American Savings and Central Pacific allegedly manipulated charges to maximize profits
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 9, 2011
American Savings Bank and Central Pacific Bank, the third- and fourth-largest banks in the state in terms of assets, have been sued for allegedly maximizing profits by manipulating debit card customers' overdraft fees.
The lawsuits, filed late Monday in state Circuit Court, follow a similar suit filed last month against Bank of Hawaii, the state's second-largest bank.
All three suits, filed as a class action by Honolulu-based Perkin & Faria LLLC, seek repayment of all overdraft fees paid to members of the class, plus interest; punitive and triple damages; and attorney fees.
Perkin & Faria had assistance from three mainland firms on the Bank of Hawaii suit, while its co-counsel on the American Savings and Central Pacific suits is the Honolulu firm of Bickerton Lee Dang & Sullivan.
Both the American Savings and Central Pacific suits claim that "it is through manipulation and alteration of customers' transaction records" that the banks maximized overdraft penalties by applying overdraft fees from the highest transaction to the lowest.
While accounts that are debited from high to low deplete a customer's account faster and incur more fees, 33 percent of banks use the high-to-low method, according to Michael Moebs, CEO of Lake Bluff, Ill.-based economic research firm Moebs Services. Banks say they use the method so that larger payments such as home and auto loans are more likely not to bounce.
In addition, the suits against American Savings and Central Pacific claim the banks failed to notify their customers that they could opt out of overdraft protection. A new law that went into effect in the middle of last year requires debit card customers to give their permission, or opt in, before banks can apply overdraft charges. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. required banks to notify customers in writing, or electronically or by telephone of the requirement to opt in for overdraft charges.
Plaintiff Timothy Vandeveer, a Honolulu resident who brought the complaint against American Savings, claims he was charged three overdraft fees on Feb. 26, 2009, of $28 each, totaling $84, because his five debit transactions from the previous day were processed from highest to lowest. The suit says that if his transactions, which also included a $280 deposit, were processed chronologically, he would have been charged only two overdraft fees, or $56.
The suit also claims American Savings failed to notify Vandeveer that he could be assessed overdraft fees on transactions even though there were sufficient funds in his checking account to cover a transaction at the time it occurred. In addition, the suit claims that Vandeveer was never notified that his account was overdrawn and that he would incur an overdraft fee, and that the bank would pay all of his debit transactions rather than return them even though his account purportedly lacked sufficient funds.
Two of Vandeveer's transactions were for $15.84 and $10.64, far less than the $28 overdraft fee.
"The imposition of overdraft charges which exceed the amount overdrawn is itself unconscionable," the suit said.
An American Savings spokesman said late yesterday that the bank had not yet been served the complaint and couldn't comment. Last week, American Savings said it has no plans to change how it assesses overdraft fees.
In the Central Pacific suit, plaintiffs Gregory and Camila Peterson were charged four overdraft fees on Nov. 9 of $30 each, totaling $120, because their debit transactions from the previous day were processed from highest to lowest. The suit says that if the debits were processed chronologically, they would have been charged only one overdraft fee, or $30.
"Our policy is not to comment on issues in litigation," Central Pacific spokesman Wayne Kirihara said.
However, last week Central Pacific said it debits from high to low based on risk categories of the transaction but that next month it would begin debiting chronologically based on risk categories.
Bank of Hawaii, the first bank in the state to be sued over its high-to-low overdraft practices, changed to a low-to-high policy in January.