that violate the District’s price gouging law, and that the Court impose civil penalties. The penalty for price gouging in D.C. is $5,000 per violation.
A copy of the complaint is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-05/Helen-Mart-Complaint.pdf
Report Price Gouging
To help OAG investigate price gouging complaints, consumers should attempt to identify the prices of goods and services before the emergency declaration on March 11. If you believe an individual or business is engaging in price gouging, submit a complaint to OAG by:
OAG’s COVID-19 Resources
In response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, OAG is teleworking until at least May 15. You can access OAG services online and over the phone during our telework period at:
- Website: www.oag.dc.gov
- Email: email@example.com
- Phone: (202) 727-3400
- Fax: (202) 347-8922
- TTY: (202) 727-3400
Consumer Alert: Protect yourself from scams, price gouging, discrimination, and get information about your rights during the pandemic by reading OAG’s Consumer Alert (available in Amharic, Chinese, French, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese).
For more District Government COVID-19 updates visit: coronavirus.dc.gov