ZIP Code Litigation Update

Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court ruled on the outer reach of a state statute meant to protect consumers during credit card transactions – the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971.  See Pineda v. Williams-Sonoma Stores, Inc., 51 Cal. 4th 524 (2011)Specifically, Song-Beverly precludes retailers from requesting and recording a customer’s “personal identification information” during a credit card transaction and the Pineda court reasoned that such information now includes ZIP code information.  The decision was largely driven by the fact current marketing firms can use a ZIP code to tap into vast stores of personal data about a consumer.  Although the law may have only applied to retail stores in California, the decision immediately gave rise to an avalanche of class action suits given class action counsels’ new-found access to statutory damages.

In fact, given this new extension of the law, California legislators quickly amended Song-Beverly to exclude from its reach retail motor fuel sales and state law obligations.  This proposed law passed both the Senate and Assembly, was presented to the Governor on September 22, 2011 and will likely soon be signed into law.   What this proposed law does not do is expressly reverse Pineda or turn the tide against class actions brought against retailers.

It appears, however, courts on their own have found ways to curtail further extensions of Song-Beverly.  In an August 2011 Order, a California trial court sustained an online service provider’s demurrer to a class action complaint under Song-Beverly.  The action involved the purchase of an online advertisement.  The Order simply states that the law “on its face does not apply to online transactions,” and “the applicable case law, legislative intent and public policy indicate that such transactions are not, and should not be, encompassed” by Song-Beverly.

Other jurisdictions have been reluctant to create Pineda-like precedent.  In an unpublished opinion filed on September 26, 2011, a New Jersey District Court Judge decided that New Jersey’s Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA) – which provides for a civil penalty of not less than $100 per violation – was not triggered when plaintiff provided her ZIP code during a retail credit card transaction.  The statute requires that the provisions of a specific consumer contract violate a state or federal law.  In dismissing the Complaint, the District Judge found that a credit card transaction did not implicate a specific consumer contract given the card number and ZIP code at issue were merely a series of numbers and not part of a specific consumer contract.  Given that New Jersey’s version of Song-Beverly (Restrictions on Information Required to Complete Credit Card Transactions, N.J.S.A. § 56:11-17) does not provide for a private right of action, plaintiff did not claim standing under that law.  With no small sense of irony, the case was dismissed against the same defendant as in Pineda.

A bench opinion recently entered by a New Jersey state judge came to the exact opposite conclusion.  In that ruling from the bench, the court found that a violation of N.J.S.A. § 56:11-17 was a sufficient predicate for a violation of the Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act – which, in turn, allowed access to the statutory damages so eagerly sought by class action plaintiffs.  Given that it was only a bench opinion, the decision has no precedential weight.  In other words, it’s a decision that now means nothing to other retailers in New Jersey.  On the other hand, it only takes a chip here and there to sometimes break a levy – or the willing hand of an appellate court.  Stay tuned.

Update:  October 1, 2011
After reading a transcript of the oral argument and opinion, it appears the state court judge ultimately gave too much deference to NJ’s motion to dismiss standard.   Although the court concluded by saying he was “making no comment about the merits of the case”, he ultimately found that a common law privacy claim exists when a retailer obtains a customer’s ZIP code during a credit card transaction.  Moreover, he reasoned that a claim under TCCWNA could also exist given ZIP code information was was part of the writings required to complete the consumer transaction.  Accordingly, there was enough of a consumer contract to trigger the statute.

Update:  January 6, 2012
Although it ultimately dismisses an action against Michael’s Stores, Inc. given there is no cognizable common law injury and the applicable law does not provide for statutory damages, a Massachusetts federal court  rules that ZIP code information is “personal identification information”.