Three-Year Limitations Period Governs Bank Customer’s Suit for Misapplied Deposits – IL First Dist.

Now we can add PSI Resources, LLC v. MB Financial Bank (2016 IL App (1st) 152204) to the case canon of decisions that harmonize conflicting statutes of limitations and show how hard it is for a corporate account holder to successfully sue its bank.

The plaintiff, an assignee of three related companies**, sued the companies’ bank for misapplying nearly $400K in client payments over a several-year period.  The bank moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiff’s suit was time-barred by the three-year limitations period that governs actions based on negotiable instruments.***  The court dismissed the complaint and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

The key question was whether the Uniform Commercial Code’s three-year limitations period for negotiable instrument claims or the general ten-year period for breach of written contract actions applied to the plaintiff’s negligence suit against the bank.  The issue was outcome-determinative since the plaintiff didn’t file suit until more than three years passed from the most recent misapplied check.

Illinois applies a ten-year limitations period for actions based on breach of written contract.  735 ILCS 5/13-206.  By contrast, an action based on a negotiable instrument is subject to the shorter three-year period.  810 ILCS 5/4-111.

If the subject of a lawsuit is a negotiable instrument, the UCC’s three-year time period applies since UCC Article 4 actions based on conversion and Article 3 suits for improper payment both involve negotiable instruments.  810 ILCS 5/3-118(g)(conversion); 810 ILCS 5/4-111 (improper payment).

Rejecting plaintiff’s argument that this was a garden-variety breach of contract action to which the ten-year period attached, the court held that since plaintiff’s claims were essentially based on banking transactions, the three-year limitations period for negotiable instruments governed. (¶¶ 36-38)

Where two statutes of limitations arguably apply to the same cause of action, the statute that more specifically relates to the claim applies over the more general statute.  While the ten-year statute for breach of written contracts is a general, “catch-all” limitations period, section 4-111’s three-year rule more specifically relates to a bank’s duties and obligations to its customers.

And since the three-year rule was more specific as it pertained to the plaintiff’s improper deposit and payment claims, the shorter limitations period controlled and plaintiff’s suit was untimely.

The court also sided with the bank on policy grounds.  It stressed that the UCC aims to foster fluidity and efficiency in commercial transactions.  If the ten-year period applied to every breach of contract action against a bank (as plaintiff argued), the UCC’s goal of promoting commercial finality and certainty would be frustrated and possibly bog down financial deals.

The other plaintiff’s argument rejected by the court was that the discovery rule saved the plaintiff’s lawsuit.  The discovery rule protects plaintiffs who don’t know they are injured.  It suspends (tolls) the limitations period until a plaintiff knows or should know he’s been hurt.  The discovery rule standard is not subjective certainty (“I now realize I have been harmed,” e.g.).  Instead, the rule is triggered where “the injured person becomes possessed of sufficient information concerning his injury and its cause to put a reasonable person on inquiry to determine whether actionable conduct is involved.” (¶ 47)

Here, the evidence was clear that plaintiff’s assigning companies received deposit statements on a monthly basis for a several-year period.  And the monthly statements contained enough information to put the companies on notice that the bank may have misapplied deposits.  According to the court, these red flags should have motivated the plaintiff to dig deeper into the statements’ discrepancies.

Take-aways:

This case suggests that an abbreviated three-year limitations period applies to claims based on banking transactions; even if a written contract – like an account agreement – is the foundation for a plaintiff’s action against a bank.  A plaintiff with a possible breach of contract suit against his bank should take great care to sue within the three-year period when negotiable instruments are involved.

Another case lesson is that the discovery rule has limits.  If facts exist to put a reasonable person on notice that he may have suffered financial harm, he will be held to a shortened limitations period; regardless of whether he has actual knowledge of harm.

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**  The court took judicial notice of the Illinois Secretary of State’s corporate registration database which established that the three assigned companies shared the same registered agent and business address.

