A $20,000 fee to change a wedding date? New bill aims to protect people from ‘bad actor catering halls’

Dana and Grant Spoltore, both nurses, have treated Covid-19 patients throughout the pandemic and said they knew they’d be unable to host 238 guests and an 11-piece band at an indoor wedding reception at a country club near Atlantic City, New Jersey, where they’d planned to marry in October.

A general manager at the venue, Atlantic City Country Club, had promised in an email on July 31 that they’d be refunded the money they’d prepaid — less their deposit — if Covid-19 restrictions prevented the wedding and reception from taking place as contracted. But the couple haven’t been refunded their $7,500.

Martell’s Waters Edge, a waterfront venue in Bayville, where Joseph and Natalie Scarpitto planned to hold their wedding and reception in June, won’t refund the more than $10,000 they paid toward their balance — even though the venue couldn’t deliver the services promised because of state restrictions that banned large indoor gatherings, the couple said.

Martell’s Waters Edge declined to comment, and Atlantic City Country Club didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

These complaints are among several dozen that New Jersey state Sen. Vin Gopal, a Democrat, has received this year. The accounts prompted him to propose a bipartisan bill to protect people against what he describes as “bad actor catering halls” that have refused to refund deposits and other payments for events canceled because of the coronavirus.

Bill S2896/A4658 would require businesses to refund payments for events canceled because of the pandemic and would cap the amount they could charge to reschedule events at no more than the rate of inflation. The measure has been referred to committee but not yet considered. Gopal said he is still meeting with stakeholders and reviewing legal obstacles before he finalizes the bill. He plans to move it in January.

These complaints are not unique to New Jersey. Couples across the country have reported similar experiences. But New Jersey appears to be the first state attempting to intervene. So far, these are the only proposed bills in the country specific to venue refund practices, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New Jersey, which has some of the nation’s strongest consumer protection laws, is among the five states that have seen the most deaths from the coronavirus. More than 16,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the state. All of the couples who spoke to NBC News said they don’t believe this should even be an issue at a time when millions of Americans are out of work, facing eviction and dealing with food insecurity. But they believe, if left unchecked, some businesses will take advantage of consumers.

In an interview Monday, Gopal said some constituents have complained of being charged $20,000 to reschedule a 2020 wedding, which he deemed “disgraceful.” He said there’s no justification for businesses to keep deposits or charge such a large amount to reschedule events that were canceled because of Covid-19.

“There needs to be skin in the game for everyone,” Gopal said. “Everyone’s got to lose a little bit here.”

Many couples say they’re the only ones losing.

“We understand times are tough for everybody, but it’s just not right to hold our money,” said Dana Spoltore, 28, who got married at a scaled-down outdoor wedding in October. “This is something we shouldn’t have to worry about on top of everything else.”

Joseph Scarpitto married Natalie in a small ceremony in his parents’ backyard on June 13, their original wedding date. They said they felt forced to reschedule their reception for May 7, 2021, to avoid losing more than $10,000. Martell’s Waters Edge refunded them the ceremony fee since they’ve already gotten married.

“Covid-19 is affecting everyone, including businesses,” Joseph Scarpitto, 31, said. “But we don’t feel it’s right to keep our money against our wishes.”

Some people haven’t waited for legislation to pass and have opted instead to sue.

Attorney Corinne Maloney is representing Michael Rothman, the father of a groom in a case against the Park Chateau in East Brunswick, where his son’s wedding and reception were to take place June 13, and Michael Verzi, the father of a bride whose wedding and reception were scheduled for Aug. 15 at the Park Savoy Estate in Florham Park with a minimum of 200 guests.

Coronavirus restrictions prevented both weddings from taking place as contracted. The two establishments, along with Nanina’s in the Park, a venue in Belleville, have the same owners and have taken a very similar litigation strategy: delay and cause expense, Maloney claims.

“A consumer will file a complaint and immediately they get hit with a costly motion practice to dismiss the complaint,” Maloney said. “It’s really just designed to discourage the consumers financially and emotionally from proceeding with their actions.”

The venues said Maloney’s claim is “absolutely baseless and without merit.”

The venues’ lawyers filed motions to dismiss Verzi’s and Rothman’s lawsuits. The motion to dismiss Rothman’s lawsuit was denied. The motion to dismiss Verzi’s lawsuit is scheduled to be heard on Jan. 8.

Maloney said some venues are taking advantage of people who prepaid the full cost of a wedding or 50 to 70 percent of the cost.

“They’re really leveraging people and taking advantage of the pandemic,” Maloney said.

Rothman and Verzi both contracted for Saturday weddings, the most expensive day of the week to hold a wedding and reception. Rothman alleges the venue offered only weekdays to reschedule the wedding and reception. Verzi alleges the venue advised it would only offer weekdays because available weekend dates were being reserved for new customers. Four weeks before the scheduled wedding, Verzi said the venue offered one Sunday afternoon in 2021. The lawsuits also allege the venues refused to refund the plaintiffs’ funds. Among other claims, the plaintiffs both assert violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, which could entitle them to additional damages.

In a statement, the Park Chateau, the Park Savoy Estate and Nanina’s in the Park said every couple signed a contract that says “if the wedding cannot legally occur because of COVID-19,” then it will be rescheduled for the next available date.

The venues said that “the pandemic and resulting Executive Orders have upended the wedding industry” and their clients’ special day.

“Since the pandemic began, we have abided by our contracts and have worked tirelessly with our couples to reschedule nearly 550 weddings,” the venues said, adding that they have “provided many upgrades and enhancements for events postponed due to the pandemic.”

“We remain committed to working with all of our couples to provide them with the wedding of their dreams,” the statement concluded.

The venues said they have incurred “significant” financial losses and that from 2019 to 2020, weddings are down 70 percent across the three properties. In this week of 2019, they hosted 45 events across the three venues compared to just one event this week.

Gopal is looking to cap how much venues can charge to reschedule a wedding at $5,000 to $10,000 and for venues to be required to offer a comparable date.

Thomas Daidone, owner-operator of The Estate at Florentine Gardens in River Vale, doesn’t support broad restrictions on wedding venues because he said they don’t all charge the same amount per person and because what some people consider a date change fee is just a new price structure for a different year. He also said comparable dates sometimes can’t be offered for rescheduled events because they aren’t available.

“All we want to do is work it out with people, but I can’t give you what I don’t have,” he said in an interview Friday.

The per-person cost at The Estate at Florentine Gardens for a Saturday night event averages $250 to $350.

“As we speak with clients and they remind us it’s not their fault, we also remind them it’s not our fault,” said Daidone, who has owned the venue for nearly 33 years.

His venue has also been sued by multiple people this year. Daidone said all of those suits are pending and that he has been able to reschedule 90 percent of the events that were canceled because of the pandemic.

From March, when Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all nonessential businesses to close, through December, Daidone said he has lost $8 million. He hasn’t refunded any of his clients’ payments because he said his venue’s contracts have stated for many years that all payments are nonrefundable.

“If we would’ve done what the client would want us to do, every venue in New Jersey would have to file bankruptcy,” he said.

Daidone doesn’t believe most people are aware that “venues have tremendous amounts of expenses,” including some they have incurred to implement safety protocols. He said he had a $100,000 air-scrubbing system installed that “kills” viruses. He’s also needed more staff to clean and serve guests for the events that have taken place since some restrictions were lifted.

When he introduced the bill over the summer, Gopal said it prompted some venues to “dial back” their policies.

“I have a lot of sympathy for catering halls and small businesses,” Gopal said. “And I do believe that 95 percent of them are doing the right thing.”

“The problem is that we’ve got some offenders out there,” he said.