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The Same Old Wrongdoer Blues: Creative Fraud Leaves Employer Holding the Bag for Fraud on its Account

Articles 3 and 4 of the UCC provide a roadmap for addressing how to allocate liability for the various mistakes, embezzlements and forgeries that have followed the payments system since its invention several centuries ago.  While as a general rule a customer is not liable for forgeries and other fraud on its account there are several exceptions where the risk of loss can be shifted back to the customer. One of those situations is what practitioners refer to as the “same wrongdoer rule” found in section 4-406(d)(2). The rule says that when the bank sends a customer their statement, the customer has a certain time period, usually 30 days, to review the statement and notify the bank of any unauthorized signatures or alterations. Should the customer fail to flag such transactions then the UCC shifts the risk of loss for all subsequent forgeries by the same wrongdoer to the customer. This result is modified somewhat by the following subsection, 4-406(e) which provides that if there are subsequent forgeries by the same wrongdoer and the customer establishes that the bank failed to exercise ordinary care then the loss is allocated between the customer and the bank unless the customer can show that the bank did not pay the item in good faith in which case all risk is shifted to the bank.

Section 4-406 also provides that without regard to lack of care by either party, a customer who fails to discover and report unauthorized items or any alteration within 60 days after the statement is made available to the customer is precluded from asserting a claim against the bank.

These issues were recently applied in the recent case of Ducote v. Whitney National Bank.   On July 25, 2014, David Ducote, Avery Interests, LLC, Jebaco, Inc., and Iberville Designs filed suit against Whitney and Ducote’s former employee, Michelle Freytag (“Freytag”), alleging that Freytag, in her position as Ducote’s executive assistant, had obtained fraudulent credit cards from Whitney on plaintiffs’ accounts, made personal charges on the cards, and transferred funds from plaintiffs’ accounts to pay the balance on these credit cards. The petition alleged that plaintiffs were not responsible for the charges because the contract on the credit card agreements was null, or alternatively that the credit card agreements should be rescinded because of the fraud committed by Freytag. The petition further alleged that Freytag could not have accomplished this theft without the assistance of Whitney, which failed to follow established procedures and facilitated Freytag’s theft. Whitney responded by denying all liability and argued that the claims were barred by various provisions of the UCC, one of which was Section 4-406.

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New CFPB Rule Prohibits Class Action Waivers

On July 10, 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a rule prohibiting class action waivers in certain pre-dispute arbitration agreements. The rule drastically impacts arbitration clauses currently used by many financial product and services providers in their consumer agreements.

The rule has three main components. First, the rule prohibits providers from using a pre-dispute arbitration agreement to prevent consumers from bringing or participating in class actions in federal and state court. Second, the rule requires that arbitration agreements inform consumers that their right to bring a class action is unrestricted. Third, the rule requires providers to supply certain records and data relating to arbitral proceedings to the CFPB.

The rule is effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register and generally applies to agreements entered into more than 180 days after the effective date. Congress, however, can use the Congressional Review Act to prevent the rule from taking effect.

What is the effect of the rule?

The new rule prohibits pre-dispute arbitration agreements for certain consumer financial products or services that block consumer class actions in federal and state courts. The rule accomplishes this in two ways:

  1. providers cannot rely on any pre-dispute arbitration agreement entered after the compliance date that restricts or eliminates a consumer’s right to a class action in state or federal court (§ 1040.4(a)(1)); and
  2. providers must include certain specified plain language in arbitration agreements that explicitly disclaims the arbitration agreements applicability to class actions (§ 1040.4(a)(2)).

The rule also requires providers to submit certain records relating to arbitral proceedings to the bureau, including copies of pleadings, the pre-dispute arbitration agreement, and the judgment. (§ 1040(b).)

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The HVCRE Easter Egg for Community Banks

We have written several times about the rules concerning the appropriate risk weighting for High Volatility Commercial Real Estate (“HVCRE”) loans. The interagency FAQ published on April 6, 2015 provided some guidance but many banks continue to have questions about fact situations that are not addressed under the regulation.  Despite indications that an interagency task force was looking at a further set of FAQ nothing has yet come out. Despite that, there are actually grounds for optimism that the rules will yet be simplified.

