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Massachusetts’s Highest Court Delivers BJ Wholesalers (and other Retailers) a Data Breach Liability Gift

Posted in Damages, PCI

While the proverbial jury is still out concerning retailers’ sales success this 2009 holiday season, Massachusetts’s highest court (the Supreme Judicial Court or “Supreme Court” as referenced herein) delivered retailers a significant holiday gift in the form of an opinion slamming the door on some financial institutions seeking to recover reissuance costs arising out a retailer’s payment card data breach. The Cumis Insurance Society, Inc. v. B.J. Wholesale Club, Inc. decision (“Supreme Court Decision”) analyzed and ruled upon most of the mainstream legal theories issuing banks have used to attempt to recover card reissuance costs, including breach of contract under a third party beneficiary theory, fraud, negligence, negligent misrepresentation and breach of unfair/deceptive practices laws (in this case M.G.L. Chapter . 93A, section 11). We have previously commented on multiple  decisions involving retailer payment card breaches similar to the BJ Wholesale breach and PCI liability in general, including a 3rd Circuit federal appellate decision that allowed issuing banks to proceed forward with a third party beneficiary breach of contract theory. This blog post dives into and analyzes the Supreme Court Decision, and looks at it in context against similar decisions. Overall, in terms of issuing banks recovering for payment card breaches, the game does not appear to be litigation in the courts, but rather in the backroom contracts and recovery processes contained in the card brand operating regulations that most retailers agree to comply with.

Relevant Facts

The Supreme Court Decision arises out of a payment card breach of BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. (“BJs”) involving approximately 9.2 million payment cards and millions of dollars in fraud. The plaintiffs in this case are credit unions and their insurer who incurred costs to reissue the payment cards that were impacted by the breach (as well as costs for fraudulent charges that arose out of the breach). The plaintiffs allege that thieves were able to compromise BJ Wholesale Club’ s systems because BJs and their acquiring bank (Fifth Third Bank) breached two sets of contractual obligations. With respect to BJs, the plaintiffs alleged that BJs breached their contract with Fifth Third bank, which prohibited the storage of the magnetic stripe data after authorization of card transactions. In turn, the plaintiffs alleged that Fifth Third breached its Membership Agreement with Visa and Mastercard requiring Fifth Third to ensure that merchants like BJs did not store magnetic strip data post-authorization. 

Alleged Claims and the Supreme Court’s Decision

The plaintiffs alleged several causes of action against BJs and Fifth Third, including breach of contract under a third party beneficiary theory, fraud, negligence, negligent misrepresentation and breach of unfair/deceptive practices laws (in this case M.G.L. Chapter . 93A, section 11). The lower court had granted the defendants a motion to dismiss all of the plaintiff’s causes of action, and the Supreme Court was asked to review the lower court’s decision. Ultimately, as described below, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s decision and upheld it.

Breach of Contract – 3rd Party Beneficiary Theory

The plaintiff’s alleged that they were the intended third party beneficiary of two separate contracts. First, the Merchant Agreement between BJs and Fifth Third prohibited the storage of magnetic card data, and the plaintiffs alleged they were the beneficiaries of, and should be able to enforce, the agreement against BJs. Second, the plaintiffs also alleged that they were the intended third party beneficiaries of the Membership Agreement between Fifth Third and Visa/Mastercard. Pursuant to the Membership Agreement, Fifth Third agreed to ensure that its merchants did not store magnetic stripe data.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the Merchant Agreement contained the following language:

This Agreement is for the benefit of, and may be enforced only by [Fifth Third] and [BJ’s] and their respective successors and permitted transferees and assignees, and is not for the benefit of, and may not be enforced by, and third party.

Despite this language, the plaintiffs maintained that the prohibition against storing magnetic stripe data was intended to benefit them. Citing a lower court judge who had indicated that any benefits to the plaintiffs in the Merchant Agreement were incidental, and relying on the specific intent referenced in the disclaimer, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of the breach of contract claim based on BJs Merchant Agreement.

With respect to the Membership Agreements between Fifth Third and the card brands, the Supreme Court held that the  plaintiffs’ third party beneficiaries allegations were conculsory in nature and not supported by any facts establishing Visa or Mastercard’s intent to have them as beneficiaries able to enforce the Membership Agreemwent.  While Visa and Mastercard’s operating regulations did not have a specific third party beneficiary disclaimer, both Visa and Mastercard,  reserved the right to interpret and enforce such regulations. The Supreme Court viewed this as indicating an intent to prohibit enforcement of the Membership Agreement by others like the plaintiff (the Supreme Court viewed that as consistent with the TJX decision). Interestingly, this case involved the same facts as another BJ Wholesale Club in federal court that allowed the plaintiff-banks to proceed with a third party beneficiary claim. In the Federal case, Visa and Mastercard representatives actually testified at deposition that operating regulations around magnetic stripe data were intended to protect the participants in the system, including issuers. However, the Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs failed to submit that deposition testimony into the court record so that testimony apparently was not considered by the Supreme Court.

