Justices to Weigh Retailer Rights on Credit Cards

     WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to weigh the constitutionality of a law that bars retailers from imposing a surcharge on credit card purchases.
     On the books in New York since 1984, General Business Law Sec. 518, imposes criminal penalties on businesses that charge customers a so-called “swipe fee.”
     Expressions Hair Design and several other Empire State businesses brought their suit over the law in 2013.
     They are lobbying for a reversal after the Second Circuit ruled against them last year. In granting the retailers a writ of certiorari Thursday, the Supreme Court followed its custom of not including any comment.
     The law at issue states that “No seller in any sales transaction may impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check or similar means.”
     It also states that any seller who violated the law would be charged with a misdemeanor, and if found guilty, would be subject to a fine of up to $500 or a year in jail, or both.
     While the bill for Sec. 518 said it sought to protect consumers from “dubious marketing practices and variable purchase prices,” it also said merchants could offer a discount for cash.
     New York’s Consumer Protection Board has supported the bill, but the Retail Council of New York State opposes it, arguing that swipe fees required merchants to up prices.
     Indeed, the businesses who sued the state said they would like to charge credit card customers a surcharge, rather than give cash customers a discount, to account for the swipe fees.
     Expressions, a hair salon in Vestal, N.Y. – the only plaintiff that claims to currently charge different amounts for credit and cash purchases – says it would like to charge 3 percent more for the former method – but fears that calling this a “surcharge,” might violate Sec. 518.
     The plaintiffs said Sec. 518 violates the First Amendment’s right to free speech, is vague under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, and is preempted by the Sherman Antitrust Act.
     U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff sided with the retailers in 2013, holding that the law burdens speech by relying on “words and labels, rather than economic realities,” and that its “virtually incomprehensible distinction between what a vendor can and cannot tell its customers offends the First Amendment and renders Sec. 518 unconstitutional.”
     In vacating that ruling a year ago, the Second Circuit tossed aside the plaintiffs’ claim that credit card surcharges and cash discounts are just “labels” that draw distinct consumer reactions.
     “In fact, consumers react negatively to credit-card surcharges not because surcharges ‘communicate’ any particular ‘message,’ but because consumers dislike being charged extra,” U.S. Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston wrote for the three-judge panel.
     “If a consumer thinks, based on a seller’s sticker price, that she will be paying $100 for the seller’s goods or services, then she will be annoyed if it turns out that she actually has to pay $103 simply because she has chosen to use a credit card; by contrast, if the sticker price is $103, she will be less annoyed by having to pay $103, even if cash customers only have to pay $100,” Livingston continued.
     “Nothing about the consumer’s reaction in either situation turns on any words uttered by the seller. And although the difference in the consumer’s reaction to the two pricing schemes may be puzzling purely as an economic matter, we are aware of no authority suggesting that the First Amendment prevents states from protecting consumers against irrational psychological annoyances.”
     Sec. 518 is not unconstitutionally vague under the due process clause, the ruling states.
     “We have complete confidence that sellers ‘of ordinary intelligence’ will-if they post single sticker prices-readily understand how to avoid imposing a credit-card surcharge, and that New York authorities will have sufficient guidance in determining whether such sellers have violated the law,” Livingston wrote.
     New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman applauded the ruling at the time.
     “I look forward to continuing to work to protect consumers from harmful pricing practices,” Schneiderman said.
     Though the Second Circuit handed down its original ruling in September 2015, an amended version appeared two months later.

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