The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider whether federal law compels credit card companies to give businesses holding such cards the same chance to contest a credit revocation as is given an individual.
Also at the Supreme Court yesterday, judges left intact the price-fixing convictions of three oil companies and a marketing corporation for illegally inflating gasoline costs in Maryland and five other Mid-Atlantic states.
The justices will hear an American Epress Co. challenge to an appeals court decision that the firm violated the Truth in Lending Act when it revoked the card of a New Orleans businessman while he was contesting some billing discrepancies.
The act, designed to protect consumers using credit for personal purposes, exempts from its protection business credit transactions.
John E. Koerner & Co., a New Orleans flour wholesaler, applied for an American Express card in 1964. At the same time, Louis R. Koerner, a company officer, applied for a supplementary card in the company account.
The American Express form filled out by Louis Koerner stated the individual and company assumed both collective and individual responsibility for all charges on the card.
In 1975, there was a billing dispute between Koerner and American Express. The conflict remained unresolved, and in 1976, Koerner tried to use his card at New Orleans International Airport to pay for an airline ticket for a business trip. The ticket salesman called American Express to check Koerner's credit status, then cut the card into two pieces and returned it to Koerner.
Koerner filed suit on grounds American Express had revoked his card wrongfully in violation of the Truth in Lending Act.
A U.S. District Court ruled in favor of American Express, holding that the Truth in Lending Act provision cited by Koerner applies only to "consumer credit" and cannot apply to company accounts.
But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding it did not need to resolve the question of whether the law covers corporate transactions as well as consumer credit.
Instead, the appeals court noted Koerner's credit card application specified there was both collective and individual responsibility for charges to the card. "Therefor, American Express could recover from him or from the company," the court's decision said.
Appealing to the Supreme Court, American Express claimed the 5th Circuit's decision directly conflicts with the related decisions of every other appeals court and district court, as well as the Federal Reserve Board.
And American Express warned that if upheld by the high court, the ruling would have a serious impact on availability of credit for people involved in unincorporated businesses, small companies or new business ventures.
In the case regarding the three oil companies convicted of price fixing, the court refused without comment to hear arguments that Amerada Hess, Kayo Oil, Meadville Corp. and Petroleum Marketing Corp. were denied a fair trial.
Prosecutors said participants in the conspiracy illegally fixed retail prices of gasoline between 1967 and 1974 in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Each defendant was fined $50,000. Their appeals argued that their trial was prejudiced because the government delayed in seeking an indictment.
The appeals also contended that the trial was tainted by adverse publicity and by prosecutors' failure to inform the defendants about all the specific antitrust violations to be raised at trial.