Zions Bank sued in Utah over 'unconscionable' fees

October 7, 2011 - 8:15 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A customer who say Zions Bank makes it difficult — if not impossible — to avoid overdraft fees has filed a lawsuit in federal court, making the Utah bank one of dozens whose extra charges have triggered lawsuits from angry consumers.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed this week by three law firms on behalf of Melinda Barlow, of Sandy, and other customers who were charged overdraft fees under policies that were in place between 2005 and 2010.

It comes more than a year after federal regulators slapped limits on bank overdraft practices and the resulting fees. U.S. banks reportedly raked in nearly $40 billion a year from the charges before regulations took effect in July 2010 requiring banks to get customers' permission to enroll them in overdraft programs and limiting how many fees could be charged in one day.

Court papers say Zions' policies allowed it to manipulate and alter the order in which debit transactions were posted so it could maximize the number of overdrafts, increasing the fees collected from customers.

The lawsuit also contends the bank does not routinely decline debit transactions when it's clear that doing so will overdraft a customer's account, which also results in additional charges to consumers.

For Barlow, a Zions customer since 1990, the practices resulted in about $100 in overdraft charges on a single day in 2009, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also claims Zions doesn't routinely post deposits ahead of debit transactions, which could prevent accounts from becoming overdrawn.

"As a result of those acts and practices, Zions Bank's customers have been charged excessive overdraft fees," the lawsuit states. "Zions Bank's collections of those excessive fees is patently unconscionable and unfair."

The lawsuit's allegations are specific to Zions' roughly 130 bank branches in Utah and Idaho. Parent company Zions Bancorp also operates financial institutions in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.

Zions Executive Vice President Rob Brough said the company can't comment on the details of pending litigation. However, Brough said he believed this was the first litigation brought against Zions related to the issue of overdraft fees or policies.

Similar lawsuits nationwide seem to be favoring consumers.

In August, a federal judge in California ordered Wells Fargo & Co. to change what he called "unfair and deceptive business practices" that led customers to pay multiple overdraft fees, and to pay $203 million back to customers.

A month earlier, a federal judge in Florida said customers from San Francisco-based Union Bank can team up as a class to sue over its overdraft fee policy. That case is one of about 35 from around the country consolidated in Florida involving banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and big regional players like Regions Bank, U.S. Bancorp and BB&T Corp.

The Utah lawsuit seeks a recovery of fees and other restitution payments for losses customers have suffered "as the result of Zions Bank's unlawful and unconscionable overdraft fee practices and policies." It also asks a federal judge to bar Zions from continuing the policies.

Banks have been increasingly relying on extra fees as a way to increase profits.

Last month, Bank of America Corp. announced plans to being charging customers $5 a month to use their debit cards. The announcement by the nation's largest bank by deposits follows tests by Wells Fargo and Chase for $3 monthly debit card fees in some markets. Some banks area also sharply restricting rewards programs for debit cards.

A study by Bankrate.com released in September also found that although the majority of banks still offer free checking accounts, more of them require customers to meet certain conditions to have monthly fees waived. For example, one type of Bank of America checking account is free only if customers bank online and at ATMs. Paper statements and visits to a teller cost $8.95 per month.

Minimum balance fees, ATM surcharges, foreign transaction fees and more have also proliferated. Many banks even charge customers a fee for drawing on lines of credit linked to checking accounts, which most users seek in order to avoid overdraft fees.