For some people, jury duty is a dreaded American civic obligation. Now, JPMorgan Chase & Co. is adding another unwelcome element: banking fees.
In a handful of jurisdictions, the biggest U.S. bank by assets handles administration of the juror-compensation system, issuing debit cards instead of the age-old system of paper checks.
In addition to the juror pay, the cards also come loaded with fees — for balance inquiries, for inactivity, for using non-Chase ATMs, for charges with insufficient funds and for cash or check issuance. The funds become impossible to withdraw from an ATM once the balance falls below $20, and in at least one jurisdiction — Washington, D.C. — there are no Chase branches or ATMs within 90 miles (145 kilometers), ensuring the funds will eventually be frittered away to the bank.
William Mark Scott, a lawyer who served on a jury in Washington last year, sued JPMorgan, accusing it of unjust enrichment and violation of the Consumer Protection Act. He’s seeking to represent all other jurors who were paid with JPMorgan debit cards.
"Chase uses its monopolistic control over juror funds to steal captive jurors’ money by assessing unconscionable and deceptive fees," Scott claims. "By making it prohibitively expensive to receive an over-the-counter cash withdrawal from, or to receive a check drawn upon the debit card, Chase ensures a ‘rump’ balance will be left on each debit card -- and forfeited."
Tasha Pelio, a JPMorgan spokeswoman, declined to immediately comment on the lawsuit.
It’s the second time in two years that Chase has been accused of taking advantage of captive customers. In 2015, thousands of ex-convicts said Chase charged predatory fees through debit cards issued to people leaving prison. The cards held prison pay and commissary balances. Chase took over distribution of prisoner pay under a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Chase paid almost $450,000 to settle the lawsuit.
For local courts, having a big bank come in and take over the juror-pay system was welcome relief. The cost of overseeing the system and cutting checks is time-consuming and expensive. In some jurisdictions, budget liabilities swelled into the tens of thousands of dollars as some jurors didn’t bother to cash or deposit checks.
The full scope of JPMorgan’s juror pay program is unclear. Washington, Livingston County, Michigan, and Gwinnett County, Georgia, have adopted it, according to a Google search. Fort Bend County, Texas, also considered it but it is unclear if it went into effect there. JPMorgan doesn’t appear to disclose any information about the program in its financial statements. The bank announced in 2014 that it would exit the pre-paid card business, but continues to administer the program in jurisdictions where it is still under contract.
Scott said in his lawsuit that he served in July on a superior court jury in Washington D.C., which pays $30 a day and $4 daily for travel. He got a Chase debit card and was twice charged 25 cents for not having sufficient funds when making a purchase. He was also twice charged $1.50 for inactivity. With about $13 left on the card, he has few ways of using it and expects it to be eventually eaten by fees.
"If there is, in fact, any way for jurors to use or withdraw their rump balances, Chase conceals this in order to milk more fees from them," he claimed in the lawsuit. "Indeed, Chase expects and relies on individuals forfeiting these funds to the bank."
The case is Scott v JPMorgan Chase & Co., 17-cv-249, U.S. District Court for District of Columbia (Washington).