If you have ever felt gouged by automated teller transaction fees, you might consider a recent legal settlement involving SunTrust Bank to be a moral victory.
But if you're one of an estimated 3,200 customers actually covered by the class-action lawsuit that compelled the bank to set aside a $125,000 pool for damages, you're out of luck.
U.S. Senior District Judge Robert L. Echols finalized the settlement last week. A local man had sued last year after incurring $5.20 in fees at two SunTrust ATMs that failed to display signage warning of the surcharges as required by the federal Electronic Fund Transfers Act.
That law provides for statutory damages of up to $500,000 to be paid out to those wrongfully charged fees, without regard to the amount of the fees. By setting a cap of $250 per person in damages, the settlement limited SunTrust's liability.
In January of this year, the bank and a plaintiffs' law firm placed newspaper ads, set up a web page and stuck signs on the two ATM machines, all in an effort to let non-customers of SunTrust know they could collect damages simply by showing they had used the machines when the signs were not up. But court records do not reflect that a single valid claim for settlement funds was lodged before an April 20 deadline passed.
Instead, according to the judge's final order (available at this link), most of the $125,000 SunTrust set aside will go to charitable causes. Attorneys from the Jackson, Tenn. firm of Gilbert Russell McWherter PLC are to receive $30,000 for bringing the complaint on behalf of lead plaintiff Terrell Parker. Parker, the Williamson County resident who paid the $5.20 in fees at SunTrust ATMs on Murfreesboro Road in Franklin and Nippers Corner Shopping Center on Edmonson Pike, gets $2,500 of the settlement.
The remaining $92,500 is allocated 50-50 to nonprofit causes backed by each side in the case. On behalf of the plaintiff, $46,250 will go to the new Belmont University College of Law. Defendant SunTrust designated $25,000 for the Nashville Zoo, $11,250 for Montgomery Bell Academy and $10,000 for the Land Trust for Tennessee.
The settlement agreement provided for funds to go to charity under the cy-près doctrine, a legal principle whose title means "as near as possible" in Old Norman French. Echols concurred with both parties to the case that it would be impractical to try to track down the identities of everyone who had used the ATMs during the period when they were not in compliance with the law. (Doing so would have required issuing subpoenas to some 90 other banks in search of cardholder information.) The next best thing, in the eyes of the court, would be to give unclaimed money to nonprofits.
Neither the plaintiff's legal team from Gilbert Russell McWherter nor SunTrust counsel Stephen H. Price, of Stites & Harbison PLLC in Nashville, offered comment about the case when contacted this morning.