This post was written by Keri S. Bruce and Joseph I. Rosenbaum.
If you have been coming back to Legal Bytes to keep up with this and other developments in the law of Advertising Technology & Media ("ATM"), you know that we have been following the world of gift cards for many years (e.g., Gift Card Issuers Fight & Switch, Gift Cards in New Jersey: It’s Complicated!, Federal Reserve Board Has a Free Gift (Card) For You, Credit Card Act of 2009: Act I, Scene 1, Gift Cards in the Legal Limelight, Gift Cards: The Updated Chart is Still Free). If you are a regular Legal Bytes reader, you also probably know that we published and routinely update our U.S. Gift Card Statutory Chart – a reference tool you will certainly find helpful, although not a substitute for experienced legal counsel. In addition to the amendments noted below, we have updated our U.S. Gift Card Statutory Chart and you can read or download the updated chart right here (U.S. Gift Card Statutory Chart) [PDF].
You will also appreciate that we advise clients in this area all the time, assisted by an able team of financial services regulatory specialists, and so it will come as no surprise that we are telling you about some changes to the law in Vermont and Rhode Island that apply to gift cards. The term "gift certificate" is often used in the law, but separate definitions make it clear that the law applies to cards or any similar instrument, regardless of the material (e.g., paper, plastic, beads).
In addition to the Federal Credit Card Act of 2009, many states have their own regulations of gift cards and gift certificates. While many states have carve-outs in their gift certificate laws for loyalty and reward cards, Vermont has gone a step further and embraced group coupon/discount providers by separately defining these cards and providing separate disclosures to benefit consumers. In light of popular group coupon/discount providers, new marketing efforts involving gift cards and the continued prevalence of class actions, such as In re Groupon Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, where Groupon reached a nationwide class action litigation settlement over allegations it had illegal expiration dates and other provisions on its vouchers, it is even more important to stay on top of these ever-changing laws.
Effective as of May 18, 2012, amendments to the Vermont statutes (Vt. Stat. § 2701 et seq.) seek to address issues arising from popular group coupon/discount providers. The new amendments introduce definitions for "a loyalty, award, or promotional gift certificate," "paid value" and "promotional value," extend the expiration dates for the paid value of a gift certificate, and remove the specific exemption for food product gift certificates.
Under the amended law, a "loyalty, award, or promotional gift certificate" is defined as a gift certificate issued on a prepaid basis primarily for personal, family, or household purposes to a consumer in connection with a loyalty, award or promotional program, and that is redeemable upon presentation to one or more merchants for goods or services, or is usable at automated teller machines.
These definitions are important because, if defined as loyalty, award or promotional gift certificates, they can be exempt from the statute’s requirements on expiration dates and fees and some other restrictions that would otherwise apply, provided that certain requirements are met.
To qualify, these instruments must disclose, on the front of the certificate, that the certificate is issued for loyalty, award or promotional purposes, and the date of expiration for both the paid value and promotional value (if any). (More on that distinction in a moment.) On or along with the instrument, the consumer must be informed as to the amount and conditions under which fees may be imposed, and if a fee is assessed and on the instrument, a toll-free telephone number and, if one is maintained, a website a consumer may use to obtain fee information (disclosed on the certificate).
The Vermont amendment distinguishes between "paid" and "promotional" value. Paid value is the value of any money or other consideration given in exchange for the gift certificate. Promotional value means any value shown on a gift certificate in excess of the paid value. Example, a loyalty program buys 1 billion $25 gift cards and pays $19.99 each. The $19.99 is the paid value and the $5.01 is the promotional value. The statute prohibits the paid value from expiring for five years (extended from the previous three-year requirement), while the promotional value is exempt from the restrictions on expiration dates and fees.
Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, amendments – effective as of June 19, 2012 – to gift certificate provisions of the state’s Unfair Sales Practices law (R.I. Gen. Laws § 6-13-12) allow gift cards donated for fundraising purposes to expire, but only if the card clearly states that the instrument has been donated for charity and a clearly defined expiration date of not less than one year after the issuance, is disclosed to the recipient.
If you need help from lawyers who know this area and can provide experienced, practical counsel, contact Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum or Keri Bruce or your favorite Rimon lawyer, all of whom will be happy to help.