Retail fees are emerging as the latest target of class actions against banks, according to lawyers and other industry experts.
This month a San Francisco law firm filed a suit in Alameda County Superior Court alleging that BankAmerica Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. improperly levied overdraft fees on Social Security recipients.
Another pending suit accuses Wells Fargo of processing checks in a manner that unfairly charges account holders overdraft fees.
Similar suits were recently filed against Amsouth Bancorp, SouthTrust Corp., and Compass Bancshares, all of Birmingham, Ala.
"Class actions against the industry come and go in waves," said Michael F. Crotty, deputy general counsel for litigation at the American Bankers Association. "This is perhaps the beginning of a new cycle."
First there were a rash of cases that involved the pricing of collateral insurance. Then came a string of lawsuits involving the premiums lenders paid to mortgage brokers, Mr. Crotty said. There were also several cases alleging deceptive practices in banks' brokerage units.
Mr. Crotty said class-action lawyers are usually at the root of the lawsuits, which tend to follow a similar pattern.
"A lawyer dreams up a clever cause of action, settles some cases-which funds more cases-then banks fight back and win, and that's the death knell for that particular cause of action," he said. "Then someone thinks up a new one."
However, lawyers involved with the latest requests for class-action status say they are driven by customers' increasing understanding that banks are now generating a large percentage of their income from fees.
"This awareness leads them to start paying more attention to their bank statements, and eventually somebody consults an attorney," said Pierce Gore, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein.
"The number of these suits being filed really has nothing to do with the merit of each individual case," he said.
Mr. Pierce's firm represents customers in the check-processing suits.
Others agreed that the lawsuits are a reaction to the industry's push for more fee income.
"Banks have become much more aggressive about generating fee income, so they are applying more and higher fees in more areas than they ever have previously," said Charles B. Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting in New York.
Banks need to charge fees to cover costs, he said, but in turn face the risk of raising customers' ire.
"Any major bank that knows its cost structure is applying fees like this; however, some are more sensitive and effective at doing so than others," Mr. Wendel said.
The latest suits, by the Sturdevant law firm in San Francisco, allege that Wells Fargo and BankAmerica kept overdraft fees coming by charging ever-larger sums, which themselves created new overdrafts. The plaintiff in the Wells case is a 90-year-old Alzheimer's disease patient; in the BankAmerica case the plaintiff is a man disabled by a head injury.