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Georgia Supreme Court Weighs in on Director Liability

March 15, 2019

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The Supreme Court of Georgia issued its latest opinion on March 13, 2019 in the continuing litigation over whether former directors and officers of the now defunct Buckhead Community Bank can be held liable for financial losses from commercial real estate loans.

The Georgia Supreme Court had previously advised a Georgia federal court, where the case was filed by the FDIC, that the directors and officers of the bank could be held liable if they were negligent in the process by which they carried out their duties. Following that opinion, rendered in 2014, the case returned to federal court, and a trial was ultimately held in 2016. In that trial, the jury concluded that some of the directors and officers were negligent in approving some loans and awarded the FDIC $4,986,993 in damages.

The trial judge in the case found that the defendants were “jointly and severally liable” for the award, meaning that the entire verdict could be collected from any one of the defendants. The defendants appealed contending that joint and several liability had been abolished by the General Assembly in 2005. The defendants also argued that the trial court should have given the jury the opportunity to apportion the damages among each of the defendants according to their respective degrees of fault. In considering the appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit again sought direction from the Supreme Court of Georgia on this new issue of law.

On Wednesday, in a 39-page opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court responded, providing answers to some, but not all, of the questions raised by the Eleventh Circuit. The Georgia Supreme Court held that joint and several liability can still be imposed in Georgia on defendants “who act in concert insofar as a claim of concerted action involves the narrow and traditional common-law doctrine of concerted action based on a legal theory of mutual agency and thus imputed fault.” The Supreme Court indicated that this was a very narrow exception to the usual rule that damages must apportioned among defendants.

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FDIC Advisory Letter on Loan Participations

December 9, 2015


On November 6th, the FDIC issued an advisory letter discussing risk management practices that FDIC-supervised banks should implement with regards to purchased loans and loan participations. While the FDIC acknowledges the benefits accruing from the purchase of these loans and loan participations, such as achieving growth goals, diversifying credit risk, and deploying excess liquidity, the FDIC also recognizes that purchasing banks have oftentimes relied too heavily on lead institutions when administering these types of loans. In such a case, over-reliance on the lead banks has resulted in significant credit losses and failures of the purchasing institutions. Thus, while the FDIC reiterates its support for these types of investments, the FDIC also reminds banks to exercise sound judgment in administering purchased loans and participations.

A summary of the key takeaways from the FDIC’s advisory letter follows below:

  • Banks should create and utilize detailed loan policies for purchased loans and loan participations.  The loan policy should address various topics, including but not limited to: defining loan types that are acceptable for purchase; requiring independent analysis of credit and collateral; and establishing credit underwriting and administration requirements unique to these types of purchased loans.
  • Banks should perform the same level of independent credit and collateral analysis for purchased loans and participations as if they were the originating bank. This assessment should be conducted by the purchasing bank and should not be contracted out to a third party.
  • The agreement governing the loan or participation purchase should fully set out the roles and responsibilities of all parties to the agreement and should address several topics, including the requirements for obtaining timely reports and information, the remedies available upon default and bankruptcy, voting rights, dispute resolution procedures, and what, if any, limitations are placed on the purchasing bank.
  • Banks should exercise caution and conduct extensive due diligence when purchasing participations involving out-of-territory loans or borrowers in an unfamiliar industry. Banks should also exercise due diligence, including a financial analysis, prior to entering into a third-party relationship, to determine whether the third party has the capacity to meet its obligations to the purchasing bank.
  • Finally, banks should not forget to include purchased loans and loan participations in their audit and loan review programs and to obtain approval from the board before entering into any material third-party arrangements.
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Georgia Garnishment Statute Held Unconstitutional

September 15, 2015


The recent opinion of Judge Marvin Shoob in the Strickland v. Alexander case has created a great deal of confusion among banks about their duties in responding to a summons of garnishment in Georgia.  In that opinion, Judge Shoob declared the Georgia garnishment statute to be unconstitutional on multiple grounds. Primary among the  grounds cited by Judge Shoob was the absence of any notice to the debtor of the existence of statutory exemptions which shield certain funds from garnishment or the procedures available to assert those exemptions.  It is unclear whether the decision will be appealed, modified, or cured by subsequent legislation.  Numerous esoteric questions have been raised by the legal community about the validity of the opinion, but those questions are beyond the scope of this post.