*** 810 ILCS 5/3-104 (“negotiable instrument” means an unconditional promise or order to pay a fixed amount of money, with or without interest or other charges described in the promise or order, if it: (1) is payable to bearer or to order at the time it is issued or first comes into possession of a holder (2) is payable on demand or at a definite time; and (3) does not state any other undertaking or instruction by the person promising or ordering payment to do any act in addition to the payment of money, but the promise or order may contain (i) an undertaking or power to give, maintain, or protect collateral to secure payment, (ii) an authorization or power to the holder to confess judgment or realize on or dispose of collateral, or (iii) a waiver of the benefit of any law intended for the advantage or protection of an obligor.)

 

UCC Bars Bank Customer Suit Versus Bank For Estranged Husband’s Unauthorized Account Withdrawals

Kaplan v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, NA (2015 WL 2358240 (N.D.Ill. 2015)), starkly illustrates the challenges a bank customer faces when trying to pin liability on a bank that pays out on a fraudulent transaction involving the customer’s account.  There, the plaintiff bank customer sued JPMorgan Chase for breach of contract and negligence after the plaintiff’s estranged husband was able to siphon about $1M from two of plaintiff’s accounts over an 18-month period starting in 2009.  Plaintiff filed suit in 2014.

The plaintiff claimed the bank breached its contractual obligations and its duty of care by allowing the husband to forge plaintiff’s name on two account signature cards which enabled him to transfer the money from the accounts behind plaintiff’s back.

The Northern District granted summary judgment for the bank and in doing so, provides a good primer on a bank customer’s duties to monitor account statements and the reach of a bank’s liability for unauthorized withdrawals from a customer’s account.

Summary judgment Standards

To defeat summary judgment, a plaintiff must show there is a genuine disputed material fact that can only be resolved after a full trial on the merits

A disputed fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the case. A dispute is “genuine” where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.

The moving party has the initial burden of showing that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law and can make this showing by establishing that the other party has no evidence on an issue that it has the burden of proof.

Once the moving party meets this burden, the nonmovant must come forward with specific facts that demonstrate there is a genuine issue for trial and may not rely on conclusions, allegations or a “scintilla” (a trace or spark http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scintilla) of evidence to show that facts exist that will defeat summary judgment.

The Bank-Customer Contractual Relationship

The signature card defines the relationship between plaintiff and the bank defendant. A contract between a bank and its depositor is created by signature cards and a deposit agreement.

The signature card here incorporated Account Rules and Regulations (“Account Rules”) by reference.  These Rules, in turn, required the Plaintiff to notify the bank of any errors or unauthorized items within 30 days of the date on which the error or unauthorized item was made available to the plaintiff. If the plaintiff failed to do so within that 30-day window, the error or item would be enforceable against her.

The unauthorized transfers occurred over an 18 month time span starting in 2009 and ending in 2011. But the plaintiff didn’t notify the bank until nearly a year later in April 2012. As a result, the plaintiff missed the Account Rules’ 30-day time limit.

The UCC – Article 4

Plaintiff’s claims were also too late under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).  Section 4-406 of the UCC provides that where a bank makes a statement available to a customer, the customer must exercise “reasonable promptness” in notifying the bank of any errors. This section also immunizes a bank from liability where it pays in good faith on an unauthorized signature or alteration and the customer doesn’t notify the bank within a reasonable time, “not exceeding 30 days.” 4-406(c)-(d)

The UCC contains a one-year repose period, too. Section 4-406(f) provides that regardless of whether a bank exhibits a lack of care in paying an item, if a customer fails to notify the bank of an unauthorized signature or alteration within one year of a statement being made available, the customer’s claim is barred.

The court held that since the bank filed affidavits stating that plaintiff had free on-line access to her accounts on a monthly basis, the bank “made available” the account information under the UCC. The court held making account information available under 4-406(c) did not require a customer’s physical receipt of the statements.

Turning to whether the bank exhibited good faith in allowing the plaintiff’s husband to withdraw nearly $1M from the accounts, the court noted that good faith is defined by the UCC as “honesty in fact and the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” UCC 3-103(a)(4). Since the plaintiff came forth with no evidence that the bank knew either that the signature cards were forged by the husband or that he lacked authority to add himself as an account signer, there was no showing that the bank lacked good faith.

