Huntington National Bank and three trade groups asked a federal judge Friday to overturn an Ohio law that they said illegally restricts bank insurance sales.
"We are fighting for banks to be able to sell insurance and not be discriminated against," said Larry L. LaRocco, managing director of the ABA Insurance Association. "We are fighting for the proper interpretation of federal law."
The suit is the first of a series of challenges to state restrictions on bank insurance sales that are expected now that Congress has failed to enact legislation merging the banking, insurance, and securities industries. Other states that may be targeted include Texas, Florida, and Rhode Island.
"Wherever we find laws in place that prevent banks from fully selling insurance we want to challenge those laws and get them preempted," Mr. LaRocco said.
At issue in Ohio are a ban on title insurance sales and a requirement that all other insurance products be sold primarily to consumers who are not customers of the bank.
Huntington and the trade groups argue that these restrictions are illegal, citing the Supreme Court's 1996 decision in the Barnett Banks case. That historic ruling held that states may not significantly interfere with the right of national banks to sell insurance from communities of less than 5,000 people.
"Ohio law is just inconsistent with federal law," said Daniel W. Morton, vice president and senior counsel at Columbus-based Huntington. "We should be able to exercise the rights we have as a national bank to sell insurance."
In the 26-page suit filed in federal court in Columbus, Ohio, Huntington, the ABA Insurance Association, the Association of Banks-in- Insurance, and the Ohio Bankers Association asked the judge to permanently bar the state from enforcing the sales restriction, saying banks have the "unqualified federal right" to sell insurance. They also said the insurance department rejected a request in April to voluntarily drop the sales restrictions.
A spokesman for the Ohio insurance department said the agency has no choice but to follow state law.
"It is our responsibility to uphold and enforce the laws passed by the Ohio general assembly and signed by the governor," the spokesman said. "We will continue to enforce the Ohio law until the courts rule otherwise."
The spokesman declined to comment further, saying the agency needs to consult with the state attorney general before deciding how to proceed.
Robert Rusbuldt, executive vice president at the Independent Insurance Agents of America, said disputes over bank insurance powers should be settled in Congress, not in court. "To launch a series of lawsuits at this time is a colossal waste of banker money and taxpayer money," he said.
Thomas H. Hardy, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Ohio, said the suit was without merit. Ohio law does not discriminate against banks because the restriction applies to all companies that are not primarily involved in insurance sales, he said. "It is a larger issue than simply the banks," he said.
Mr. Hardy also questioned why banks would want to sell insurance. "There has not been an outcry in the past 50 years for noninsurance entities to sell insurance," he said.
But Huntington's Mr. Morton said insurance is an important product for banks. "We want to be able to offer a complete package of services to our customers," he said. "Insurance has to be part of that."
E. Kenneth Reynolds, executive director of the Association of Banks-in- Insurance, said 20 states have dropped similar restrictions since the Supreme Court ruled in Barnett.
"Most other states do not restrict bank insurance sales authority," Mr. Reynolds said. "Ohio is one of only a handful of states that have not recognized the Barnett Bank decision."
This is not the first time since the Barnett decision that banks have sought to overturn state insurance sales restrictions. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is still considering a request by the Financial Institutions Insurance Association to preempt restrictive laws in Rhode Island.
In March, the New York Bankers Association successfully challenged in court a state law that limited insurance sales to bank customers.