Constitutional Litigation

You may have gone to pay for a purchase and been told by the store owner that there was an extra charge to pay by credit card. And you’ve undoubtedly gone to a gas station with two sets of prices: lower prices for cash and higher prices for credit cards.

Is there any difference between the two practices? Under Florida law, there is. Under section 501.0117, Florida Statutes, the store owner actually committed a misdemeanor by imposing a “surcharge” for paying by credit card:

A seller or lessor in a sales or lease transaction may not impose a surcharge on the buyer or lessee for electing to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means, if the seller or lessor accepts payment by credit card. A surcharge is any additional amount imposed at the time of a sale or lease transaction by the seller or lessor that increases the charge to the buyer or lessee for the privilege of using a credit card to make payment.

On the other hand, section 501.0117 says it “does not apply to the offering of a discount for the purpose of inducing payment by cash, check, or other means not involving the use of a credit card…” So it’s perfectly legal for gas stations to have lower cash prices.

In other words, under section 501.0117, businesses may offer a discount for using cash, but may not add an extra charge for using a payment card. Is there any real difference between charging less for not using a payment card (legal) and charging more for using a payment card (illegal)? Or is it merely a semantic difference?

Those are the questions at the heart of the 11th Circuit’s opinion in Dana’s Railroad Supply v. Attorney General, State of Florida, decided November 4, 2015. We’ll get back to the 11th Circuit’s answer, but first some background.

The Campaign Against State Anti-Surcharge Prohibitions

Dana’s is one of a series of lawsuits that have recently been brought by small businesses challenging state law prohibitions on credit card surcharges. Nine states have such laws. A Washington, D.C. law firm known for consumer rights advocacy, Gupta Beck, has filed suits challenging the surcharge prohibitions of the four largest–California, New York, Texas, and Florida–on first amendment grounds.

What’s behind the challenges? While the anti-surcharge statutes may appear, at first glance, to be consumer protection statutes intended to protect consumers from extra charges, the plaintiffs say the laws are actually intended to protect the ability of major credit card issuers (Visa, Mastercard, and American Express) to charge merchants excessive card processing (swipe) fees, which they say are two to three times higher in the U.S. than in other countries.

It was the major credit card issuers that lobbied for anti-surcharge statutes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Congress passed a federal anti-surcharge statute, but it expired and was not renewed. After its expiration, the plaintiffs say, the major credit card issuers lobbied state legislatures to pass state laws like section 501.0117.

Until recently, Visa and Mastercard’s merchant agreements prohibited merchants, even in states without statutory prohibitions, from charging customers extra for paying by credit card. But in a class action settlement resolving an antitrust case against the issuers, Visa and Mastercard agreed to remove those prohibitions from their merchant agreements. (The settlement has not yet become final, as certain class members have objected to the settlement. An appeal of the district court’s approval of the settlement is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.) But the removal of such provisions in merchant agreements can’t affect merchants’ practices in states where surcharges are still prohibited by statute.

What’s So Bad About Surcharges?

Why would Visa and Mastercard want to ban surcharges? As a matter of economics, the higher prices are, the fewer items consumers tend to buy. So if credit cards are more expensive to use, consumers are less likely to use them.

How do anti-surcharge laws hurt consumers? Merchants must pay credit card processing fees, but can’t charge credit card users directly for the fees. So credit card use raises the merchants’ overall costs. And because they are prohibited from passing on the costs of credit card processing directly to credit card users, the charges are instead reflected in higher prices charged to all customers to cover the costs.

(For example, suppose 50% of a merchant’s customers use credit cards and the merchant is charged 4% per transaction. With surcharges allowed, the merchant could charge 4% extra to the credit card users to cover the processing. With surcharges prohibited, the merchant must charge all customers 2% higher prices to cover the processing fee.) In this sense, anti-surcharge laws help one group of customers (credit card users) at the expense of another group (cash-paying customers). That transfer is magnified due to the prevalence of rewards cards (which often cost merchants the most to process), as cash customers are essentially paying (through higher prices merchants must charge across the board to cover credit card processing) for the rewards a subset of customers receive for using their credit cards.

But in another sense, anti-surcharge prohibitions hurt all consumers, as well as all merchants. They do so by increasing credit card usage, which leads to higher merchant costs, which lead to higher prices across the board.

