This was a class action alleging that Home Depot had violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A (“chapter 93A") by charging the class member excess sales tax on certain purchases. Plaintiffs based their Chapter 93A claim on the Massachusetts Attorney General regulation 940 C.M.R. §3.16(3) (“AG regulation”), promulgated pursuant to Chapter 93A, which provides that the violation of any Massachusetts statutes “meant for the protection of the public’s health, safety or welfare” and “intended to provide the consumers of this Commonwealth protection” constitute an unfair or deceptive practice giving rise to potential liability under Chapter 93A.
In its amicus brief in support of Home Depot, NELF argued that, in this case, the AG regulation did not provide a basis for a Chapter 93A claim. As NELF explained, the stated purpose of Chapter 93A is to protect consumers in their commercial relationships with businesses. Thus, NELF argued, the AG regulation is limited, both by its express terms and by the scope of its enabling legislation, to violation of state statutes enacted for the protection of consumers. The Massachusetts sales tax code, the purpose of which is to raise revenue for the state, does not regulate the commercial relationship between consumers and retailers but instead addresses the tax obligations of both to the Commonwealth. NELF further argued that applying the AG regulation to matters beyond the scope of Chapter 93A would upset the legislative balance between the interests of businesses and consumers. In its October 29, 2009, decision, the Appeals Court agreed with NELF’s position and dismissed the Chapter 93A claim. The Court relied in part on the SJC’s recent decision in Feeney v. Dell, 454 Mass. 192 (2009) to conclude that a claim alleging the wrongful collection of a sales tax is not a consumer claim under c. 93A because it does not address the business defendant’s commercial or profit-seeking purposes. Instead, the claim concerns the business’s efforts to fulfill its statutory duty to collect taxes on behalf of the Commonwealth.
Embracing NELF’s reasoning, the Appeals Court stated that the claim does not address the relationship between retailer and consumer (the sole focus of c. 93A) but instead reaches the relationship between the government and the consumer as taxpayer. Not only is this relationship outside Chapter 93A’s scope but it also falls within the exclusive province of the state tax code, a comprehensive statutory scheme that occupies the field of sales tax claims and provides the exclusive remedy of a tax abatement from the Commonwealth.