A group of well-heeled women who paid up to $1,500 to snag a man through one of the nation's priciest and fast-growing online dating services — It's Just Lunch — has filed a civil lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, claiming the lunchtime setups were not what they bargained for.
Court papers filed last week portray the company — which has sold IJL franchises to more than 100 matchmaking entrepreneurs in big and small cities across the nation and worldwide — as focused solely on profits, at the expense of matchmaking, and willing to lie to clients to close deals.
"They lie every step of the way," plaintiff lawyer John Balestriere told ABC News. "They lie to sign up the client. They lie in the initial interview and they lie about the prospective dates."
The lawyer claimed clients are routinely misled about their blind dates, "including marital status, employment status, criminal background, age, health status, physical appearance, religious convictions, politicians and recreational interests."
In court papers, Balestriere claims that the company imposes monthly client sign-up quotas on their franchises, who receive commissions when they sign clients up. Franchises "do not receive any compensation on their sales … unless the total number of sales equals or exceeds the monthly quota set by IJL," plaintiffs say in the complaint. Balestriere is seeking class action status for the case.
Marcia Horowitz, a spokesperson for It's Just Lunch, defended the company.
"We have been in business for 16 years and in that time we have arranged millions of meetings that resulted in thousands of marriages," she said in a statement. "Our success is based largely on word of mouth and we wouldn't be successful without having a vocal majority of satisfied members. The allegations in the lawsuit are completely without merit and we will defend vigorously against them."
In court papers, Balestriere cites internal company documents, like a training manual included in the filing, called "First Date University." The document instructs employees to parrot company "control points," which the manual says "are said verbatim in an interview to establish control."
One point instructs employees, engaged in introductory pitch meetings with potential clients, to "stop and flip over your clipboard" halfway through the interview, and say, "OK, so far, I have three to four ideas for your first date," in order to land the client.
Another control point requires icebreaker questions, like "Did you read the article about us in Forbes, or the one in the Wall Street Journal?" to potential male clients, and "Have you had any friends that have gotten married through us… ?" to potential female clients, according to court papers.
A third point instructs employees, toward the close of an introductory meeting, to "reach over and grab your big stack of contracts on the clipboard. DO NOT EVER let go of them. Do not call it a 'contract' or an 'agreement.' It's a 'this,'" according to a copy of the manual.
Horowitz did not dispute the authenticity or contents of the cited documents. "We believe our uniform training guidelines insure consistent services and quality among our franchisees and the incomplete and out of context printed forms referenced in the lawsuit don't reflect the extensive phone and in-person process that takes place before we accept members.We believe our uniform training guidelines insure consistent services and quality among our franchisees and the incomplete and out of context printed forms referenced in the lawsuit don't reflect the extensive phone and in-person process that takes place before we accept members," she said in a statement.
Balestriere declined to identify or make his clients available for interviews. One plaintiff, identified as E. Barkman of New York City, is listed in the complaint, which was first reported in the New York Post.
"Not only do people feel screwed, but a lot of people are understandably reluctant to come forward and say they signed up," he said. "People are reluctant to admit, 'Yeah, I spent $1,500 to try and meet some guy.'"
In court papers, Balestriere cites complaints filed with consumeraffairs.com, an online "consumer news and resource center."
One woman complained to the site that she specifically requested no Republicans or "religious types," but her first two dates were with a Catholic Republican and a Seventh-day Adventist.
Another said a date with an art dealer turned out to be a guy who worked for a freight company. A landscaping executive turned out to be a man who mowed lawns, according to court records. Another woman said the blind date she met in a bar for an introductory drink turned out to be an alcoholic. Yet another said her setup was still legally married, a fact she said she was not made aware of by the company.
IJL's Web site boasts more than 30,000 current clients worldwide, and the California-based company reported $35 million in sales for the 2005 fiscal year, with a one-year-sales growth of 16.7 percent, according to Hoover's, an online business information research site.
The company was founded in 1992 by Andrea McGinty, after her fiance jilted her weeks before the wedding, Hoover's reports. McGinty went on to marry Dolan. They sold the business last year to a New York private equity firm Riverside Co.
Balestriere said that a three-month investigation by his law firm turned up "dozens and dozens" of disgruntled former clients of It's Just Lunch, and that he and his colleagues spoke with a number of former IJL employees. He did not make the former employees available.
One affluent former client of IJL contacted independently by ABC News said there didn't seem to be much "rhyme or reason" to the matches she was set up with.
"I was slightly disappointed, but I didn't really have very high expectations," she said. "I wouldn't have believed them if they had told me they were setting me up with some amazing Prince Charming type." The woman said that, in general, she'd had a good experience.
"It gets you out of the house," she said.
ABC News' Gerard Middleton contributed to this report.