Negligence – Economic Loss Doctrine

The Supreme Court did not address whether BJs or Fifth Third, for purposes of a negligence theory, had a duty to employ reasonable security with respect to cardholder data. Rather, the Supreme Court relied on the economic loss doctrine to dismiss the plaintiff’s negligence claim. Under the economic loss doctrine, plaintiffs cannot recover using a theory of negligence unless physical harm or harm to property exists (as opposed to pure “economic loss”). The plaintiffs argued that tangible harm did exist because the physical credit cards had to be reissued after the BJs breach. On this issue, the Supreme Court again followed the BJ Wholesaler’s decision rendered in Federal district court (see the 3rd Circuit Appellate Decision upholding that rationale), which held that reissuance costs are economic in nature even if related to a physical card.   In this case the cards themselves were not harmed since consumers could still use them after the breach. Rather, the Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs chose to cancel the cards for the purpose of avoiding future economic loss.

Fraud and Negligent Misrepresentation

The Supreme Court also rejected the plaintiff’s fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims. The basis for these claims was again tied to the defendant’s contractual promises to comply with the card brands’ operating regulations.   In disposing of the fraud claim, the Supreme Court noted that the plaintiffs admitted neither BJs nor Fifth Third made any direct representations to the plaintiffs indicating that they were storing magnetic stripe data. Moreover, despite alleging that they would have changed their behavior had they known about the risk of magnetic stripe exposure, the reality was that the plaintiffs continued to participate in the Visa and Mastercard system. There was no evidence that the plaintiffs would have acted any differently had they been aware that BJs was storing magnetic stripe data.

With respect to the negligent misrepresentation claim, the Supreme Court cited case law indicating that failure to perform a contract does not equate to a negligent misrepresentation claim.   Moreover, false statements of opinion or conditions to exist in the future cannot support a negligent misrepresentation claim. In this case, dismissal was warranted because there was no evidence that BJs never intended to comply with its Merchant Agreement at the time it entered into it. 

In addition, the Supreme Court held that even if entering into an agreement constituted a representation of compliance with the magnetic stripe disposal requirements, there was no evidence that plaintiffs’ alleged reliance on that representation was justifiable.   The Supreme Court essentially held that no reasonable person would rely on the regulations prohibiting the storage of magnetic stripe data. The court pointed to evidence indicating that the participants in the payment card system expected that the operating regulations would be breached because Visa and Mastercard instituted a system of fines and penalties for non-compliance. In addition, the plaintiffs’ purchase of insurance to cover credit card fraud was listed as evidence that plaintiffs anticipated this type of fraudulent activity. Finally, the plaintiffs had received numerous alerts from Visa and Mastercard concerning payment card breaches and fraud involving compromised magnetic stripe data (I find this reasoning very convoluted, at best. The existence of rules to deter certain behavior seems to create some certainty that such behavior should not be happening).

M.G.L. Chapter . 93A, section 11

Since the plaintiffs’ M.G.L. Chapter . 93A, section 11, equitable indemnification and subrogation claims were all based on the dismissed fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims, they were also dismissed.   Interestingly, unlike the First Circuit Appellate court’s decision in the TJX matter, the Supreme Court did not consider whether the plaintiffs had a viable cause of action based on the “unfairness” prong of the Massachusetts’ law (e.g. whether BJs information security was so poor that it constituted an “unfair practices).

Conclusion

This case is yet another in the increasingly long series of cases that allow retailer plaintiffs to escape liability arising out of data breach litigation at the motion to dismiss phase. What lessons does it hold for the various payment card stakeholders? 

On the merchant side, for any agreement where the merchant is making promises about data security or PCI compliance, make sure there is a strong disclaimer of third party beneficiaries. This will cut issuing banks off on that theory fairly early. Also on the merchant side, be careful of what you say about security and compliance with card brand rules and operating regulations. To the extent a merchant makes representations concerning security (especially direct representations), they may be opening themselves up to misrepresentation claims. The consequences could be serious since negligent misrepresentation and fraud claims are not barred by the economic loss doctrine (and at least one court has provided those theories some legs). 

From the issuing banks’ point of view, the question becomes whether litigation is worth it in this context. This is especially true now that both VISA and Mastercard (*I believe, their regulations are not all public) have explicit recovery mechanisms within their systems that can allow an issuing bank to recover without going to court.  VISA and Mastercard have both tightened up their contracts and operating regulations to disclaim third party beneficiary theories (although if an issuing bank is to pursue such a theory make sure to get the deposition testimony from the Visa and Mastercard officials referenced in the 3rd Circuit’s BJs Wholesale case).     One area for issuing banks to take a harder look at is State unfair/deceptive trade practice acts. As mentioned above at least one high court has indicated that inherently poor security may amount to an unfair practice. This line of thinking also happens to be consistent with several high profile FTC actions , including of course one involving BJ Wholesale Club.