In a decision of potentially far-reaching consequences, on Aug. 1, 2006, a U.S. District Court in New Hampshire ruled the sale of Simon Giftcards—prepaid electronic stored value cards—sold by the company that owns and operates shopping malls, are not subject to certain provisions of the New Hampshire consumer protection laws and are preempted by federal law. Simon cards look like ordinary plastic credit cards and operate on the Visa network. Simon became subject to action by the Attorney General in New Hampshire because each card had an expiration date and fees were imposed that reduced their value, violating provisions in New Hampshire’s Consumer Protection Act.
Simon cards are issued by U.S. Bank (formed under the National Bank Act) and MetaBank (a federal savings association under the Home Owners’ Loan Act). Simon had agreements under which each bank owns and issues the cards, manages the “account” relationship with the consumer, and sets the fees and terms that apply. Simon is responsible for advertising, marketing, promoting and selling the cards. Simon has no right to define or change the terms of the contract between the bank and consumer. Simon sells a Giftcard to a consumer and collects payment. The amount of purchase, minus an initial fee, is loaded onto the card, and Simon gives the consumer a copy of the card agreement along with the card. Simon deposits the funds into the bank’s account and the bank pays Simon a sales commission. When the consumer uses the Giftcard, the bank sends the money to the merchant through the Visa network, and all further deductions or fees charged are bank charges.
New Hampshire sought to stop the sale of these cards—asserting that Simon sells these Giftcards as an agent for the banks; and since Simon is not a bank, New Hampshire laws can be applied against Simon. Because the Giftcard is sold by Simon—a non-bank—the state claimed federal laws don’t preempt any limitations New Hampshire law impose to protect its citizens.
In deciding the case, the court notes that state regulations are preempted whenever they conflict with federal regulations, or when state law impedes the accomplishment of federal law objectives. Clearly, state regulation cannot limit fees charged or impose restrictions on the contract between these banks and the purchaser—thus state regulation is preempted. But what about Simon?