And they do so by allowing Visa and Mastercard to charge higher processing fees than they otherwise could. Due to the lack of surcharges, consumers don’t know how much of the price of the items they buy is attributable to credit card processing charges (just as they don’t know what portion of an item’s price is attributable other items of overhead), so consumers, the card companies’ customers, don’t put any pressure on card issuers to charge lower transaction fees.

But recall that while merchants can impose surcharges for using credit cards, they can offer cash discounts. Why wouldn’t allowing merchants to give discounts for cash-paying customers have the same effect as allowing merchants to charge credit card users a surcharge? According to the merchants (and the economics research on which they rely), consumer behavior is more likely to change to avoid a loss than to avoid missing out on a benefit. So if paying with a credit card results in a surcharge (a loss), consumers will be less likely to choose to use a credit card than if paying with a credit card simply means missing out on a cash discount (a potential gain).

Speech or Conduct?

The challenges to anti-surcharge statutes are premised on the assertion that those statutes regulate speech, rather than conduct. That is because the 1st Amendment only applies to speech.

Structuring a transaction is generally thought to be conduct, not speech, and many statutes regulate such activities without any suggestion that they are regulating speech. So how is section 501.0117’s prohibition on surcharges any different?

According to the 11th Circuit, section 501.0117 doesn’t prohibit the conduct it appears at first glance to govern, which the court characterized as “dual pricing,” i.e., charging higher prices to credit card users than to cash buyers. That can’t be the function of the statute because it allows cash discounts, which are the functional equivalent of credit card surcharges.

Presuming that the statute must do something, the court pondered whether it might prohibit surcharges that are not disclosed before the transaction occurs. But it concluded that conduct could not be what the statute prohibits, due to the language of section 501.0117 as well as because it is already prohibited by another statute.

If the statute doesn’t prohibit dual-pricing, and prohibits “surcharges” but not “discounts,” then its focus can only be on speech, i.e., the words merchants may use to describe the fact that consumers must pay extra to use a credit card. Merchants are allowed to call higher credit card prices standard prices, and lower cash prices “discounts,” but are prohibited from calling cash prices standard and credit card prices “surcharges.”

But whether you call the lower price a discount and the other price standard or call one price standard and the other a surcharge doesn’t change the conduct, only the words used to describe it. So section 501.0117 regulates–and prohibits–certain speech. The court analogized the statute to a state law prohibiting restaurants from serving half-empty glasses of water but permitting them to serve half-full glasses.

Once finding that the statute regulates speech rather than conduct, it was not a large jump to conclude that it violates the 1st Amendment. The 1st Amendment allows some leeway for the government to regulate commercial speech. But commercial speech restrictions must relate to “misleading or related to unlawful activity,” the government must have a substantial interest at stake, and the regulation must advance that interest, in a way that does not prohibit more speech than necessary.

Given the court’s understanding of section 501.0117 as merely regulating semantics, telling merchants words they can and can’t use to describe dual pricing, it followed that section 501.0117 could not past muster. Arguably, the statute actually requires misleading speech rather than prohibiting it. The reason for dual pricing, after all, is to allow the merchant to charge more (surcharge) for credit card transactions to pay for the credit card processing fees.

Will Credit Card Surcharges Become the Norm?

For now, it would seem that merchants in Florida are free to impose surcharges for credit card transactions. But it remains to be seen whether this decision will have any real effect on the marketplace.

There’s also a chance the November decision may not be the final word. In the case challenging New York’s anti-surcharge law, the 2nd Circuit unanimously rejected the argument that the statute regulated speech.

And Judge Carnes reached the same conclusion about section 501.0117 in his vigorous dissent from the 11th Circuit’s decision in Dana’s. So there’s a non-trivial possibility that the 11th Circuit might reconsider the case en banc, or even that the Supreme Court might review it, if requested.

There’s been considerable teeth gnashing about a 2013 Florida law allowing politicians to hold their assets in blind trusts, and withhold from public disclosure specification of the assets held in those trusts. But the debate is only theoretical at this point, according to Florida’s First District Court of Appeal. For that reason, in its opinion issued today in Apthorp v. Detzner, the 1st DCA punted on the merits of a challenge to the constitutionality of the blind trust provisions.

