District Court Holds Gift Cardholders Suffer No Damages from Inability to Apply Unexhausted Balances

On August 17, the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York dismissed a putative class action alleging deceptive sales practices under New York law against gift card distributors. Preira v. Bancorp Bank, No 11-1547, 2012 WL 3541702 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2012). The plaintiff alleged that the defendants advertised that the gift cards could be used like debit cards, but that in fact merchants would not allow cardholders to conduct split transactions where the card was used to pay for a portion of a transaction and other means were used to pay the remaining balance. This restriction, the plaintiff claimed, prevented cardholders from completely depleting the value of the gift cards. The court rejected the plaintiff’s claim, holding that she failed to allege a cognizable injury because (i) some merchants do accept split transactions, (ii) the cardholder agreement provides that cards can be returned to the issuer in exchange for the unused balance, which never expires, and (iii) even if the damages are not based on the loss of the remaining value of the cards but on misleading statements that lead cardholders to believe the cards function like debit cards, the plaintiff failed to allege that debit cardholders can make split purchases at any retailer and, in any event, deception itself, without further injury, is not a cognizable harm under state law.

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CFPB Seeks Input on Conflict Between State and Federal Gift Card Laws

On August 16, the CFPB issued a Notice that it intends to make a preemption determination with regard to two state gift card laws. The CFPB is seeking public comment to inform its response to requests that the CFPB address conflicts between the EFTA’s gift card expiration provisions and those in Maine’s and Tennessee’s laws. The Notice explains that Maine’s and Tennessee’s laws presume gift cards to be “abandoned” and release businesses from the obligation to honor the gift cards after two years of inactivity, while federal law generally prohibits the sale of a gift card with an expiration date under five years. The CFPB requests public comment on whether there is any inconsistency between the identified state and federal expiration date provisions and, if so, on the nature of the inconsistency. The CFPB also seeks comment on whether card issuers could comply with the federal and state laws as they currently exist, and whether the Maine and Tennessee laws provide greater consumer protection than the federal law.

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New York Appellate Court Holds that Federal Law Does Not Preempt State Contract and Consumer Protection Laws in Gift Card Suit

On April 17, 2012, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court held that federal laws and regulations do not preempt state contract and consumer protection laws, reversing an earlier trial court decision dismissing a lawsuit concerning gift card expiration dates and renewal fees. Sharabani v. Simon Property Group, Inc., No. 2010-07552, 2012 WL 1320067 (N.Y. App. Div. Apr. 17, 2012). The plaintiff filed an action based on New York state law to recover damages arising out of a gift card that required a “reactivation fee” for use after its expiration date. The defendant, a federally chartered thrift that managed the gift card program, and its co-defendant moved to dismiss the lawsuit on various grounds, including that all of the plaintiff’s state law claims were preempted by federal law. The court held that although Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) regulations permitted the issuance of gift cards with administrative fees, the OTS has explicitly stated that its regulations do not preempt state contract law, commercial law, tort law, or criminal law to the extent those laws are consistent with the OTS’s intent to occupy the field of federal savings associations’ deposit-related regulations. Based on this regulatory guidance, the court determined that only the claim based on New York’s abandoned property law was preempted by federal law because the OTS has specific regulations regarding abandoned accounts. The court affirmed dismissal of the abandoned property claim and remanded the remaining claims based on state contract and consumer protection laws to the trial court for evaluation under the remaining prongs of the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

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Third Circuit Upholds District Court’s Order Enjoining Full Enforcement of New Jersey Gift Card Escheat Law

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to enjoin New Jersey from fully applying and enforcing its gift card escheat law. N.J. Retail Merchs. Assoc. v. Sidamon-Eristoff, No. 10-4551, 2012 WL 19385 (3d Cir. Jan. 5, 2012). Retailers challenged the constitutionality of a 2010 amendment to New Jersey’s unclaimed property statute that provided for the custodial escheat of store valued cards (SVCs or gift cards). Under New Jersey’s Chapter 25, SVCs are presumed to be abandoned after two years of inactivity and issuers are required to transfer to the state the remaining value on the SVCs at the end of the two-year abandonment period. In addition, issuers are required to obtain the name and address of the purchaser or owner of each SVC issued or sold and, at a minimum, maintain a record of the zip code of the owner or purchaser, and there is a presumption that the address of the owner or purchaser is the same as the address of the place where the SVC was purchased or issued. This latter provision has the effect of causing unused funds to escheat to New Jersey, rather than to the state where the card issuer is domiciled, when the last known address of the purchaser is unknown. In response to challenges under the Supremacy Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Commerce Clause, the Contract Clause, and the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s preliminary injunction enjoining the retroactive application of Chapter 25 to SVCs redeemable for merchandise or services that were issued before Chapter 25’s enactment. It also upheld the district court’s preliminary injunction enjoining the prospective enforcement of the place-of-purchase presumption. The court, however, declined to prospectively enjoin the data collection provision or the two-year abandonment provision, finding that SVC issuers failed to show a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of these claims and that the data collection provision is severable from the place-of-purchase provision.

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