On December 19, 2008, in Party City Corp. v. The Superior Court of San Diego County, the California Court of Appeal in the Fourth Appellate District held that zip codes are not “personal identification information” under California’s Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971, California Civil Code Sec. 1747.08 (the “Act.”). The Act prohibits a retailer that accepts credit cards from, among other things, “request[ing], or require[ing] as a condition to accepting the credit card as payment in full or in part for goods or services, the cardholder to provide personal identification information, which the [retailer] writes, causes to be written, or otherwise records upon the credit card transaction form or otherwise.” Id. at § 1748.08(a)(2). Under the Act, “personal identification information” is “information concerning the cardholder, other than information set forth on the credit card, and including, but not limited to, the cardholder’s address and telephone number.” Id. at § 1747.08(b). Subdivision (e) of the statute provides that “[a]ny person who violates this section shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250) for the first violation and one thousand dollars ($1,000) for each subsequent violation, to be assessed and collected in a civil action brought by the person paying with a credit card, by the Attorney General, or by the district attorney or city attorney of the county or city in which the violation occurred.”

In Party City, the plaintiff claimed that Party City’s request for a zip code in conjunction with a credit card purchase violated the Act. The trial court agreed, granting the plaintiff summary judgment. The Court of Appeal granted a writ of mandate and overturned the trial court concluding that summary judgment should be entered for Party City. The Court of Appeal found that zip codes are not personal identification information based on the plain language of the statute. In applying a plain reading, the court first examined postal regulations to understand what zip codes encompass. The court determined that zip codes as defined by the postal service are not individualized identification criteria. Rather they are used to “provide identification of a relatively large group.” Because “tens of thousands of people have the same zip code” the court concluded a zip code standing alone is not the same as an individual’s address or telephone number. The court found its interpretation bolstered by the principle that statutes that create mandatory civil liabilities should be construed in favor of the “persons sought to be subject to their operation.”

This is the third California appellate decision this year taking a narrow interpretation of the Act. See here and here for blog posts on earlier appellate court decisions holding that the Act does not apply in the merchandise returns context.