Fulton Financial's Columbia Bank Wins Bad Writing Award

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No one reads a legal document expecting to be moved to tears, in the way someone might after reading a Shakespeare sonnet.

But legal documents are usually read carefully, seeing as how a great deal of money is often at stake.

Shouldn't a legal document, therefore, be easy to understand?

If you're a vendor or client doing business with The Columbia Bank in Maryland, a unit of Fulton Financial (FULT), then perhaps you should hire a lawyer to help with understanding that bank's merchant agreement document. Because, according to the Center for Plain Language, a bad-writing watchdog, Columbia Bank's merchant card payment-processing agreement is the most confusing item penned in the past year by any company, charity or government agency.

For its efforts, Columbia Bank was awarded the Center's (not-so) coveted Grand WonderMark Award.

Among the Columbia Bank's specific affronts to good writing were:

  • Cramming the entire agreement into a single-spaced, seven-page document.
  • Printing the agreement in a font "nearly impossible to read."
  • Writing it in legalese so convoluted that the Center's readers found it nearly impossible to understand.

For your reading pleasure, herein find an excerpt from the bank's payment-processing agreement:

"Any Cardless Transaction accepted by Bank shall, notwithstanding the prior authorization thereof by Bank or Merchant's compliance with any supplemental authorization or verification procedures required or recommended by Bank in connection with Cardless Transactions, be accepted with full recourse to Merchant and may be charged back to Merchant, at Bank's discretion."

Sheri Singer, a spokeswoman for the Center, said Columbia Bank's merchant agreement was submitted anonymously and she has no idea who actually wrote it.

No one has ever complained before about how the merchant agreement is written, said Columbia Bank spokeswoman Laura Wakeley. She also said she's never heard of the Center for Plain Language, and thus declined to offer a comment on the group's award.

JPMorgan Chase (JPM) was singled out two years ago by the center, for its bad writing in a credit card agreement. Chase promptly responded by rewriting the agreement, and the Center gave Chase an award the next year for the best turnaround.

Other companies were given citations this for flagrant writing violations besides Columbia Bank, including drugstore chain Walgreens and the U.S. General Services Administration.

The Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit group based in Falls Church, Va., claims to advocate for "government and business documents to be clear and understandable" and it backs numerous bills introduced in Congress to force writers to be clear. The Center even takes partial credit for the Dodd-Frank Act's stipulation that disclosures "be written in plain language and to be validated through consumer testing.

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Comments (1)
This is awesome. I love legal documents when they are juicy complaints, but my eyes glaze over when it is something like this. I wonder if Fulton will take steps to make it easier to understand? -Robert Barba, reporter, American Banker
Posted by barrob | Tuesday, May 29 2012 at 5:03PM ET
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