Previous issues of this newsletter have explored OCC special purpose national bank (“SPNB”) charters and litigation brought by state regulators challenging these proposed “fintech charters.” See Clarks’ Bank Deposits and Payments Monthly Mar. 1, 2017 & Aug. 1, 2018. Recent decisions issued in two lawsuits challenging the OCC’s authority to issue fintech charters mean it’s time for a short update.
Suppose ABC Corp. grants its bank a security interest in a CD issued by that bank, then merges with XYZ Corp. A year later the IRS hits XYZ’s bank with a notice of tax levy, using ABC’s corporate name and tax ID number. Can the depository bank ignore the levy because it identified a nonexistent taxpayer? If the IRS levies under the proper name, can the bank ignore the levy and exercise setoff against the CD? These two issues were before the Third Circuit. The bank won on the first issue, but lost on the second.
Over the years, the most heavily litigated issue involving wire transfers is whether the plaintiff’s common-law claim that the beneficiary’s bank was negligent in handling an unauthorized wire is displaced by the rules of UCC Article 4A. The big question in these cases is whether the bank’s alleged negligence occurred within the four corners of the wire transfer transaction; if the negligence occurred before or after the wire transfer process, the displacement principle does not apply and the plaintiff’s common-law negligence claim may support recovery. In a recent case from California, the court applied the displacement principle broadly and threw out the negligence claim. The decision seems straight-forward and consistent with the weight of authority.
If B gets a judgment against A for a debt, it is clear that B can garnish A’s deposit account. But can B garnish funds being transferred to A before they land in A’s account? In particular, can B garnish an intermediary bank that is moving funds from originator to beneficiary as part of a wire transfer? State law, in the form of the UCC, does not allow garnishment of an intermediary bank. Until recently, federal admiralty law, as construed by a 2002 decision from the Second Circuit, allowed such garnishments. This decision generated much litigation and controversy, particularly in New York. Then, on October 16, 2009, the Second Circuit overruled its older decision. Now the UCC rule prohibiting intermediary bank garnishments governs all transactions.
The most recent “full payment check” case comes from Virginia, where the court rejects the debtor’s claim of an accord and satisfaction under the UCC Rule, based on a finding of “bad faith” by the debtor in tendering an $890 money order in full payment of a $63,000 mortgage loan.
A significant recent decision from North Dakota considers whether the UCC rules displace common law claims with respect to bank liability and whether, in a check fraud case, the three-year UCC statute of limitations bars the plaintiff’s claims. The court ruled that the plaintiffs were time-barred.
As a corollary to the federal limit on holders in due course with respect to lender credit cards, the FCBA flatly prohibits an issuing bank from setting off a cardholder’s checking or savings account against a debt arising from use of a bank credit card1. The only exception is when the cardholder-depositor gives previous written authorization of a “check-off” arrangement under which a portion of his account is debited regularly to pay off his credit card liability. Even then, the cardholder may revoke that authorization. However, the setoff prohibition does not extend to the right of the issuer, under state law, to levy execution on the account following judgment2.
The statute of limitations is the first line of defense for banks sued in check fraud cases. Plaintiffs frequently seek to lengthen the three-year UCC statute of limitations by invoking the “discovery rule” or its first cousin, the “continuing violation” rule. Thus far, the courts have declined these invitations.
In our prior story, we focused on a recent North Dakota decision dealing with the relationship between common law tort theories and the UCC statute of limitations. In this next story, we take a look at other issues that arise under the UCC, which establishes a comprehensive statute of limitations for negotiable instruments under UCC 1-118, and for bank rights and duties under UCC 4-111. In addition, the statute defers to the courts the issue of when a given cause of action “accrues.”
A recent decision from North Dakota considers whether the UCC rules displace common law claims with respect to bank liability and whether, in a check fraud case, the three-year UCC statute of limitations bars the plaintiff’s claims. The court ruled that the plaintiffs were time-barred.
Background. Roy J. Elizondo is an attorney in Houston. A putative international client solicited Elizondo via email for representation in a purported collection action. Elizondo agreed to represent the client. Almost immediately the debtor agreed to settle the dispute. The client informed Elizondo that the debtor would mail him a cashier’s check in the amount of the settlement. The client instructed Elizondo to deposit the check into his law firm’s IOLTA and to wire a portion of the funds to a third party’s designated bank account in Japan. The client emphasized that time was of the essence, explaining that the dispute with the debtor had disrupted the client’s cash flow and caused it to fall into arrears with various entities with which it did business, including the Japanese holder of the designated Japanese bank account.
