The German Federal Supreme Court today ruled that companies may charge their customers a fee for payment via Sofortüberweisung or PayPal if the fee is charged solely for the use of these payment methods and not for any related use of a direct debit, bank transfer or credit card.
Facts of the case and progress of the proceedings to date
The plaintiff is the Central Office for Combating Unfair Competition. The defendant organizes long-distance bus tours and advertises them on the Internet. It offers its customers four payment options, namely payment by debit card, credit card, Sofortüberweisung or PayPal. When choosing the payment methods “Sofortüberweisung” and “PayPal”, the defendant charges an additional fee depending on the respective fare.
The plaintiff considers this to be a violation of Section 3a of the German Unfair Competition Act (UWG) in conjunction with Section 270a of the German Civil Code (BGB) and is claiming injunctive relief against the defendant.
Decision of the Federal Court of Justice
The plaintiff’s appeal, which was allowed by the Court of Appeal, was unsuccessful. The defendant did not violate § 270a of the German Civil Code by charging an additional fee for payment via Sofortüberweisung or PayPal.
Pursuant to Section 270a Sentence 1 of the German Civil Code (BGB), an agreement that obligates the debtor to pay a fee for the use of a SEPA core direct debit, a SEPA business-to-business direct debit, a SEPA credit transfer or a payment card is invalid. For the use of payment cards, pursuant to Section 270a sentence 2 of the German Civil Code, this shall only apply to payment transactions with consumers to which Chapter II of Regulation (EU) 2015/751 on interchange fees for card-based payment transactions is applicable.
If the payment method “Sofortüberweisung” is chosen, a transfer from the customer’s account to the recipient’s account takes place. This is a SEPA credit transfer within the meaning of Section 270a sentence 1 of the German Civil Code (BGB), even if this credit transfer is not initiated by the customer but by the operator of the “Sofortüberweisung” payment service on behalf of the customer. However, according to the findings of the Court of Appeal, the fee demanded by the defendant when the “Sofortüberweisung” payment option is selected is not demanded for the use of this transfer, but for the involvement of the payment initiation service, which provides further services in addition to initiating the payment. For example, it checks the payer’s creditworthiness and informs the payee of the result of this check so that the payee can provide its service before the payment is received.
Even if the payment option “PayPal” is chosen, a SEPA credit transfer or a SEPA direct debit within the meaning of Section 270a sentence 1 of the German Civil Code (BGB) or a card-based payment transaction within the meaning of Section 270a sentence 2 of the German Civil Code (BGB) may occur if the payer’s PayPal account does not have sufficient funds and must be topped up by a credit transfer, direct debit or credit card charge. However, also in this case, according to the findings of the Court of Appeal, the defendant does not charge its customers for the use of these means of payment, but solely for the involvement of PayPal, which processes the payment from the payer’s PayPal account to the recipient’s PayPal account by transferring e-money.
However, the charging of a fee for additional services shall not be precluded by the prohibition of agreeing on a fee for the use of a direct debit, bank transfer or payment card within the meaning of Section 270a of the German Civil Code.