Section 2222 of the Economic Growth and Regulatory Paperwork Reduction Act of 1996 (EGRPRA)  requires that, not less than once every 10 years, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (Board), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) must conduct a review of their regulations to identify outdated or otherwise unnecessary regulatory requirements imposed on insured depository institutions. In conducting this review, the statute requires the FFIEC or the agencies to categorize their regulations by type and, at regular intervals, provide notice and solicit public comment on categories of regulations, requesting commenters to identify areas of regulations that are outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome.

In late spring of this year the FFIEC reported to Congress that one of its goals was to simplify the capital rules for community banks. The very first area of attention listed under that heading was to replace the complex treatment of HVCRE exposures with a more straightforward treatment for most acquisition, development, or construction (“ADC”) loans. While the agencies are not ready to lift the curtain on what the revised rule might look like they did cite certain comments they had received from community banks including (i) that the definition of HVCRE is neither clear nor consistent with established safe and sound lending practices; (ii) the 150 percent risk weight applied to HVCRE lending is simply too high; (iii) the criteria for determining whether an ADC loan may qualify for an exemption from the HVCRE risk weight are confusing and do not track relevant or appropriate risk drivers; and (iv) in particular, commenters expressed concern over the requirements that exempted ADC projects include a 15 percent borrower equity contribution, and that any equity in an exempted project, whether contributed initially or internally generated, remain within the project (i.e., internally generated income may not be paid out in the form of dividends or otherwise) for the life of the project.

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Changes in Georgia’s Law on Director Duties

On July 1, 2017, significant amendments to the director and officer liability provisions of Georgia’s Financial Institution Code and Business Corporation Code will take effect.  These amendments, adopted as House Bill 192 during the 2017 General Assembly session and signed into law by Governor Deal in May, enhance the protections available to directors and officers of Georgia banks when they are sued for violating their duty of care to the bank.  The amendments also apply to directors and officers of Georgia corporations, including bank holding companies.

First and foremost, House Bill 192 creates a statutory presumption, codified at O.C.G.A. § 7-1-490(c) for banks and at O.C.G.A. §§ 14-2-830(c) and 14-2-842(c) for corporations, that a director or officer’s decision-making process was done in good faith and that the director or officer exercised due care.  This presumption may be rebutted, however, by evidence that the process employed was grossly negligent, thus effectively creating a gross negligence standard of liability in civil lawsuits against directors and officers.  This is a response to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in FDIC v. Loudermilk, in which the Court recognized the existence of a strong business judgment rule in Georgia but also held that it did not supplant Georgia’s statutory standards of care requiring ordinary diligence.  The Court interpreted the statutes as permitting ordinary negligence claims against directors and officers when they are premised on negligence in the decision-making process.  (As you may recall, Loudermilk also held emphatically that claims challenging only the wisdom of a corporate decision, as opposed to the decision-making process, cannot be brought absent a showing of fraud, bad faith or an abuse of discretion.  This part of the Loudermilk decision is unaffected by the new amendments.)  Many Georgia banks and businesses expressed concern that allowing ordinary negligence suits would open the door to dubious and harassing litigation.  The Court’s opinion noted these concerns but held that they were for the General Assembly to address.

As amended, O.C.G.A. § 7-1-490(c) and its corporate code counterparts will foreclose the possibility of ordinary negligence claims by requiring a plaintiff (which can be a shareholder, the bank or corporation itself, or a receiver or conservator) to show evidence of gross negligence, which the statutes define as a “gross deviation of the standard of care of a director or officer in a like position under similar circumstances.”   It is important to note that the actual standard of care that directors and officers must exercise is essentially unchanged.  As we have written in the past, it is important for a bank board in today’s legal and business environment to develop careful processes for all decisions that are entrusted to the board, and to follow those processes.  A director should attend board meetings with reasonable regularity and should always act on an informed basis, which necessarily entails understanding the bank’s business, financial condition and overall affairs as well as facts relevant to the specific decision at issue.  The new amendments should not be read as relaxing these requirements.  The only thing that has changed is the standard of review that courts will follow when evaluating a process-related duty of care claim.  By requiring plaintiffs to show gross negligence in order to defeat the statutory presumption, the amended statute should discourage the filing of dubious lawsuits, and also provide defendants with a strong basis for moving to dismiss such suits when they are filed.  Many states, including Delaware, recognize a gross negligence floor for personal liability either by statute or under the common law.  The amendments bring Georgia law more closely in line with these states.

