Ancestry.com: Let arbitrator decide on auto-enrolling membership lawsuit

This is not a matter for the San Diego court, says digital family history service

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Springer of unwelcome family tree surprises and favorite of investigative genealogy hunting uncles everywhere, Ancestry.com has tried to invoke an arbitration clause to fight off a 77-page false advertising lawsuit accusing it of violating California auto-renewal laws.

Among other things, the would-be class-action lawsuit accuses Ancestry.com – which was just bought for $4.7bn by private equity biz Blackstone – of enrolling consumers in automatic renewal membership programs without asking them or providing the "clear and conspicuous" disclosures mandated by California law.

Asking the court to "compel arbitration of all of [the] plaintiff's claims" this week, the dotcom said [PDF] the arbitration agreement had been clearly marked out in the terms and conditions of its members' agreements, including the one the lead plaintiff, Marta Carrera Chapple, agreed to.

Ancestry's legal team said in the motion, filed on Wednesday, that it was "made on the grounds that the plaintiff agreed to arbitrate her claims against Ancestry on a non-class basis and further agreed any disputes concerning the arbitrability of her claims must be submitted to the arbitrator for resolution."

The sueball was flung in state court in June but shifted to federal court in late July because it seeks over $250m in restitution.

The June complaint [PDF] also claimed the firm posts charges to consumers' credit or debit cards for membership charges without first obtaining the consumers' affirmative consent to an agreement.

In its current T&Cs, the genealogy site says:

Except for gift memberships, all memberships renew automatically unless they're cancelled. If you cancel during the refund period, your membership will end immediately and will not renew. If you cancel outside of the refund period, your membership will end at the end of your current period and will not renew.

The complaint declares that if Carrera Chapple had known that she would be enrolled "in an automatically renewing program that would result in additional charges being posted to her credit card, Plaintiff either would not have submitted her credit card information to Defendants or would have cancelled so as to avoid any charges to her credit card during or after March 2014."

The lawsuit cites hundreds of complaints surrounding the auto-renewal issue against the firm on various websites including Better Business Bureau, Yelp, ConsumerAffairs and Ripoff Report. One such complaint was from a consumer who thought they had signed up to a standalone "DNA kit" service: "Without notice they charged my Paypal account $104 for a renewal of service. I never signed up for any annual service. I only used their dna kit. As soon as they charged me without notice, I contacted them well within the 7 day period... They wait[ed] till the full seven days had passed before reaching back [sic] to me to say they do not issue refunds."

The sueball claimed the firm breaches the California Automatic Renewal Law or "ARL".

If nothing else, it's a reminder to businesses to take a look at their automatic renewal terms and flow of disclosures. The attached exhibits do show mentions of "renewals" and "continued service", but the court – or the arbitrator, if Ancestry's motion prevails – will need to decide if Ancestry was clear enough and went far enough.

The next hearing is on 13 October. We've asked Ancestry.com for comment. ®

The case is Marta Carrera Chapple v. Ancestry.com Operations Inc. et al., case number 3:20-cv-01456, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California

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