Seventh Circuit: Class action against Shell ultimately pointless

John O'Brien Apr. 18, 2012, 1:46pm


CHICAGO (Legal Newsline) - A federal appeals judge had trouble finding the purpose of a class action lawsuit filed against Shell over its credit card receipts.

Judge Frank Easterbrook of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit wrote Wednesday that Shell's practice of printing the last four digits of a customer's account number on its receipts is within the law and has not caused Shell's customers any actual harm.

The class argues that an investigation of industry practices could show Shell is printing the wrong four numbers and could be subject to financial penalties.

Easterbrook wrote that the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act does not define which numbers should be posted on a receipt, only that no more than five of them can be.

"(W)e need not essay a definition of 'card number' as an original matter, because we can't see why anyone should care how the term is defined," Easterbrook wrote.

"A precise definition does not matter as long as the receipt contains too few digits to allow identity theft. The Act does its work by limiting the number of exposed digits, and Shell Oil printed one fewer digit than the Act allows."

Plaintiff Natalie van Straaten has not alleged that Shell's choice of digits has left the class at risk of identity theft, nor has she alleged that the class has suffered any injury. Instead, she is seeking penalties under the Fair Credit Report Act of at least $100 per instance.

"An award of $100 to everyone who has used a Shell Card at a Shell station would exceed $1 billion, despite the absence of a penny's worth of injury," Easterbrook wrote.

Representing the class are The Coffman Law Firm of Beaumont, Texas; McRae & Metcalf of Tallahassee, Fla.; Martin J. Oberman of Chicago; and Donaldson & Guin of Chicago.

Shell was appealing U.S. District Judge Blanche Manning's denial of its motion for summary judgment. Manning is a judge in Illinois' northern district.

Though Manning ruled that Shell's interpretation of FACTA was incorrect, Easterbrook says the company did not willfully violate it. Therefore, it can't be held liable and should be awarded summary judgment.

Shell now prints zero digits on its receipts.

"Thus the substantive question in this litigation will not recur for Shell or anyone else; it need never be answered," Easterbrook wrote.

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