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If the Shoe Fits, Wear It – Bank Third Party Vendors as Institution-Affiliated Parties

When negotiating bank third party vendor contracts it is not unusual to ask the vendor to acknowledge in the contract that bank regulators might exercise some sort of supervision over the vendor. Vendors will oftentimes push back on that point, claiming that since they are not a bank the FDIC has no jurisdiction over their affairs. We typically respond that “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

The fit arises because of the definition of “institution-affiliated party” (“IAP”). The definition was added under FIRREA when the regulatory agencies were seeking additional authority to impose sanctions against lawyers, accountants and appraisers whose negligence may have contributed to the failure of a bank. The language added to the statute is broader than just those professionals and covers any shareholder, consultant joint venture party, any other person determined by the appropriate federal banking agency (by regulation or case-by case) who participates in the conduct of the affairs of the bank and any independent contractor who knowingly or recklessly participates in any violation of law or regulation, any breach of fiduciary duty or any unsafe or unsound practice which caused or is likely to cause more than a minimal financial loss to the bank. (12 USC 1813(u))

The practical application of being designated an IAP was recently driven home in an enforcement action the FDIC took against Bank of Lake Mills, Freedom Stores, Inc. and Military Credit Services, Inc. All three parties entered into Consent Orders with the FDIC. The Bank agreed to fund restitution of $3,000,000 and to pay a civil money penalty of $151,000 while Freedom Stores, Inc. agreed to pay a penalty of $54,000 and Military Credit Services agreed to pay a penalty of $37,000.

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Do Banks Need a Holding Company?

the-bank-accountOn April 11, 2017, Bank of the Ozarks announced that it would be completing an internal corporate reorganization to eliminate its holding company.  As a result, it will continue as a publicly-traded, stand-alone depository bank, without a bank holding company.

In this episode of The Bank Account, Jonathan and I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the bank holding company structure.  Specific topics include:

  • praise for Bank of the Ozarks innovative approach to further improve its already impressive efficiency,
  • a review of the existing landscape of holding company and non-holding company structures,
  • activities that may require a holding company,
  • size-related thresholds impacting holding company analysis,
  • charter and corporate-governance related elements to the analysis, and
  • the impact the absence of a holding company may have on merger and acquisition activity.

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U.S. Supreme Court Rules NY Surcharge Law Regulates Speech

What the U.S. Supreme Court Did

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that New York’s statutory ban on merchant’s surcharging customers who choose to pay with credit cards is a regulation of speech and is not merely a regulation of pricing conduct, as the lower court had ruled. New York’s statute, N. Y. Gen. Bus. Law Ann. §518, makes it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or imprisonment for a merchant to “impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check or similar means.”  In Expressions Hair Design et al. v. Schneiderman, et al., the Court required the Second Circuit to consider the validity of the law under the First Amendment.  Specifically, the circuit court of appeals must now determine whether the New York law is a valid commercial speech regulation and whether the law can be upheld as a disclosure requirement.  Previously, the Second Circuit ruled that the law regulated conduct, not speech, since it required that the merchant’s prices should be the same whether a customer uses a credit card or cash.

Impact on Merchants and Payment Networks

In short, the status quo remains intact for now, in New York and in the eleven other states that regulate surcharges. The Supreme Court’s action does not immediately uphold or invalidate New York’s anti-surcharge law. Reviving the claim after it had been dismissed by the lower court, the law now must be reviewed again by the court of appeals (and potentially again after that by the Supreme Court) as to whether the law is a valid commercial regulation of speech. This review process could take a while, especially considering that one of the Supreme Court Justices recommended that the federal court of appeals ask New York’s top state court to give it an “accurate picture of how, exactly, the statute works.”

