Class Action Targets Webster, Other Banks Over Punitive Overdraft Fee Practices
West Hartford lawyers suing Webster Bank for anti-customer practices are buoyed by a Florida judge’s decision to pursue a similar class-action against the country’s big banks.
At issue in both lawsuits is the legality of certain practices which maximize the banks’ profits while hurting their account holders. When checks or debit payments are received by the banks, they are re-ordered so the highest amount is processed first, even though all amounts are received at the same time. That way, if an account is even slightly insufficient, even by one penny, that account is assessed an overdraft fee. Webster and most other banks charge $35 a bounce. This causes the lesser amounts to also bounce, resulting in multiple $35 fees.
Another practice named in the lawsuits is one that allows people to withdraw money from an ATM, even when there are insufficient funds, and then slapping the customer with bounce fees. Both lawsuits say the banks should either reject the withdrawal or notify the account holder that there will be an overdraft fee.
“Because of this decision in Florida, we are very optimistic that the judge in Connecticut will agree,” said Seth Klein of the Izard Nobel law firm. On May 5, his firm filed a class-action lawsuit against Waterbury-based Webster Bank in state Superior Court in that city.
These behaviors gross the banks a collective $27 billion a year, according to the Connecticut complaint. Here and in Florida, lawyers are seeking restitution of the overdraft fees as well as other monetary damages for their clients.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., the author of the finance reform bill, is aware of these practices, said a spokesperson. Dodd could not be reached for comment, so an emailed statement was issued.
“Senator Dodd has repeatedly spoken out against outrageous posting order practices. The Wall Street reform bill will create a Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection that will have rule-making authority to address this and other overdraft coverage issues.”
But the specific behaviors are not mentioned in the proposed legislation, which Senate Republicans are determined to kill.
Klein said these are “common banking practices,” and are included in “fine print” in the literature given to new account holders. Webster issues a 39-page booklet, “Deposit Account Disclosures,” which outlines the bank’s right to order checks. But, said Klein, the language is “very vague and does not spell out what they do.”
“They cannot use that discretion to the detriment of the account holders,” he maintained. “We believe this is an important case because it betrays the trust of account holders. We think it’s both morally and legally” wrong.
The case came to them on behalf of Webster customer Kelly Mathena of Middlebury. She had sought counsel with the Washington, D.C., firm Tyco & Zavareei. Since Webster is headquartered in Connecticut, the complaint needed to be filed here, so Tyco teamed up with Izard Nobel, a class-action securities and consumer litigation practice.
Mathena could not be reached for comment for this story.
Webster has until June 17 to respond to the suit. It can file to strike, as the banks in the Florida case tried unsuccessfully; it can answer it; or ask for revisions.
The Florida suit, filed last year in U.S. District Court in Miami, names defendants SunTrust Bank, Huntington National Bank, Bank of America, Citibank, Chase, Union Bank, U.S. Bank, Wachovia and Wells Fargo (and the list continues to grow, according to the suit). On March 11, the judge denied the banks’ motion to dismiss. It’s called a “multidistrict litigation proceeding,” as it has consumed other such class-action complaints from 14 states.
Plaintiffs in the Florida suit allege: “... that Defendant Banks deploy advanced software to automate their overdraft systems to maximize the number of overdrafts and, thus, the amount of overdraft fees charged per customer. These automated overdraft programs manipulate and alter customers’ transaction records to deplete the funds in a customer’s account as rapidly as possible, resulting in more overdraft fees charged for multiple, smaller transactions. Overdrafts are likely to occur at times when, but for the Banks’ manipulation and alteration, there would be sufficient funds in the account and many of these overdrafts would not occur at all.”
Webster Bank did not respond to questions about the case since it’s in litigation. “All I can do is send you our statement. I can’t answer any questions,” said spokesman Edward Steadham.
“Honoring payment requests when the account lacks sufficient funds is a courtesy and convenience that we extend to our customers when, for example, they need to buy gas in order to get to work or groceries for dinner. It also saves the customer the embarrassment of having a purchase refused at a store, incurring late-payment penalties, or lowering their credit score ... We fully disclose all fees when customers open a checking account ... which clearly and concisely spells out how consumers can avoid overdraft fees ...” reads the statement.