Apthorp was an aide to former Governor Rubin Askew, who pushed the passage of the Sunshine Amendment, the first successful ballot initiative in Florida, which is now Article II, section 8 of the Florida Constitution. Among other things, the Sunshine Amendment requires full disclosure by public office-holders of their financial interests, to avoid conflicts of interest in their decision-making. With financial holdings public, if a politician voted in a way that benefitted his/her financial interests, that fact would be known to the public and subject to public scrutiny.  

In 2013, the Florida legislature passed section 112.31425, Florida Statutes, which allows public officials to hold their assets in “qualified blind trusts,” for ostensibly the same purpose — to avoid conflicts of interest. A statewide grand jury convened in 2010 had recommended the use of blind trusts for that purpose.

A public office-holder uses a blind trust by placing his/her money with a manager who has full power to buy and sell assets. In theory, then, the public office-holder would not know whether a decision affects his/her financial interests because he/she doesn’t know the identity of the companies in which the assets of the trust are currently invested.

According to the legislature, “if a public officer creates a trust and does not control the interests held by the trust, his or her official actions will not be influenced or appear to be influenced by private considerations.” Correspondingly, the legislature permitted public office-holders to publicly disclose only the total value of the assets held in a blind trust, and not the individual investments of the blind trust.

Apthorp apparently did not see the blind trust provisions as a positive development. He saw the blind trust reporting provisions as a way for public office-holders to essentially hold on to the assets and avoid public disclosure. Soon after the new provisions were enacted, Apthorp sought to block candidates from taking advantage of them by filing a Petition for Writ of Mandamus to the Supreme Court of Florida.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the case should be heard in circuit court, Apthorp sought a declaratory judgment from the circuit court that the blind trust provisions violated the Sunshine Amendment. The trial court ruled that they do not.

Apthorp challenged that ruling on appeal. But the 1st DCA didn’t reach the constitutional issue. Instead, the 1st DCA vacated the trial court’s declaratory judgment after finding that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the case at all because there was no justiciable controversy.

A bedrock principle of the court system is that courts are constitutionally empowered only to decide actual disputes between the parties. With few exceptions, courts don’t have jurisdiction to issue “advisory opinions,” i.e., to say how they would rule if a certain set of circumstances were presented to them. The plaintiff must assert an actual controversy: that the defendant violated (or is currently violating) the law, that the plaintiff has been injured by the alleged violation, and must seek redress for the alleged injury.

Suits for declaratory judgment are somewhat of an anomoly because they seek a declaration about a future action — before anyone has been harmed — rather than relief for an injury caused by a past or present harm. For example, in a common type of suit for declaratory judgment, an insurer seeks a declaration that its contract doesn’t require it to cover certain damages. That contrasts with the more traditional paradigm suit, in which, for example, an insured might sue the insurer after it had refused to cover damages, claiming the insurer had breached the contract in doing so.

But there are limits to courts’ ability to hear declaratory judgment suits as well, the 1st DCA explained. Under the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Martinez v. Scanlan, 582 So. 2d 1167 (Fla. 1991), there must still be an actual controversy, “a bona fide, actual, present practical need for the declaration…” (Applying this principle to the insurer’s declaratory judgment suit, there’s a need for a declaration because there’s a present dispute between the insurer and insured over whether the insurer is required to pay for the damages. But if, for example, an insurer sought a declaration that a certain provision in its contract doesn’t require it to ever cover a certain type of damages, without reference to specific damages incurred by a specific insured, under Martinez, there would appear to be no actual present need for a declaratory judgment.)     

The 1st DCA held that there was no actual present need for a declaration regarding the constitutionality of the blind trust provisions because no candidate or public office-holder had yet sought to take advantage of those provisions. “Not only has no public officer ever used the type of ‘qualified blind trust’ authorized by the statute Apthorp is challenging, but his brief concedes that he knows of no constitutional officer or candidate who incorporated a blind trust in the most recent financial statements.” Until that happened, there would be no justiciable question for the court to decide, only a theoretical issue that might arise in the future.

Because it found the courts lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue, the 1st DCA vacated the trial court’s judgment as improperly entered, leaving the constitutional question open for challenge in a later case. In a special concurrence, Judge Thomas emphasized that the opinion should not be read to take a position on the constitutional issue, and hinted that he saw potential constitutional problems. But that issue will need to await a case in which the concerns are not merely theoretical.