Court clarifies timeframe for unauthorized withdrawals
How much time do members have to inform you that they have spotted an unauthorized withdrawal from their account after receiving their statements?
The UCC gives consumers a year but that timeframe can be reduced by contract. Just how much that window can be closed has remained an open question in New York for decades until a narrow but an important ruling in New York’s Court of Appeals in May (Clemente Bros. Contracting Corp. v Hafner-Milazzo) held that business accounts opened by sophisticated large businesses could provide companies with as little as two weeks to report unauthorized withdrawals provided they receive adequate notice of account activity.
Clemente Brothers opened business accounts and a line of credit at NorthFork Bank which was subsequently gobbled up by CapitalOne; In order to open up the account it had to pass a corporate resolution specifying who could draw from the accounts and sign an account agreement that provided in pertinent part:
“That unless [Clemente Brothers] shall notify the Bank in writing within fourteen calendar days of the delivery or mailing of any statement of account and cancelled check, draft of any claimed errors in such statement, or that any such returned Instrument was forged…or that it was raised or otherwise altered … “ the account shall be considered correct for all purposes and said Bank shall not be liable for any payments made and charged to the account
All good unauthorized withdrawal cases seem to start with wayward employees and in this case a bookkeeper had been forging Clemente’s signature on certain CapitalOne Bank documents, including drawdown requests on the line of credit and checks paid from one of Clemente Brothers’ accounts. The company claimed she embezzled approximately $386,000 over the course of approximately two years, from January 2008 through December 2009. The withdrawals were discovered in 2010. They claimed that these were unauthorized withdrawals and that the Bank had to make them whole. You probably haven’t looked at the statute in a while. It provides that
1) When a bank sends to its customer a statement of account accompanied by items paid in good faith in support of the debit entries or holds the statement and items pursuant to a request or instructions of its customer or otherwise in a reasonable manner makes the statement and items available to the customer, the customer must exercise reasonable care and promptness to examine the statement and items to discover his unauthorized signature or any alteration on an item and must notify the bank promptly after discovery thereof.
(2) If the bank establishes that the customer failed with respect to an item to comply with the duties imposed on the customer by subsection (1) the customer is precluded from asserting against the bank.
N.Y. U.C.C. Law § 4-406 (McKinney)
The court bifurcated its ruling into two parts. The court did not dismiss the case in relation to the unauthorized draws against the line of credit. Even though the company was put on notice that money was being drawn on the line it wasn’t given copies of the actual drawdown requests. Therefore a trial court had to decide if the bank provided adequate notice to the company; chances are it did.
The more interesting question was whether or not the 14-day notice period could be enforced. The Court ruled that:
“Clemente Brothers had numerous employees, regularly moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in and out of its operating accounts, and had the resources to make an informed decision about opening accounts at CapitalOne. Critically, Clemente was fully aware of the terms of the agreements with CapitalOne because Clemente Brothers passed a corporate resolution acknowledging its obligation to notify CapitalOne of any irregularities within 14 days of each statement of account.”
Does this mean that all your account agreements should have a 14-day window? No. The court stressed that its ruling applied to a sophisticated large corporation. It might reach a different result if it was deciding a case involving an elderly account holder or a less sophisticated small business.
So what should you do? Don’t have the same window for members that you do for businesses and make sure you don’t rely on the UCC’s one-year language. The more sophisticated your business account members are, the shorter their notification window can be. No matter what number you decide on, make sure your policy is reflected in the account agreement and that your frontline staff gets the necessary paperwork as part of opening accounts.
Here is a link to the decision and an earlier blog I did on the case: