Eleventh Circuit Holds Bank Security Procedure Insufficient to Provide Safe Harbor from Liability for Fraudulent Wire Transfer
On November 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a bank may be liable for an allegedly fraudulent in-person wire transfer because it failed to implement a commercially reasonable security procedure to verify the authenticity of the wire transfer order and to detect transmission or content errors. Chavez v. Mercantil Commercebank N.A., No. 11-15804, 2012 WL 5907151 (11th Cir. Nov. 27, 2012). The plaintiff, a Venezuelan resident who opened an account at a Florida bank, elected a security procedure under the account’s Funds Transfer Agreement that provided only that the bank require written authorization by him in order to process any orders for the account. The plaintiff sued the bank for lost funds, claiming that the bank allowed an unauthorized individual to initiate a fraudulent in-person wire transfer of funds out of the account. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, holding that state law creates a safe harbor that relieves banks of liability for fraudulent payment orders if the bank and the customer agree to a commercially reasonable security procedure and the bank follows that procedure in good faith. The appellate court held that the agreed-upon security procedure was not in fact a security procedure as defined by statute. The court explained that state law disavows security procedures that require only a comparison of a signature on a payment order with an authorized specimen signature of the customer. In this case, the security procedure required written authorization, but was silent as to how the bank was to verify that authorization, i.e., it did not even require that the signature be compared to one on file. The court held that because the bank and the account holder did not agree to a security procedure, the bank could not seek safe harbor protection and reversed the district court’s order. One judge dissented from the majority opinion and argued that the Funds Transfer Agreement encompassed both the required and discretionary security procedures, which, taken together, were commercially reasonable and followed in good faith, therefore affording the bank safe harbor protection.