The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that, aside from one very specific set of documents that almost nobody uses anymore, Massachusetts notaries can charge whatever the market can bear and that a man's legal demand for damages for what he feels were overcharges for getting documents notarized should fail because his claim relies on a law written in 1836 about those documents.
The court's ruling comes in the form of an answer to a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit by Kevin Richardson II of Beverly over the amount he and his wife were charged to have eight documents notarized at their local UPS Store between 2012 and 2018. Richardson charges state law bars notaries for charging more than $1.25 per document, but that he and his wife were charged $10 a document, so he wants his money back - plus $5.9 million for his troubles, and that of other UPS Store customers in the state. The judge asked the SJC whether the state really does limit notary charges to $1.25 a document.
The state's highest court ruled, nope, and said Richardson and his attorney misinterpreted the law they cited as still having much relevance today.
Specifically, Richardson's argument hinges on Mass. General Law 262, Sect. 41, which sets maximum fees for notarizing various documents.
The problem for Richardson, however, is that when the law was written, in 1836, Section 41 was about a very specific sort of notarized document, one rarely in use today, the court said:
By its plain language, § 41 applies to fees charged by notaries public in connection with the act of "protesting" the nonpayment of a negotiable instrument. A protest is a series of notarial acts in which a notary public prepares a certificate of dishonor verifying that a negotiable instrument, such as a check or promissory note, was dishonored by nonacceptance or nonpayment. ... The certificate is used to recover the money owed. ... Although this process rarely is used in modern times, it was a common procedure in 1836, when the law was first passed.
Richardson's suit also notes that the law concludes, ""[T]he whole cost of noting . . . shall in no case exceed one dollar and twenty-five cents," which they interpreted as meaning it applied to every single document a notary might affix a seal to.
And here again, the court noted that while English usage may have changed in 184 years, the law has not, and that it needs to be read in its 19th-century context of being about trying to deal with bad checks:
The plaintiff argues that "noting" should be broadly defined according to various dictionary definitions of the verb "to note" and that the phrase "the whole cost of noting" refers to all notarial acts, thereby limiting the fee for all notarial acts to $1.25. ... When §41 was enacted in the mid-1800s, "noting" commonly was known as a step in the process of protesting the failure to honor a negotiable instrument. See F.M. Hinch, John's American Notary and Commissioner of Deeds Manual §442, at 281 (3d ed. 1922). ...
The answer does not end the case, however - that is up to the federal judge to decide.