SALT LAKE CITY — On Aug. 8, 2009, Melinda Barlow started the day with $29.53 in her checking account.
Using her debit card, she bought meals at Del Taco for $6.43 and Big Daddy's Pizza for $6.89, spent $33.21 at Walmart and made a $139.74 insurance payment. At the end of the day, her account showed a negative balance of $156.74.
Taking the transactions from the highest dollar amount to the lowest, Zions Bank charged her $100 in overdraft fees — $25 for each transaction, according to court records. Had the bank taken the charges from lowest to highest, Barlow would have paid $50 in overdraft fees.
In a federal class-action lawsuit filed this week, attorneys for Barlow are challenging Zions Bank's overdraft policies and practices — which they contend "made it extremely difficult, if not impossible" for customers to avoid overdraft fees even if they carefully monitored their checking accounts.
Three high-powered law firms represent the Sandy woman and other possible plaintiffs — Anderson & Karrenberg in Salt Lake City, Boston-based Shapiro Haber & Urmy, and Kronenberger Burgoyne in San Francisco.
One of the suit's primary contentions is that from 2005 to 2010, the bank intentionally ordered customers' checking account transactions to make as much money as possible from overdraft fees.
"Zions Bank manipulated and altered the order in which debit transactions were 'posted' to its customers' accounts in order to maximize the number of overdrafts in those accounts, thereby maximizing the overdraft fees that it charged its customers," according to the 38-page complaint.
In many cases, customers' accounts were not actually overdrawn either at the time of the debit transaction or at the time the overdraft fees were charged, the suit alleges.
As a result, the lawsuit says, customers were charged unreasonable fees. "Zions Bank's collection of those excessive fees is patently unconscionable and unfair."
The lawsuit also claims Zions doesn't uniformly post deposits to checking accounts before debit transactions, resulting in more overdraft fees.
A spokeswoman for Zions Bank said the company does not comment on pending litigation. Based in Salt Lake City, the company has branches in 10 Western states.
In May 2011, Zions apparently began processing debit card and ATM transactions from lowest dollar amount to highest, according to its customer deposit agreement. The lawsuit questions whether that is happening and claims the bank has not followed "best practices" for the industry over the years.
Federal banking and credit union regulatory agencies in 2005 advised financial institutions to clearly explain to consumers that transactions may not be processed in the order in which they occur, and that could affect the total amount of overdraft fees.
The Utah Department of Financial Institutions has received complaints for years about how banks assess overdraft fees, said Michael Jones, chief examiner. But, he said, it's up to banks to decide in what order to post checks or debit card transactions to customers' accounts.
"They can't let you pick and choose how you want it because they have to apply the same standard to every check that comes in," he said.
Recent federal legislation now requires banks to disclose to customers how they clear checks, Jones said. Banks also must now give customers the opportunity to opt out of overdraft protection.
Banks nationwide collect billions of dollars annually in debit card and ATM overdraft fees, according to the lawsuit. A 2008 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation study estimated that overdraft fees accounted for 74 percent of the total service charges imposed on customers in the United States.
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