What happens when a joint bank account holder, who was placed on the account for convenience purposes, not to actually share ownership of the account, removes the money from the account, and that joint holder also happens to be an employee of the bank? Both the bank and the employee end up being sued.
In , grandmother and her son opened five bank accounts with approximately $1.2 million of grandmother’s and son’s money. To assist them in managing the accounts, they added granddaughter as a joint account holder for this purpose. Granddaughter contributed none of the funds, and there was no indication that adding her name to the accounts was intended to be a gift to her. After the son died, the accounts were transferred into new joint accounts between grandmother and granddaughter.
At some point, grandmother became suspicious about her granddaughter’s intentions and went to a branch of the bank (where granddaughter did not work) and asked that the funds, at this point over $1.3 million, be transferred into accounts with just grandmother’s name on the accounts. A bank employee told grandmother that she could not transfer the money into accounts with just her name on the accounts, and had to comply with certain other conditions before being able to withdraw funds or close the accounts. The bank employee then said she would freeze the accounts until the granddaughter’s status as a joint account holder was resolved.
Instead of freezing the accounts immediately, the bank employee called granddaughter, who was also an employee of the bank. Granddaughter, at her branch, instructed a teller to prepare a chashier’s check payable to granddaughter in the amount of approximately $670,000. Granddaughter deposited these funds into her own account in her name only.
Grandmother sued the bank for the return of the funds. The bank paid grandmother $1.1 million. The appellate opinion does not give any details as to why the bank apparently paid more than the amount withdrawn, but must have included interest, attorney fees, and possibly other damage amounts – in other words a total and complete victory for grandmother over the bank. At first, this is a surprising result, because banks are strongly protected from the joint account holder of joint bank accounts.
The Florida joint bank account statute provides as follows.
655.78 Deposit accounts in two or more names.—
(1) Unless otherwise expressly provided in a contract, agreement, or signature card executed in connection with the opening or maintenance of an account, including a certificate of deposit, a deposit account in the names of two or more persons may be paid to, or on the order of, either or any of such persons or to, or on the order of, the guardian of the property of any such person who is incompetent, whether the other or others are competent. The check or other order for payment to any such person or guardian is a valid and sufficient release and discharge of the obligation of the institution for funds transferred thereby.
Granddaughter removed funds from the bank account. Under the joint bank account statute, the bank would normally have no liability, because any joint holder may remove funds without the bank having any liability to determine the rights between the joint acount holders. The appellate opinion does not explain, but we can speculate. When grandmother went to the bank to remove granddaughter’s name from the accounts, she had an absolute right to do so. The refusal to allow grandmother to change the title of the accounts, coupled with a bank employee tipping off granddaughter about what grandmother was doing, must have created a very strong case for grandmother against the bank.
In settling with the bank, grandmother assigned all of her rights in the amounts removed to the bank, so that the bank could sue the granddaughter for the return of the funds. The trial court granted a motion to dismiss the bank’s three count complaint against the granddaughter (now a former employee of the bank). In reversing, the appellate court gave a detailed road map as to the claims that could be properly brought against the granddaughter, as follows.
An equitable subrogation claim places one party into the shoes of another so that the substituting party retains the rights and remedies that would otherwise belong to the original party. The claim is appropriate when five elements are met:
- made the payment to protect its own interest,
- did not act as a volunteer,
- was not primarily liable for the debt,
- paid off the entire debt, and
- works no injustice to the rights of a third party by its equitable subrogation claim.
The court held that all of the elements were present here. Granddaughter tried to rely on the joint bank account statute, which might have protected the bank from the claims of grandmother, to contend that the bank had no liability and hence no interest to protect (the first element). The court did not elaborate on why it rejected this claim, other than to state that sufficient facts were pled. We can speculate that the bank could have been exposed to liability, in spite of the statute, when its employees acted improperly when grandmother attempted to take sole control of the accounts and her attempts were rejected. The fact that the bank paid out over $1 million to grandmother is pretty good evidence of the bank’s interest and exposure in the matter.
When grandmother assigned her claims against granddaughter to the bank, the bank then possessed a conversion claim against granddaughter for the wrongful taking of the funds from the joint account. Even though the joint bank account statute protects a bank from the claims of joint account holders who allege wrongful withdrawals by the other joint account owners, that statute does not protect the joint bank account holders from claims against each other.
The Bank’s allegations are sufficient to demonstrate that [grandmother] owned all of the funds, intending that [granddaughter] have access to the funds only for [grandmother’s] benefit, such that the withdrawal of the funds at issue was an unauthorized act. [Granddaughter] argues that insufficient facts were alleged to support that she failed to return the funds after a demand was made for their return.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
The bank claimed that granddaughter held a position of trust and confidence with grandmother that included a fiduciary duty not to withdraw or transfer the funds wrongfully. The bank alleged that the granddaughter breached these duties through her actions.
Granddaughter made a creative argument in response – that the breach of fiduciary duty claim cannot be assigned because the services provided to grandmother were “personal services.” The Florida Supreme Court, in Wachovia v. Toomey, 994 So.2d 980 (Fla. 2008) held that a breach of fiduciary duty that is intensely personal cannot be assigned, while more commercial breach claims can be assigned. The appellate court easily concluded that
The contractual relationship between Ms. Pueschel and Ms. Turbeville—even if between grandmother and granddaughter—was first and foremost that of a bank employee with a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the safekeeping of Ms. Pueschel’s monies.
The reversal of the dismissal means that the granddaughter will now have to fully defend herself from the allegations raised against her. Ultimately, that could result in a jury trial of the issues raised.