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Bickerstaff v. SunTrust Bank

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

March 30, 2015

BICKERSTAFF
v.
SUNTRUST BANK. SUNTRUST BANK
v.
BICKERSTAFF

Editorial Note:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision by the court.

RAY, Judge. McFadden, J., concurs and Andrews, P. J., concurs in judgment only.

OPINION

Ray, Judge.

These companion cases arise from a dispute between SunTrust Bank and one of its customers, Jeff Bickerstaff, Jr., over whether the parties must arbitrate their disagreement over what Bickerstaff contends are usurious bank card overdraft fees. In Case No. A14A1780, Bickerstaff argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion for certification of a class of SunTrust customers who also were charged the fees and in failing to find that SunTrust was barred from enforcing its arbitration provision as to the putative class. In Case No. A14A1781, SunTrust argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion to compel arbitration. For ease of analysis, we will address Case No. A14A1781 first and Case No. A14A1780 last. As detailed below, we affirm in both cases.

Bickerstaff opened a personal checking account with SunTrust in 2009, after agreeing to the bank's Rules and Regulations for Deposit Accounts, which included a mandatory arbitration provision. In May 2010, in a case not involving Bickerstaff, a federal court determined that SunTrust's mandatory arbitration provision was substantively and procedurally unconscionable under Georgia law. See In re Checking Account Overdraft Litigation, 734 F.Supp.2d 1279, 1292 (II) (E) and n. 15 (S.D. Fla. 2010), later overturned in In re Checking Account Overdraft Litigation, MDL No. 2036, 459 F.App'x 855, 858-859 (III) (11th Cir. 2012) (finding the arbitration clause conscionable). Approximately one month after the initial federal decision, in June 2010, SunTrust amended its arbitration agreement to allow customers a window of time in which to opt out of arbitration if they sent SunTrust written notice that complied with various requirements. Customers such as Bickerstaff had to opt out by October 1, 2010.

However, despite revising the amendment in June 2010, SunTrust did not actually give Bickerstaff or its other customers notice of this amendment until August 24, 2010. Nonetheless, on July 12, 2010, prior to any notice from SunTrust about the new opt-out provision and prior to the deadline for rejecting arbitration, Bickerstaff filed his complaint. He filed his amended complaint on August 9, 2010, also prior to any notice of the opt out provision and prior to the deadline.

Only after Bickerstaff had filed his complaint did SunTrust print the following non-specific language, which neither references the arbitration clause nor any deadline, in customers' August 2010 monthly account statements:

An updated version of the 'Rules and Regulations for Deposit Accounts,' which governs your account, is now available and can be obtained at any branch office or at www.suntrust.com/rulesandregulations. All future transactions on your account will be governed by these updated rules and regulations.

( Capitalization omitted.) SunTrust then made the new version of the Deposit Agreement, which included the arbitration opt out and relevant dates, available at its branches and on its Web site. The opt-out provision directed customers to provide

written notice of your decision so that we receive it at the address listed below by the later of October 1, 2010 or within forty-five (45) days of the opening of your Account. Such notice must include a statement that you wish to reject the arbitration agreement section of these rules and regulations along with your name, address, Account name, Account number and your signature and must be mailed to the SunTrust Bank Legal Department, Attn: Arbitration Rejection, P.O. Box 2848, Mail Code 2034, Orlando, FL 32802-2848. This is the sole and only method by which you can reject this arbitration agreement provision. ... You agree that our business records will be final and conclusive with respect to whether you rejected this arbitration agreement provision in a timely and proper fashion.[1]

On the first business day after the opt-out deadline of October 1, 2010, SunTrust filed a motion to compel arbitration on October 4, 2010. It is undisputed that neither Bickerstaff nor his counsel knew about the opt-out provision and the October 1, 2010, deadline until SunTrust disclosed the information -- after the opt-out had expired -- in its motion to compel. The trial court, after a hearing, denied the motion. It is from that denial that the appeal in Case No. A14A1781 arises.

On April 13, 2013, Bickerstaff moved to certify a class of

[e]very Georgia citizen who had or has one or more accounts with SunTrust Bank and who, from July 12, 2006, to the date the [c]ourt certifies the class, (i) had at least one overdraft of $500.00 or less resulting from an ATM or debit card transaction (the " Transaction" ); (ii) paid any Overdraft Fees as a result of the Transaction; and (iii) did not receive a refund of those Fees.

The trial court denied the motion for class certification. The appeal in Case No. A14A1780 arises from this denial.

In the two orders on appeal, the trial court determined that the initial agreement bound Bickerstaff and all SunTrust's customers, and that the later amendment to the arbitration agreement was enforceable and was not unconscionable under Georgia law.

Case No. A14A1781

1. SunTrust argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion to compel arbitration by (1) finding that Bickerstaff effectively exercised his right to opt out by filing a lawsuit; (2) failing to consider SunTrust's business records regarding whether Bickerstaff timely and properly rejected the arbitration agreement; and (3) finding that any failure on Bickerstaff's part to comply sufficiently with the opt-out provision was excused by what the trial court determined were SunTrust's own " misleading" actions in regard to the opt-out provision.[2]

The trial court denied SunTrust's motion to compel, reasoning that in filing his complaint, Bickerstaff had substantially complied with the opt-out provisions because all the information required " was communicated to or made readily available to SunTrust's legal department by ...


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