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Dodd-Frank Act Reforms

Dodd-Frank Act Reforms

March 23, 2017

Authored by: Robert Klingler

Much of the discussion we’re having with our clients and other professionals relates to the prospects for financial regulatory reform.  To that end, and looking at it from the political rather than industry perspective, Bryan Cave’s Public Policy and Government Affairs Team has put together a brief client alert examining the political, legislative and regulatory issues currently under consideration.

In his first weeks in office, President Trump has taken steps to undo or alter major components of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”). These include delaying implementation of the “Fiduciary Rule,” which regulates the relationship between investors and their financial advisors, directing the Treasury Secretary to review the Dodd-Frank Act in its entirety, and signing a resolution passed by Congress that repeals a Dodd-Frank regulation on disclosures of overseas activity by energy companies.

Read the rest of this alert on Bryan Cave’s homepage.

We’ve also posted about the impact of the proposed regulatory off-ramp on community banks, recorded a podcast episode on the Financial Choice Act, and discussed some of the causes, including hopes for regulatory relief, of the rise in bank stock prices in our podcast episode on the issues associated with elevated stock prices in bank mergers and acquisitions.

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Trump May Not be the Only Catalyst for Administrative Reform

In the past few months, there has been a lot of speculation regarding the future of many administrative agencies under Trump’s administration. However, two current cases pending in the D.C. Circuit have the potential to have a dramatic impact on administrative agencies and past and present regulatory enforcement actions by such agencies.

In Lucia v. SEC, the SEC brought claims against Lucia for misleading advertising in violation of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. The enforcement action was initially resolved by an administrative law judge (ALJ); however Luica was later granted a petition for review based on an argument that the administrative hearing was unconstitutional because the ALJ was unconstitutionally appointed. The issue made it up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit who recently held that the ALJ was constitutionally appointed because the judge was an “employee”, not an officer. However, other courts have held just the opposite. In December, the 10th Circuit held in Bandimere v. SEC that ALJs were “inferior officers” and thus must be appointed pursuant to the Appointments Clause. A rehearing en banc has been granted in Lucia to address this issue.

On the heels of Lucia, in PHH v. CFPB, the CFPB brought claims against PHH for violations of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. Similarly, this enforcement proceeding was originally decided by an ALJ. However, PHH appealed the ALJ decision for a multitude of reasons and the appeal has also made it up to the D.C. Circuit where a rehearing en banc was granted last month. In the court’s order granting a rehearing en banc, the court ordered, among other things, that the parties address what the appropriate holding would be in PHH if the court holds in Lucia that the ALJ was unconstitutional.

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OCC Moves Forward on Fintech Bank Charters

Amid criticism from virtually every possible constituency, on March 15, 2017, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) released a draft supplement  to its chartering licensing manual related to special purpose national banks leveraging financial technology, or fintech banks. As we indicated in our fintech webinar discussing the proposal last December, the OCC is proposing to apply many conventional requirements for new banks to the fintech charter. While the OCC’s approach is familiar to those of us well versed on the formation of new banks, there are a few interesting items of note to take away from the draft supplement.

  • More bank than technology firm. Potential applicants for a fintech charter should approach the project with the mindset that they are applying to become a bank using technology as a delivery channel, as opposed to becoming a technology company with banking powers. While the difference might seem like semantics, the outcome should lead potential applicants to have a risk management focus and to include directors, executives, and advisors who have experience in banking and other highly regulated industries. In order to best position a proposal for approval, both the application and the leadership team will need to speak the OCC’s language.
  • Threading the needle will not be easy. Either explicitly or implicitly in the draft supplement, the OCC requires that applicants for fintech bank charters have a satisfactory financial inclusion plan, avoid products that have “predatory, unfair, or deceptive features,” have adequate profitability, and, of course, be safe and sound. Each bank in the country strives to meet those goals, yet many of them find themselves under pressure from various constituencies to improve their performance in one or more of those areas. For potential fintech banks, can you fulfill a mission of financial inclusion while offering risk-based pricing that is consistent with safety and soundness principles without having consumer groups deem your practices as unfair? On the other hand, can you offer financial inclusion in a manner that consumer groups appreciate while achieving appropriate profitability and risk management? We think the answer to both questions can be yes, but a careful approach will be required to convince the OCC that it should be comfortable accepting the proposed bank’s approach.
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