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Geiger v. Crestar Bank

August 23, 2001


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Judith Bartnoff, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman, Farrell and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued February 14, 2001

In this case, the conservator of the estate of a person suffering from a mental disability seeks to hold a commercial bank liable for electronic debits against a bank account, approved by the disabled person without the required authorization of the conservator. The bank acknowledged that the disabled person, not the conservator, had authorized the electronic debits, and agreed to recredit the account upon receipt of an appropriate affidavit, as provided for in the account agreement. The conservator declined to submit the affidavit, contending primarily that the debits were unauthorized and that the bank breached the account agreement, as well as its fiduciary obligation. The trial court granted summary judgment in behalf of the bank. We affirm, concluding that the relationship between the bank and the conservator was contractual in nature, not fiduciary, and that the conservator failed to comply with the error resolution procedures of the account agreement.


The record before us shows that, after Donald Hinton suffered a serious brain injury in an automobile accident, appellant Herbert G. Geiger was appointed conservator of his estate. Sometime around 1985, Mr. Geiger opened a trust account *fn1 at the Perpetual American Bank, F.S.B., whose assets later were acquired by appellees Crestar Bank and Crestar Financial Corporation ("Crestar"). *fn2 Mr. Hinton receives a $50.00 weekly allowance from Mr. Geiger, and pays for his own telephone service with cash, but is not authorized to make any charges against the Crestar account; only Mr. Geiger may authorize such charges.

During his deposition, taken in this matter, Mr. Geiger could not recall any discussions he had with the bank at the time he established the account for Mr. Hinton. Nor did he recall whether he alerted the bank to any "restrictions or special safeguards" that should be imposed on Mr. Hinton's account; or whether he received any information about the account. However, Mr. Geiger did remember "a little printed booklet" sent to him after Crestar began handling Mr. Hinton's account around 1990; and he acknowledged that he "probably" was sent any changes in the rules and regulations applicable to the account. When shown a copy of Crestar's Rules and Regulations for Deposit Accounts, and asked whether he ever received it, Mr. Geiger replied: "Yes, I'm quite sure." Mr. Geiger claimed that he informed Crestar of his conservatorship, but could not remember whether he presented the bank with papers appointing him as conservator. Pertinent language in Crestar's rules and regulations concerning incompetents specifies:

Accounts established and maintained for . . . incompetents . . . must be supported by appropriate legal court documents as we may require for opening or transacting business on such accounts. We assume no duties to beneficiaries of such accounts.

In addition, language in Crestar's rules and regulations which pertains to electronic fund transfers states:

If you authorize any electronic fund transfer (EFT) into or out of your Account, then each EFT transaction is also subject to our Electronic Fund Transfer Rules, a copy of which you will receive when you open your Account. In the event of any conflict between those EFT Rules and these Rules and Regulations, the Electronic Fund Transfer Rules will govern with respect to any EFT transaction. Any transfer made via a local Automated Clearing House (ACH) or other wire or automated payment system shall be additionally subject to the specific rules of that system . . . .

We have the right to make payments on the basis of the beneficiary's stated account number, without assuming any duty to detect or advise you of any inconsistency in the stated beneficiary and the name of the account owner for the specified account number.

Thus, the contractual documents applicable to this matter are: Crestar's Rules and Regulations for Deposit Accounts, the Electronic Fund Transfers ("EFT") regulations (Regulation E), and the National Automated Clearing House Association ("NACHA") operating rules governing Automated Clearing House ("ACH") transactions (collectively, "the account agreement"). *fn3

Around Spring 1998, years after the bank account was opened, Mr. Hinton received an advertisement for a Quintel Cellular telephone. Mr. Hinton called the toll-free telephone number listed on the advertisement, ordered the cellular telephone, and gave the Crestar account number for billing purposes. Without authorization from Mr. Geiger, and in response to an electronic communication, Crestar began to debit Mr. Hinton's account for "Deduction-Services Quintel Cellular." *fn4

After discovering the Quintel deductions, Mr. Geiger instructed Mr. Hinton to return the cellular telephone, which he did; advised Crestar, through counsel, of the unauthorized deductions; and requested that the bank restore the funds paid over to Quintel Cellular. On September 11, 1998, Crestar sent a letter to counsel for Mr. Geiger, explaining that: (1) Mr. Hinton had provided accurate account information to Quintel Cellular, and thus had authorized the deductions; (2) to preclude similar future incidents, the account, on which the Quintel deductions were made, should be closed; (3) the bank would credit Mr. Hinton's account, in the amount of the debited sums, upon receipt of an affidavit showing that Mr. Hinton "received no benefit from the 'unauthorized' transactions"; and provided that Mr. Geiger assisted in the recovery of the funds. Counsel for Mr. Geiger declined to take the action requested by Crestar. *fn5 Crestar repeated its position in a letter dated December 4, 1998, and also informed counsel for Mr. Geiger that: "The ...

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