Bickerstaff v. SunTrust BankAnnotate this Case
A mandatory arbitration clause is contained in each deposit agreement for customers of appellee SunTrust Bank. The clause permits an individual depositor to reject the agreement’s mandatory arbitration clause by giving written notice by a certain deadline. SunTrust claimed it drafted the arbitration clause in such a way that only an individual depositor may exercise this right to reject arbitration on his or her own behalf, thereby permitting that individual to file only an individual lawsuit against the bank. But SunTrust asserted that even if, as it has been determined here, the filing of a lawsuit prior to the expiration of the rejection of arbitration deadline operated to give notice of the individual plaintiff’s rejection of arbitration, the complaint could not be brought as a class action because the filing of a class action could not serve to reject the arbitration clause on behalf of class members who have not individually given notice. Jeff Bickerstaff, Jr., who was a SunTrust Bank depositor, filed a complaint against SunTrust on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated alleging the bank’s overdraft fee constitutes the charging of usurious interest. At the time Bickerstaff opened his account (thereby agreeing to the terms of SunTrust’s deposit agreement), that agreement included a mandatory arbitration provision. In response to the ruling of a federal court in an unrelated action finding the arbitration clause in SunTrust’s deposit agreement was unconscionable at Georgia law, and after Bickerstaff’s complaint had been filed, SunTrust amended the arbitration clause to permit a window of time in which a depositor could reject arbitration by sending SunTrust written notification that complied with certain requirements. SunTrust had not notified Bickerstaff or its other customers of this change in the arbitration clause of the deposit agreement at the time Bickerstaff filed his complaint, but the complaint, as well as the first amendment to the complaint, was filed prior to the amendment’s deadline for giving SunTrust written notice of an election to reject arbitration. It was only after Bickerstaff’s complaint was filed that SunTrust notified Bickerstaff and its other existing depositors, by language printed in monthly account statements distributed on August 24, 2010, that an updated version of the deposit agreement had been adopted, that a copy of the new agreement could be obtained at any branch office or on-line, and that all future transactions would be governed by the updated agreement. SunTrust appealed the order denying its motion to compel Bickerstaff to arbitrate his claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, finding that the information contained in the complaint filed by Bickerstaff’s attorney substantially satisfied the notice required to reject arbitration. Bickerstaff appealed the order denying his motion for class certification, and in the same opinion the Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, holding in essence, that the contractual language in this case requiring individual notification of the decision to reject arbitration did not permit Bickerstaff to reject the deposit agreement’s arbitration clause on behalf of other putative class members by virtue of the filing of his class action complaint. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding that the terms of the arbitration rejection provision of SunTrust’s deposit agreement did not prevent Bickerstaff’s class action complaint from tolling the contractual limitation for rejecting that provision on behalf of all putative class members until such time as the class may be certified and each member makes the election to opt out or remain in the class. Accordingly, the numerosity requirement of OCGA 9-11-23 (a) (1) for pursuing a class complaint was not defeated on this ground.