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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

New Jersey Supreme Court holds that state fiduciary law does not permit affirmative cause of action against bank

Courts State Issues Fiduciary Duty

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On June 17, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed an appellate division’s judgment and dismissed a complaint against a bank after concluding that the New Jersey Uniform Fiduciaries Law (UFL) does not permit an affirmative cause of action against banks but rather provides them with limited immunity for failing to take notice of and action on the breach of a fiduciary’s obligation. In 2015, the plaintiff filed a complaint on behalf of himself and his dental practice against two of his employees who allegedly took insurance company checks issued to the plaintiff and his practice totaling “several hundred thousand dollars,” forged his endorsement on them, and deposited the checks into personal accounts held by a bank who was sued in the same lawsuit for common law claims of conversion and negligence. The trial court dismissed the cause of action against the bank for failure to state a claim, reasoning that “‘common law negligence is not such a remedy’ in the absence of a ‘special relationship’ between [the plaintiff] and the bank.” The trial court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the UFL provided the basis for a cause of action, concluding that the individuals acted as “errant employees”—not as fiduciaries—and that the bank had no fiduciary relationship with the plaintiff who was not a bank customer. The appellate division partially reversed, concluding that plaintiff should be allowed to plead a UFL claim. Among other things, the plaintiff argued that the employees were acting in a fiduciary capacity as “constructive trustees” of the funds and the bank met a bad faith requirement under the UFL in depositing the checks.

The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, holding that “[n]othing in the plain language of the UFL suggests that the UFL is itself the basis for an affirmative cause of action.” Moreover, the “UFL does not provide for a recovery through a private action or set forth remedies or a statute of limitations—all indicia of a statutory cause of action.” According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, “[w]hen an action is brought against a bank, the UFL provides that a bank’s liability depends on whether the bank acted with actual knowledge or bad faith in the face of a fiduciary’s breach of his obligations.”

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