The Georgia Court of Appeals has upheld the certification of a class action lawsuit against SunTrust Bank alleging as many as 400,000 customers have been charged exorbitant overdraft fees.
Named plaintiff Jeff Bickerstaff Jr. filed the lawsuit in July 2010 challenging the bank’s overdraft fees as excessive. Bickerstaff said SunTrust charged $36 when customers overdrew their accounts, even by small amounts, with debit card payments. The complaint claims the fees amount to interest rates as high as 1,000 percent and violate the state’s banking and finance laws.
Bickerstaff alleged that approximately 400,000 Georgians had been overcharged in the same way and were “well suited for class treatment.”
“SunTrust argues that the trial court erred in (1) finding the class-action waiver unconscionable, and (2) granting class certification,” Judge Elizabeth Gobeil wrote in an opinion released Wednesday. “We affirm.” Gobeil was joined by Judges Brian Rickman and Chris Coomer.
The decision upholds Fulton County State Court Judge Susan Edlein in the certification of the class.
It’s the third round of appeals for the case, which could potentially cost SunTrust tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The bank lost an attempt to have the case dismissed after Bickerstaff died in 2015. But his mother and executor, Ellen Bickerstaff, took his place as named plaintiff. The bank also lost an appeal at the Georgia Supreme Court seeking to block the lawsuit by enforcing an arbitration agreement.
The case has drawn attention from legal scholars, who argue in support of the class, as well as banking and business interests on the other side. In briefs and during oral arguments in the previous round at the high court, attorneys told the justices their ruling could either kill class action or contract law in the state.
Michael Terry of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore argued the case for Bickerstaff.
“We are pleased that the court was so careful and attentive to this important case for Georgia consumers,” Terry said Thursday. “It has been nine years since we filed this case. It’s long past time for a trial.”
William Withrow Jr. of Troutman Sanders represented SunTrust. Through a spokesman, SunTrust declined to comment.
“Like many banking institutions, SunTrust provides an automated overdraft program that allows an account holder’s ATM or debit card transaction to be approved even if the approved amount exceeds the account holder’s available balance. In other words, the customer has insufficient funds to cover the transaction and SunTrust advances the customer the necessary funds to cover the transaction, but, in return, charges the customer a flat fee per overdraft transaction. During the relevant time period, SunTrust charged a flat overdraft fee of $32 or $36 per overdraft transaction,” Gobeil said.
“In the complaint, Bickerstaff alleged that, on multiple occasions, SunTrust ‘advance[d] money to Plaintiff in amounts less than $3,000 and collected Overdraft Fees from Plaintiff in connection with each such advance.’ He maintained that SunTrust’s overdraft fees in fact constitute interest charged by SunTrust for the use of the money SunTrust advanced/loaned account holders to cover overdrafts on their accounts, and that the rate of interest grossly exceeded the rate allowed under Georgia’s usury laws,“ Gobeil said.
The case is SunTrust v. Bickerstaff, No. A18A1519.