Whether Judge Shoob’s opinion is appealed, modified or cured by the Georgia General Assembly, banks currently face significant questions in its wake.  The most important of these questions is “should a bank continue to answer summons of garnishment or not.”  Many Georgia banks understandably have questions about their potential liability to both creditors and debtors by continuing to participate in the garnishment process.  While banks could choose to litigate the validity of every single summons that they have received or subsequently receive, that is hardly a practical or economical strategy for most of our banking clients.

An initial option available to any bank during this time is to contact the creditor which served the summons and ask that the summons be withdrawn. This may be effective since questions of liability are also being faced by the very creditors who are seeking to use the garnishment process.

If the creditor will not withdraw the summons, and pending a resolution of the constitutional issues by the courts or the General Assembly, the next best option is (1) to continue answering summons of garnishment after performing an appropriate review for the existence of funds covered by statutory exemptions and (2) to pay the non-exempt funds into the registry of the court.  Doing so will eliminate any risk the bank may run to the creditor which served the summons of garnishment through default or otherwise.  Moreover, since a summons is essentially a court order, the bank will have a strong argument that its actions are both justified and in good faith.  We note that even Judge Shoob found that the bank involved in the Strickland v. Alexander case could not be found liable for responding to the summons.  See Strickland Order at p. 9.

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Lessons Learned in Recent Participation Agreement Litigation

December 22, 2014


Banks have increasingly used participation agreements over the last several decades to pool loans among multiple lenders—with an originating or lead bank selling a portion of the loan to one or more banks as loan participants.  Loan participations can inure to the benefit of both the lead and participating bank, allowing the banks to pool their resources. Through loan participations, lead banks obtain the opportunity to make larger loans to their customers without the obligation to carry the entire asset on their books, and participant banks obtain the ability to participate in larger loans or in different markets than would otherwise be available to them.

To facilitate a loan participation, the lead and participating banks typically enter into a written participation agreement to govern the relationship and the obligations owed to each other with respect to the loan. While often derived from bank forms that have been widely circulated and revised on an ad hoc basis over years, participation agreements can differ significantly in their terms and requirements. These terms are far from boilerplate and can have a critical impact upon the rights of the parties when there is a dispute over the administration of the loan or the collateral.

During the recent economic recession, disputes between originating and participating banks over loan participations have become all too common. These disputes have arisen most frequently because the banks involved find that when the loan is downgraded or the borrower defaults, the banks discover that they have differing interests in the handling of the loan. Some originating banks have a greater interest in working with the borrower in such situations than their participants. Some participant banks have a greater interest in pursuing an aggressive collection of the loan than their originating banks and sometimes vice versa. No situation is identical. Unfortunately, when the banks involved in such disputes have turned to their participation agreements for guidance, only then have they discovered that the time-worn forms that they have been using for years leave much to be desired. As a result, litigation has frequently ensued.

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Constitutional Challenge to Garnishment Statute

March 4, 2013


This update is provided to our earlier post regarding the passage of HB 683 in 2012 permitting banks to answer garnishments without the need for an attorney.   As you may recall, we advised you then that there may subsequently be a challenge to the statute of on the grounds that the statute allegedly violates the separation of power principle set forth in the Constitution of Georgia.  As we predicted, Georgia Legal Services Program (“GLSP”) has recently challenged HB 683 on precisely this ground.

GLSP is challenging this law on the grounds that the General Assembly cannot define the practice of law and that defining the practice of law is instead reserved for the Supreme Court of Georgia.  Specifically, GLSP is seeking an advisory opinion from the Standing Committee on the Unlicensed Practice of Law of the State Bar of Georgia finding that only lawyers should be permitted to file answers in garnishment cases.

