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Peters v. Riggs National Bank

February 28, 2008; as amended March 11, 2008


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAB6004-04) (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge

Argued December 6, 2007

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and GLICKMAN and KRAMER, Associate Judges.

Appellant Winston D. Peters, the personal representative of the Estate of Rhona Graves, appeals from the trial court's grant of summary judgment against his claims of breach of contract, negligence, and violations of the Electronic Funds Transfer Act ("EFTA"). Appellant claimed that appellee Riggs Bank permitted unauthorized withdrawals in the amount of $131,278.61 from his mother's account despite the fact that she had been incapacitated and later died while most of the transactions occurred. Riggs Bank denied liability, but further asserted that appellant's claims were untimely. We agree that appellant's claims are time-barred. Thus, we affirm.


On October 31, 1980, Rhona Graves opened a checking account at Riggs Bank. Graves entered into a customer agreement with Riggs, which included adoption of Riggs's Rules and Regulations that covered the checking account, and executed a signature card. Graves later opened a savings account with Riggs on October 3, 1986. This account was also governed by Riggs's Rules and Regulations.*fn1

At some point prior to June of 2002, Ms. Graves won a substantial amount of money in the lottery. She deposited her lump sum payment into her accounts at Riggs Bank. However, on June 8, 2002, Ms. Graves suffered a serious stroke and was hospitalized. She lost the ability to communicate. She was later transferred to a nursing home where she remained in a seriously ill condition until she died on November 9, 2002.

Between May and December of 2002, someone withdrew money from Ms. Graves's accounts through the writing of checks, phone transfers, and ATM withdrawals. Although uncertain, appellant suspects that Ms. Graves's sister, who lived with and assisted Ms. Graves for about three years between Ms. Graves's first stroke (in 2000) and her death, took the money. Appellant concedes that he does not know that his mother did not want her sister to have access to the funds, nor can he be sure that Ms. Graves did not sign the checks. However, while Ms. Graves was in the hospital, appellant told his aunt that he would bring her money to pay the household bills. Appellant claims he told his aunt not to use money from his mother's accounts.

During the 153-day period from Ms. Graves's stroke until her death, there were 73 ATM withdrawals from her account, including 72 of them at the $500.00 daily limit for withdrawals. Then, 21 additional withdrawals were made during the 41 days after Ms. Graves died, including 19 at the $500 maximum. All together, $46,547.00 was withdrawn from the account, including $10,159.50 after her death. Also, during this time, 128 checks were written, resulting in her account being debited $84,731.61.*fn2 According to appellant, the signature on checks provided back to him does not match his mother's authorized signature on file with the bank. Six of the checks (totaling $62,000) were made out to his mother's sister, and another check was written to her daughter. Appellant asserts that during the time period of Ms. Graves's critical illness, she did not have the capacity to review bank statements, and that in any event, there is no evidence that she received any bank statements at the hospital.

After Ms. Graves died in November of 2002, appellant petitioned for letters of administration in January 2003 and received authority to open Ms. Graves's safety deposit box. In January 2003, appellant inspected the safety deposit box and discovered that his mother had won the lottery.*fn3 At that time, her accounts showed balances of $2,174.18 and $159.81. On March 10, 2003, Riggs issued a check to appellant, payable to the Estate of Rhona Graves, in the amount of $2,301.12 -- the remaining account balance.

Appellant tried to track down the amount and location of the proceeds of Mrs. Graves's lottery winnings. He was finally appointed personal representative of the estate on April 2, 2003. Also in April, appellant discovered a Riggs bank statement from August 13, 2002 through September 12, 2002, showing that Ms. Graves's account had held $92,187.45, but closed at the end of the period with only $58,935.98. On April 16, 2003, appellant (through counsel) wrote Riggs Bank requesting more information about Ms. Graves's account. Appellant claims he had no basis for asserting that Riggs Bank had done anything improper at that time. On May 28, 2003, Riggs responded by providing appellant's counsel with copies of some account statements and other records and informed him that Riggs was still in the process of gathering further information. Riggs provided more documents on June 4, 2003.*fn4

Appellant apparently believed Riggs was investigating the withdrawals up until a November 12, 2003 meeting. By that point, Riggs had not provided results of an investigation. On November 7, 2003, appellant (through counsel) indicated to Riggs Bank that Riggs may have improperly permitted the payment on unauthorized checks and allowed unauthorized ATM cash withdrawals, but stated that appellant was awaiting the results of Riggs Bank's investigation before asserting a formal claim. According to appellant, Riggs failed to provide any further information. On August 4, 2004, appellant filed a complaint with the Superior Court, alleging breach of contract, negligence, and violations of EFTA. Appellee moved for summary judgment against appellant, claiming that appellant's claims were time-barred, as well as asserting that appellant had conceded that he could not say for certain that the checks and withdrawals had been unauthorized.

On Friday, October 14, 2005, the Honorable Michael L. Rankin held a hearing on the summary judgment motion. At the hearing, Judge Rankin, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, accepted the representations of Riggs Bank that it had sent monthly account statements to Ms. Graves, and that neither she nor appellant had notified the Bank of any unauthorized transactions in a timely manner. Judge Rankin ruled:

In my view the defendant has the better of this argument and that it would be against the Uniform Commercial Code as applied in this case to hold the bank responsible for the loss of this money when they were sending notices of the monthly transactions, as they were ...

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