Merchants sue Federal Reserve over fees for debit cards

NEW YORK — Two trade groups representing businesses in North Dakota filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Federal Reserve, asking the agency to lower its 10-year-old cap on “swipe” fee banks charge to process debit card transactions.

The lawsuit, filed by the North Dakota Retail Association and the North Dakota Petroleum Marketers Association in U.S. District Court in Bismarck, North Dakota, argues that the agency failed to follow instructions outlined by federal law and said it should abandon the rule that caps those fees at 21 cents for cards from the largest U.S. banks. The suit comes as the popularity of debit cards has surged, and retailers have paid billions of dollars more than Congress intended while banks’ costs have dropped.

The lawsuit argues the cap is higher than allowed under the Durbin Amendment, a law passed by Congress in 2010 to address soaring swipe fees set by Visa and Mastercard and lack of competition among the card-issuing banks that receive the fees. The amendment set a standard for interchange fees that was supposed to be reasonable and proportional to the cost incurred by the issuer regarding the transaction, the lawsuit said.

“Those fees have become a lush profit center for issuers— contrary to Congress’s express instructions in 2010,” the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit says the bank fees ultimately lead to higher costs for retailers and higher prices for consumers.

“The Fed allowed fees that were much too high in the first place,” National Retail Federation Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel Stephanie Martz in a statement. “Retailers are paying twice what they should and these fees ultimately drive up prices paid by the public. Banks should not be handed a growing windfall at the expense of Main Street stores and consumers.”

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, is not a plaintiff in the suit, but Martz is co-counsel in the case.

The Federal Reserve couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The National Retail Federation sued the central bank in federal court shortly after the Fed released its regulations, saying 21 cents went over the “reasonable” level intended by Congress. A trial judge agreed in 2013, but the decision was overturned by an appeals court a year later. The trade group then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court but the justices declined to take up the case.