Banks get OK to take unpaid fees out of depositors' Social Security, other government funds

State Supreme Court overturns 2004 ruling against Bank of America

The California Supreme court ruled in San Francisco Monday that banks can take overdraft fees out of Social Security and other government funds deposited directly into the accounts of elderly and disabled customers.

The panel overturned a 2004 San Francisco Superior Court judgment requiring Bank of America to pay more than 1.1 million customers more than $1 billion for using their benefit money to pay for overdrafts and insufficient-funds fees.

That award included $284 million for fees the bank took out of customers' accounts between 1994 and 2003, plus $1,000 for each of the 1.1 million customers who suffered serious economic or emotional distress.

The customers received benefits such as federal Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, known as SSI, for disabled people.

The court said unanimously that while state laws prohibit banks from taking benefit funds to pay for debts in separate accounts, such as a credit-card account, the laws specifically exempt internal charges made within an account.

Justice Carlos Moreno wrote that "it is clear from the statutory language that the Legislature intended to treat charges for overdrafts and insufficient-funds fees differently from the setoff of independent debt."

James Sturdevant, a lawyer for the customers, called the ruling "disgraceful" and said, "This decision is the latest example of sacrificing the poor who subsist on life support to the altar of greed."

Sturdevant called on the state Legislature and Congress to pass laws protecting automatically deposited Social Security funds.

Bank of America issued a statement saying it was pleased with the decision "rejecting a challenge to account balancing practices followed by every bank in California and across the nation."

The bank said, "The decision today confirms that the bank has always acted lawfuly in maintaining and balancing its customer accounts."

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Like this comment
Posted by Roy
a resident of Pleasanton Valley
on Jun 2, 2009 at 8:49 am

Each week your local Bank Manager loses more of their authority. Managers who would normally credit questionable bank service charges are now unable to provide that service due to micromanaging by their district offices or a corporate mandate. Service charges are no longer just to cover a bank's expenses, but for a long time have morphed into a revenue producing portion of their business. When you overdraw your account by $5 and you incur a $35 charge for them to RETURN the check, something is wrong. The days of loyalty by large banks to their customers is fast disappearing. Now is the time to do your homework and try to find a bank or credit union that is customer oriented, and then make the switch. Most likely you will NOT wind up with any of the large institutions you have most often heard about in recent broadcasts. Only when the offending banks feel the loss of customers will they start to pay attention and ask, "why are we losing market share?"

Like this comment
Posted by Pat
a resident of Canyon Oaks
on Jun 2, 2009 at 9:37 am

So much for bank customer service!
Banks use to nickel and dime you and now its dollar and multidollar you now!

Like this comment
Posted by Bye Bye Fees
a resident of Old Towne
on Jun 2, 2009 at 10:09 am

I closed my BofA account last week. I'd had it for 20 years & finally got tired of all the fees. I moved our accounts to Patelco Credit Union. The interest rates are better. And, the fees are reasonable. It turns out the customer service with my credit union is much better too.

Like this comment
Posted by MoneyChangers in the temple?
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jun 2, 2009 at 10:10 am

Are these the same banks who got a huge bailout at taxpayers expense?

Sounds like they spent lots of money on lawyers so they can take money from the poor.

If anyone has specific recommendations for honest* bankers, please post!

*Or at least less greedy.

Like this comment
Posted by Me too
a resident of Canyon Creek
on Jun 2, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Banks are ridiculous! While this ruling has some validity - the banks are the ones causing the huge problems. Why did we bail them out????? Oh, I know, so they could keep the top people that ran them into bankruptcy because of their brillance.

Credit unions are the only way to go. The couple that I've dealt with seem to actually care and the fees are reasonable, so if you do screw up it doesn't ruin your entire life.

Big banks are jsut large vacuums - trying to suck up everyone's money.

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