In its brief, GLSP states that “the Act is bad policy for all involved in garnishment proceedings because of the indispensable role that lawyers play in the administration of justice.”  GLSP further provides:  “[T]he Act, if unchecked, will establish precedent permitting the Georgia General Assembly to determine what constitutes the authorized practice of law – a power vested solely with the judiciary.”

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New Legislation Introduced on ATM Notices

April 20, 2012


Legislation has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives that, if passed, would relieve banks of the responsibility of installing and monitoring the presence of physical notices on their ATMs notifying customers about the imposition of ATM transaction fees.

On April 17, 2012, Representatives Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) and David Scott (D-GA) introduced H.R. 4367 which seeks to amend the Electronic Fund Transfer Act to limit the fee disclosure requirement for operators of ATMs to the electronic notice alone. The electronic notice allows a consumer to choose whether the consumer wishes to continue with the ATM transaction and pay the fee or exit the transaction.  This proposed bill comes in the wake of class action litigation filed against banks and other ATM operators nationwide (and most recently against several Georgia community banks) alleging that the banks failed to post or maintain the physical notice on their ATMs.

As currently written, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act requires both a physical notice at or on the ATM in addition to the electronic notice the customer receives on the computer screen when making the withdrawal.  Currently, there are statutory penalties for failure to comply with the Act.  While there is no minimum penalty proscribed for a class action, the statute provides that in a successful class action, plaintiffs may recover up to “the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of the net worth of the (ATM operator),” plus attorneys’ fees and costs.  There may be a defense to such claims when the bank maintains procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a failure to comply with the Act and the failure to comply was a “bona fide error.”

Even where banks have been in full compliance with the physical notice requirements, many banks have found that their fee notice placards have mysteriously disappeared or have been removed by persons as yet unknown in the time periods preceding the institution of litigation against them.

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Class Actions Filed Against Four Georgia Banks Over ATM Physical Fee Disclosure

March 15, 2012


Four class action complaints have been filed in the last two weeks against four different Georgia community banks alleging that the banks have violated the Electronic Fund Transfer Act.  The complaints were filed in the federal courts and all allege that the banks imposed fees on consumers who withdrew cash from the bank’s ATMs and that the banks allegedly failed to post a physical notice on the ATMs that a fee would be imposed for such services.

The Electronic Fund Transfer Act requires both a physical notice at or on the ATM in addition to the electronic notice the customer receives on the computer screen when making the withdrawal.  There are statutory penalties for a failure to comply with the Act.   While there is no minimum penalty proscribed for a class action, the statute provides that in a successful class action, plaintiffs may recover up to “the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of the net worth of the (ATM operator),” plus attorneys’ fees and costs.  There may be a defense to such claims when the bank maintains procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a failure to comply with the Act and the failure to comply was a “bona fide error.”

The attorneys associated with these cases have filed similar class actions, alleging the same violations of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, against other banks, hotels and retailers around the country.

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New Georgia Garnishment Reform Bill Allows Bank Employees to Answer Garnishments Directly

February 15, 2012


Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently signed into law HB 683, a bill that reforms the way in which banks and other corporations may respond to a garnishment summons.  Under the new law, banks may now use their own employees to respond to a garnishment summons and are no longer required to hire an attorney for this task.

This statute seeks to overrule a 2011 Georgia Supreme Court decision which held that corporations must use a Georgia-licensed attorney to answer garnishments, and that non-lawyer employees who responded to garnishments on behalf of their employers were engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

If you decide to utilize non-attorney personnel to answer garnishments, as permitted by the new statute, you should keep in mind the following issues:

  • The new law only permits non-lawyers to file answers to garnishment summons.  If a traverse is filed in response to the answer, an attorney is then required to represent the bank.  A traverse is a statement filed by a plaintiff in response to the answer, claiming that the answer is untrue or insufficient.  Once a traverse is filed, the bank then must then hire an attorney to represent it further in the case.
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