Why Overdraft Fees Are An Endangered Species

April 14, 2022 at 9:32 am Leave a comment

Good morning boys and girls, I want you all to grab a cup of coffee and gather around the virtual rug while I tell you a fascinating story about the history of overdraft protection programs and why a recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit is instructive for your credit union.

A long, long time ago, in an age before the internet and computers, banks and credit unions would decide on a case-by case basis whether to honor a member’s checks.  Let’s say Mrs. Jones didn’t have quite enough money to pay for the new vacuum she wrote out a check for. If they knew she was a good consistent member who deposited her paycheck every Friday, chances are they would cover the check. Everyone was happy, including the store owner who was dependent on checks to grow his business. 

Times changed.  Technology allowed financial institutions to automate overdraft decisions and financial institutions started charging fees for providing overdraft protection.  Financial institutions began to incorporate this practice into their account agreements and market them to their members. 

But marketing what used to be an ad-hock process into a financial product raised legal and regulatory concerns when that bank or credit union paid a check. For example, when that bank or credit union paid a check for Mrs. Jones’ granddaughter on the assumption that it would get the money back at a later date, wasn’t it extending credit, and if so, why wasn’t it providing more disclosures?   Never mind that some members absolutely loved this service.  For instance, Mrs. Jones’ granddaughter hardly knows what a checkbook is and couldn’t balance her account if her life depended on it.  After all, there are apps for this type of thing.

Responding to these concerns, in 2005, NCUA joined with bank regulators in issuing this guidance explaining the conditions under which financial institutions could provide overdraft protection services to their members and customers without running afoul of state usury laws or federal consumer protection laws, such as the Truth In Lending Act (TILA). The guidance established a common sense framework under which both federal and state credit unions were allowed to charge overdraft fees. The guidance also explained the conditions under which credit unions could offer overdraft lines of credit, but crucially, it explained that lines of credit triggered disclosure requirements under TILA. The OCC also authored an influential opinion letter for banks in 2007 in which it further explained that overdraft fees were part of a bank’s account maintenance activities for which fees could be charged, as opposed to debt collection activity subject to additional state and federal laws. 

Although overdraft fees remain controversial on a policy level, the fundamental premise of the above guidance remains good law.  Overdraft fees are not interest, so long as they are properly disclosed. In addition, members must affirmatively agree to overdraft protections when it comes to their debit cards. 

But just the other day, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided a case which took direct aim at this regulatory framework.  In Walker v. BOKF, National Association, 2022 WL 1052068 (C.A.10 (N.M.), 2022) involves an overdraft product under which the bank’s customers are charged an initial overdraft fee and an additional Extended Overdraft Fee of $6.50 per business day if the account remains overdrawn after five days.

The plaintiff in this case does not challenge the bank’s right to charge the original overdraft fee. He instead argues that the reoccurring charges for nonpayment amounts to interest. Interest which far exceeds the state interest rate cap of 8%. 

Stop yawning kids.  This argument takes direct aim at the core legal premise which allows financial institutions to charge overdraft fees. Remember how the bank used to honor Mrs. Jones’s checks even though there wasn’t enough money in her account? If the bank’s actions where actually classified as a loan, then virtually any fee would exceed NCUA’s interest rate cap not to mention state usury laws. The case in question was not challenging overdraft fees, but if the plaintiff in this case was successful, the next round of litigation would challenge the premise that overdraft protections are fees and not loans. The case is also crucial because it invites the courts to rule that bank regulators misinterpreted the law in 2005 and 2007 when they decided that overdraft fees should not be considered interest. Fortunately for us, the argument was rejected.

So what is the moral of the story? First, if you offer any products which charge both a fee and then recurring charges if the account remains overdrawn for a period of time, prepare yourself for a potential legal challenge.  Litigation like this does not happen in a vacuum. 

But here is an even scarier thought.  Right now the CFPB is considering taking action against so-called Junk Fees.  The distinction between interest rates and fees is a regulatory distinction developed long before the CFPB was conceived by an obscure Harvard law professor by the name of Elizabeth Warren. If the CFPB decides to aggressively challenge the existing regulatory framework, it most likely has the legal authority to do so. What one regulator can give, another can simply take away. Congress may have to be the ultimate arbiter of the overdraft debate.

On that happy note, yours truly is heading south in search of warm weather.  I will return a week from Monday.

Entry filed under: Federal Legislation, Legal Watch, Regulatory, Technology. Tags: , , , .

Is Your CU Ready to Take On Inflation? Gone fishing… and to the beach!

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Authored By:

Henry Meier, Esq., Senior Vice President, General Counsel, New York Credit Union Association.

The views Henry expresses are Henry’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association. In addition, although Henry strives to give his readers useful and accurate information on a broad range of subjects, many of which involve legal disputes, his views are not a substitute for legal advise from retained counsel.

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