WASHINGTON - A District of Columbia Superior Court judge slammed the door on an excessive-fee case, ruling that Riggs National Bank's $25 bounced-check penalty complies with a local consumer protection law.
"Under no realistic analysis of this record can it be said that the bank misrepresented its NSF (not sufficient funds) fee ... or that its cost-to- fee ratio for each returned check had any relation whatsoever to plaintiff's habit of repeatedly bouncing checks," Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin wrote in a July 14 opinion.
Banking advocates seized the case as one of the few times when a judge flat out says the consumers should have known better.
"Many of the other cases seem to go off on technical reasons," said Michael Crotty, deputy general counsel for litigation at the American Bankers Association. "We have been winning them, but it is rare when a judge says, 'There is nothing unreasonable about it, and if you didn't like it why did you write the checks in the first place?'"
Riggs also embraced the ruling, saying the judge validated the industry's practice of charging fees for bounced checks. "Riggs believes the courts well-reasoned analysis of the issues presented is outstanding not only for Riggs, but for the industry in general," bank spokesman Tige Savage said.
The dispute began in June 1992, when Heidi K. Hanson opened a checking account with Riggs. Ms. Hanson claimed the bank failed to inform her of the $25 bounced-check charge. Also, she said the fees are "unconscionable and not reasonably related to the actual expense Riggs incurs." The fee violates Washington's Consumer Protection Procedures Act, she said.
Riggs countered that it disclosed all the fees up front, providing a written fee schedule when Ms. Hanson opened her account. The bank also said whether the disclosures were made is irrelevant because Ms. Hanson admitted the penalties did not deter her from bouncing checks.
In dismissing the case before trial, the judge wrote that all bank customers sign a form acknowledging that their accounts are subject to certain fees. Also, he cited the bank's fee schedule.
Finally, the judge said that even if Ms. Hanson didn't know of the policy before she bounced her first check, she learned of it as soon as she got her first $25 fee.
"Any misrepresentation or failure to state a material fact regarding the NSF fee policy by the bank is irrelevant because of plaintiff's accurate knowledge on that issue, and immaterial because by her own admission and conduct, such knowledge did not matter," the judge wrote.
The judge also wrote that the fee did not violate the consumer protection law because Ms. Hanson could avoid the penalty by not bouncing checks, or by using money orders or opening an account at a bank with lower fees.