A lawsuit claims the bank rearranged debit card transactions to maximize overdrafts
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 17, 2011
Bank of Hawaii has been sued by customers alleging the bank used "unfair and deceptive overdraft fee practices."
The complaint, filed as a class action Tuesday in state Circuit Court on behalf of Honolulu residents Lodley and Tehani Taulava, accuses Bank of Hawaii of engaging in a systematic policy of re-ordering debit card transactions from highest dollar amount to lowest dollar amount. The suit said this practice allowed the bank to deplete the customer's available funds as quickly as possible while maximizing the number of overdraft fees.
Bank of Hawaii spokes-man Stafford Kiguchi said yesterday that the bank changed its policy last month and now generally posts transactions from lowest dollar amount to highest. "This minimizes overdraft fees paid by customers," Kiguchi said.
The suit cited an example involving the Taulavas in which they were charged four overdraft fees of $26 each, or a total of $104, from debits that were posted on the same day (Aug. 18, 2010). The Taulavas had five transactions that day, including an ATM withdrawal, totaling $115.11. The debits were processed from highest to lowest. The suit said that if the bank had processed the transactions from lowest to highest or chronologically (based on time of day), the Taulavas would have been assessed only one overdraft fee of $26.
"Banks should not be allowed to gouge customers by unfairly manipulating the manner in which transactions are posted and overdrafts are charged," said John Perkin, a partner with Perkin & Faria LLLC, which represents the plaintiffs. "Such practices make it more difficult for thousands of Hawaii families to make ends meet. We are continuing to investigate other banks in Hawaii."
Kiguchi said the bank is aware of customers' concerns about overdraft fees. He said that until the bank changed its policy that this had been a common practice based on the belief that the higher debits were someone's mortgage, tuition or car payments.
Kiguchi said there are also many other ways customers can avoid overdraft fees.
"To ensure that customers know how much money they have to spend without overdrawing their account, Bank of Hawaii provides account balances through Internet banking, mobile banking, Bankoh by Phone and at ATMs," Kiguchi said.
"The bank provides ways to avoid having transactions denied and offers customers the ability to avoid overdrafts by linking a line of credit or savings account to their checking account."
This is the first such lawsuit against a Hawaii bank, but several mainland banks were recently sued over similar practices, Perkin & Faria said in a news release.
In August 2010, a California judge awarded Wells Fargo customers in that state $203 million in damages related to the bank's overdraft fee practices. Last month, a judge in Washington, D.C., approved a settlement in which National City Bank agreed to pay its customers $12.5 million. Earlier this month, Bank of America agreed to pay its customers $410 million.
The three mainland firms that are assisting Perkin & Faria in the Honolulu suit — Tycko & Zavareei LLP, Kopelowitz Ostrow and Chitwood Harley Harnes LLP — also were involved in one or all of those other recent settlements.