WASHINGTON -- Bank customers won an important victory when a federal appeals court made it more difficult for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to renege on oral agreements consumers made with failed institutions.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled Aug. 26 that the FDIC has to answer charges that it owes E.I. Dupont $1 million that the failed United National Bank of Washington was supposed to be holding in escrow for the giant chemical manufacturer.

The judges, in a 2-1 decision, said that the FDIC cannot dismiss the case because it must pay legitimate claims against failed institutions that it owns.

But, the judges did not overturn the underlying doctrine -- know as D'Oench, Duhme -- that allows receivers to deny payment for certain undocumented or dubious claims against a failed institution.

Instead, the judges narrowed the D'Oench, Duhme doctrine, ruling that the courts should take a more common-sense approach.

It said this case, which involved an oral agreement to extend a continuously used escrow account, fits that pattern.

Lawyers familiar with the case said the decision will have national implications because all litigants have the option of filing claims against the FDIC in Washington, where the Dupont case is now precedent.

The decision comes on the heels of cases in two other appellate circuits that also found problems with the D'Oench doctrine.

"It is not as though this is a ground-breaking case," said banking attorney Warren Dennis of Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn. "But what it represents is a trend and it takes that trend further than it has gone before ."

Mr. Dennis said the court has taken a much more "logical and conservative" approach to the legitimate question of how far can the receiver go in voiding agreements that it considers detrimental to the bank's interest.

One lawyer familiar with the case said judges are less receptive to the FDIC and Resolution Trust Corp.'s arguments.

"What's hurting the FDIC is the preception that there isn't a crisis anymore," the lawyer said.

Attorneys for the FDIC declined to comment. But, those familiar with the case expect the agency either to ask for a rehearing or to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case began 1982 when a local. chemical distributor and E.I. Dupont established an escrow account at United National. The purpose of the account was to allow the Washington, D.C., government to place its payments for chemical deliveries directly into the escrow account. That assured Dupont of payment.

Dupont started getting nervous in the mid-1980s when the distributor started failing to make payments. The distributor informed the chemical company that it was the city's fault because it was late with payments.

The company doublechecked with the bank, which assured Dupont that the escrow agreement was still in effect. That, however, wasn't true. Instead, the bank allowed the agreement to lapse.

Dupont sued the bank in 1989 for negligence in breaching the escrow agreement. The FDIC then tried unsuccessfully to dismiss on the grounds that the receiver is not bound by agreements not in the bank's records.

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