WASHINGTON -- Customers cannot sue a bank in a federal court for charging excessive fees unless the fees top $50,000, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled last week.

The ruling should keep federal courts free of consumers angry over the fees banks charge on trust accounts because the tabs rarely top more than $50,000, said Michael Crotty, the American Bankers Association's deputy general counsel for litigation.

"You don't have to worry about class action lawsuits," Mr. Crotty said. "You don't have to worry about punitive damages or any of that stuff."

The case, In Re: Corestates Trust Fee Litigation, involved a dispute by Howard W. Harrison III and James D. Robins against Corestates over the amount of fees it charged for a trust account.

The two filed suit seeking a refund of $2,500 in fees for their case and refunds for other, similarly situated customers.

The trial court dismissed their case, landing them before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The court made two findings on Oct. 27 in tossing out the appeal.

First, it rejected an argument that the federal law allowing banks to engage in trust work is part of the National Bank Act.

If the law was part of the National Bank Act, then the customer may have had a right to sue. (The court ruled that it didn't need to determine if that right existed because it already decided that the law was not part of the bank act.)

Second, the federal appeals court turned down a bid by the customers to use a technicality to inflate the amount in dispute to $50,000, the legal threshold needed to pursue this type of case in federal court.

The court ruled that the .customers must show that they were disputing $50,000 in fees, not that the value of the trust account was more than the threshold limit.

Corestate's attorney Gregory M. Harvey of the Philadelphia law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius said the court decision will force most litigants to turn to the state courts, which are less receptive to these kinds of claims.

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