UCC Article 3

Another UCC section that barred the plaintiff’s claims was 3-118(g). This section provides a 3 year limitations period for claims involving conversion of an instrument, breach of warranty or to enforce any other UCC rights not covered by another section.

The discovery rule – a judge-made rule that delays the start of a statute of limitations until an injured plaintiff knows or reasonably should know she has been injured – doesn’t apply to claims that fall within 3-118(g). This is because applying a discovery rule to an unauthorized monetary transaction would undermine the UCC’s stated goals of finality, predictability, uniformity and efficiency in commercial transactions.

Take-aways:

1/ A bank defendant has an arsenal of statutory defenses under the UCC to actions brought by customers;

2/ The UCC’s goals of fostering fluidity in commercial transactions trumps any opposing claims of individual customers;

3/  Harmed bank customers will at least have a chance to defraying her economic damages by vigilantly reviewing account statements and promptly notifying her bank within 30 days of any statement discrepancies.

Ten-Year Statute of Limitations Applies to Demand Promissory Note: Three-Year ‘SOL’ For Negotiable Instruments Does Not

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Advanced Credit, Inc. v. Linares, 2012 IL App (1st) 121574-U is a fairly recent case illustration of what happens when two statutes of limitation with widely varying time lengths potentially govern the same case.

The defendant in Linares signed a promissory note in 2002 that was payable to the defendant “upon demand.”

The plaintiff payee of the note made a demand for payment in 2004 which the defendant ignored.  Plaintiff sued six years later (in 2010) to recover on the note and sought interest, fees and costs.

Defendant moved to dismiss on the basis that the three-year limitations period  governing negotiable instruments time-barred the complaint. (See 810 ILCS 5/3-104, 3-118.)  The plaintiff argued that the ten-year time to sue on demand promissory notes (735 ILCS 5/13-206) applied and so the suit was timely.  The trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the suit.  The plaintiff payee appealed.

Held: Reversed.  The ten-year statute, not the three-year one, applies to the demand promissory note.

Rules/Reasoning:

A note that is “payable on demand” is a demand note and is due and payable immediately upon execution.  810 ILCS 5/3-108.  A claim against the maker of a demand note accrues on the date the note is issued.

Code Section 13-206 provides for a ten-year limitations period for promissory notes and for demand notes.  Under this statute, a demand note plaintiff is barred if the note maker pays no note interest or principal for a period of 10 continuous years and no demand is made during that time.

Uniform Commercial Code Section 3-118(g) applies a 3-year limitations period for actions based on, among other things, negotiable instruments (example: a check).

Section 3-104(a) of the UCC defines a negotiable instrument as

(i) an unconditional promise or order to pay a fixed amount of money;

(ii) that’s  payable to order or to bearer at the time it (the instrument) is issued or first comes into possession of a holder;

(iii) is payable on demand or at a definite time; and

(iv) doesn’t state any other undertakings or instructions other than the payment of money.

Where two limitations period govern the same subject matter, the more specific one applies.  Here, since Code Section 13-206 specifically references “demand promissory notes” and UCC Section 3-104 doesn’t, the 10-year statute of limitations (“SOL”) governs.

The Note accrual date was 2004 when the plaintiff made demand for payment.  Since the plaintiff sued in 2010 – some six years later – it was within the 10-year limitations period for demand promissory notes under Section 13-206.

Afterwords:

A pretty straightforward application of conflicting limitations period rules.  The ten-year period for demand notes more specifically applied over the UCC’s three-year catchall provision.

When defending a promissory note case, I look for earmarks of negotiability (payable to order, at specific time, for specific amount) so I can argue the shorter three-year limitations period (of 3-118) applies.  When representing the note plaintiff/payee, I try to show the 10-year SOL applies and particularly look for any reference to “on demand” or “upon demand” in the text of the note.  This language will signal that a demand note is involved and mean the longer SOL governs.