The General Motors bankruptcy filed on June 1, 2009 provided the venue for a case in which a small yet crucial error in a UCC filing in Delaware spawned a decade of litigation between hundreds of lenders who thought they were secured creditors and the unsecured creditors committee. The colossal filing error was made when a UCC-3 termination statement was prepared and filed, releasing a security interest in error. By preparing a termination statement for the wrong financing statement number, over $1.5 billion in debt was put at perilous risk of loss.
Last July, we reported that the U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for certiorari in the case Obduskey v. Wells Fargo, 879 F.3d 1216 (10th Cir. 2018) to consider whether the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) applies to non-judicial foreclosure proceedings. On March 20, 2019, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case in favor of the defendant, confirming that a business engaged in only non-judicial foreclosure proceedings is not a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, except for the limited purpose of 15 U.S.C. § 1692f(6), which prohibits non-judicial action if there is no right or intent to take possession of property. This decision resolved a circuit split on the issue, confirming previous holdings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth and Tenth Circuits, as well as many district courts, and overruling prior holdings of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Circuits.
On May 17, 2019, the heads of the OCC and FDIC reported to Congress that they were strongly considering a regulatory fix to the infamous Second Circuit decision, Madden v. Midland Funding LLC, 786 F.3d 246 (2d Cir. 2015). As Law360 put it, the Madden decision shocked bankers and those in the FinTech world "for its apparent inconsistency with a legal doctrine known as valid-when-made." This doctrine dates back to the days of Andrew Jackson. Law360 elaborates:
In a significant bankruptcy case from New York, the bankruptcy court held that Wells Fargo violated the automatic stay in its customer’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy when the bank dishonored a presented check because it had temporarily frozen the account. The bank imposed the freeze while it waited for a response from the debtors’ trustee about what to do with the account in light of an exemption claimed by the debtors.
On March 26, 2019, a 2-1 split panel of the First Circuit affirmed a lower court decision that dismissed a putative class action brought against Citizens Bank NA, a national bank. Fawcett v. Citizens Bank N.A, 919 F.3d133, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 8983 (1st Cir. 2019). The First Circuit panel concluded that the “flat excess overdraft fees” charged by the bank did not qualify as usurious “interest”, but were in the nature of deposit account service charges.
If a bank processes ACH debits against its customer’s deposit account when the debits were originated by online payday lenders making loans which the bank allegedly knew were illegal under state law, are there any theories by which the bank can be held liable to the customer? This is a recurrent scenario. Under the ACH payment system, the consumer debtor is the “receiver” of the ACH debits, the consumer’s bank is the “receiving depository financial institution” (RDFI), the payday lender is the “originator” of the ACH debits, and the lender’s bank introduces debit entries into the ACH system in its role as “originating depository financial institution” (ODFI). In two recent cases—one from New York and the other from Pennsylvania—the courts rejected a potpourri of theories used by the receiver to impose liability on its bank as RDFI. This is a big issue for banks, since annual ACH dollar amounts total $39 trillion based on 22 billion transactions.
In a notable case from New Jersey, a factoring company (LAF) financed an attorney’s lawsuit and filed a financing statement to notify the world of advances it had made. The attorney then went to another financer (Law Cash) and got an unsecured loan to finish the litigation. Which financer had priority to the proceeds of the lawsuit settlement? The court ruled that the unsecured creditor prevailed to the extent that it had received checks drawn on the debtor’s deposit account, under the powerful take-free rule of UCC 9-332(b). It made no difference that Law Cash never bothered to check the UCC records. We think the decision is correct.
In a notable and well-reasoned decision, a New York court has ruled that the funds in a wire transfer, frozen for 14 years at a New York intermediary bank pursuant to a Presidential executive order, were properly returned to the originator’s bank (and the originator) once the freeze was lifted, as though the wire had never occurred. The court rejected the argument of the intended beneficiary that the intermediary bank had an obligation to complete the wire as intended once the funds were unfrozen by the government. The court concluded that the intermediary bank had no obligation, enforceable by the intended beneficiary, to complete the wire transfer by issuing a payment order to the beneficiary’s bank to pay the beneficiary. The funds at issue needed to be sent backward, not forward. In reaching this conclusion, the New York court wrestled with a number of interrelated rules under Article 4A of the UCC, particularly the “money-back guaranty.” The New York decision provides a useful case study in the rules of Article 4A.
The December 2018 edition of this newsletter analyzed a notable ruling in Compass Bank v. Calleja-Ahedo, 2018 Tex. LEXIS 1314 (Tex. Dec. 21, 2018). In its recent ruling, the Texas Supreme Court provides a favorable boost to the protections afforded a bank under UCC 4-406 and the terms of a deposit account agreement.