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Judge: Bellport wholesaler didn't overcharge as pandemic began

New York State Attorney General Letitia James

New York State Attorney General Letitia James Credit: Charles Eckert

A Bellport wholesaler did not overcharge customers for disinfectant in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, despite "isolated instances" of inflated prices, a state justice ruled Wednesday.

In a two-page decision, State Supreme Court Justice Eileen A. Rakower said Quality King Distributors' prices for Lysol products were not "unconscionable" and did not appear to be very different from prices charged for the same items before the health crisis.

"While there may have been isolated instances of price increases for Lysol 19 to certain customers which were seemingly increased to the extreme, Quality King did not uniformly raise their prices on Lysol products to these customers," Rakower wrote after hearing oral arguments a day earlier. "Quality King demonstrated that their prices were competitive and even lower than their competitors who were offering the same products in the same market. Additionally, Quality King demonstrated their own increased cost for Lysol 19."

New York Attorney General Letitia James in May had sued Quality King and its chief executive, Glenn Nussdorf, alleging that the company had overcharged discount and grocery stores for the disinfectant between January and April. State prosecutors said the price that Quality King charged its retailers for Lysol 19, a 19-ounce spray can, skyrocketed from about $4.25 before the pandemic to as much as $9.15 per can.

Quality King's allegedly inflated prices caused consumers to pay up to $16.99 for a can of Lysol that had cost between $5 and $8 before COVID-19 reached the metropolitan area, James said in May. The attorney general's office said then it wanted Quality King to pay restitution to its customers.

In a statement released after Rakower ruled, Anthony J. Viola, a lawyer for Quality King, said the state's case against the firm "was legally ill-conceived and factually misleading."

"If it is proven, price-gouging is a serious problem," Viola wrote. "But Quality King voluntarily and responsibly worked with the attorney general’s office to supply information and answer questions and ask for guidance about the vague and ambiguous law. Instead of engaging in good faith, the attorney general chose to sue."

A spokesperson for the attorney general's office said lawyers there had not decided whether to appeal.

In her decision, Rakower said she compared Quality King's prices for disinfectant before and after a March 7 COVID-19 emergency declaration issued by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Rakower said price increases after the emergency declaration "were not, as a matter of law, unconscionable or overall extreme."

In May, James' office said the case against Quality King was part of a broader investigation of price-gouging by multiple stores and companies during the early days of the pandemic. James said thousands of complaints had been filed by consumers who said they had been charged higher prices for essential consumer products.