WASHINGTON — The House took a key step Wednesday toward passing bipartisan legislation that would end a rash of lawsuits over missing ATM fee disclosure signs.
The measure passed the House Financial Services Committee by a unanimous voice vote, and the committee's top Republican and Democrat agreed to seek a speedy vote by the entire chamber.
In the preceding discussion of the bill, members of the often contentious committee temporarily buried the partisan hatchet.
"This is a commonsense piece of legislation that's going to right a wrong that's popped up in our business community," said the legislation's sponsor, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo.
Rep. Barney Frank, the committee's top Democrat, said that when community bankers talk to members of Congress about the regulatory problems they are facing these days, the ATM lawsuits get mentioned most frequently. "I'm very pleased that we are responding," he added.
The bill would eliminate a 19-year-old requirement that banks, credit unions and other ATM owners use physical placards to alert customers about any fees they will be charged if they are not account holders. It would keep in place another mandate that customers also be alerted onscreen of any such fees.
The banking industry, along with credit unions and various retailers, has pushed for the law to be changed because of a surge in lawsuits filed by ATM users. Numerous individuals have filed multiple suits, and at Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers alleged that the same people suing have sometimes removed the fee notifications signs.
Chairman Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said that financial institutions are now spending significant sums of money to ensure that the signs on their ATMs remain in place.
Referring to the surge in lawsuits, Bachus said, "It shows the creativity of some in the legal profession, and not a good creativity."
In an example of the assembly-line nature of the lawsuits, a Brooklyn man who had filed three ATM cases since February brought a fourth suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New York.
The plaintiff, Yehudah Katz, has sued Capital One Bank, Delta Community Credit Union and two other firms after withdrawing cash from their ATMs and incurring service fees that were generally $2.50 or $3. In each of the complaints, Katz sought class-action status.
Shimson Wexler, a lawyer representing Katz, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday. But banking industry representatives say the cases sometimes settle for as much as $100,000.
During Wednesday's hearing, the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., expressed concern that without legislation, financial institutions will simply remove ATMs from certain neighborhoods instead of incurring the costs to ensure that the signs are not removed.
The only question about the bill came from Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. While Maloney made clear that she supports the measure, she asked its sponsors why they chose to remove the sign requirement altogether, rather than taking a different approach.
Echoing the perspective of some consumer groups that oppose the bill, Maloney said, "I question why we are going forward in this way instead of focusing on shielding the banks from liability once the sticker has been removed."
Lawmakers responded that the sign requirement is no longer necessary, given that ATMs make clear disclosures onscreen of any fees charged, and Maloney sounded satisfied with the responses she got.
"There's no ambiguity about that note that it's going to cost you 3 bucks," Frank said, noting that he has never even noticed the physical signs on ATMs.
"I am not in the habit of reading the side of ATM machines," he joked.
Frank and Bachus agreed to move the bill to a House floor vote under a procedural maneuver used for non-controversial measures, which should expedite the process. The vote should occur shortly after Congress returns from its July 4 recess.
At that point, attention will turn to the Senate. GOP Sen. Mike Johanns has introduced a companion to the House bill, but the Senate Banking Committee has yet to take action on the measure.