FACTS: Respondents-Spouses Erlando and Norma Rodriguez were clients of petitioner Philippine National Bank (PNB), Amelia Avenue Branch, Cebu City. They maintained savings and demand/checking accounts, namely, PNBig Demand Deposits (Checking/Current Account No. 810624-6 under the account name Erlando and/or Norma Rodriguez), and PNBig Demand Deposit (Checking/Current Account No. 810480-4 under the account name Erlando T. Rodriguez).

The spouses were engaged in the informal lending business. In line with their business, they had a discounting arrangement with the Philnabank Employees Savings and Loan Association (PEMSLA), an association of PNB employees. Naturally, PEMSLA was likewise a client of PNB Amelia Avenue Branch. The association maintained current and savings accounts with petitioner bank.

PEMSLA regularly granted loans to its members. Spouses Rodriguez would rediscount the postdated checks issued to members whenever the association was short of funds. As was customary, the spouses would replace the postdated checks with their own checks issued in the name of the members.

It was PEMSLA’s policy not to approve applications for loans of members with outstanding debts. To subvert this policy, some PEMSLA officers devised a scheme to obtain additional loans despite their outstanding loan accounts. They took out loans in the names of unknowing members, without the knowledge or consent of the latter. The PEMSLA checks issued for these loans were then given to the spouses for rediscounting. The officers carried this out by forging the indorsement of the named payees in the checks.

In return, the spouses issued their personal checks (Rodriguez checks) in the name of the members and delivered the checks to an officer of PEMSLA. The PEMSLA checks, on the other hand, were deposited by the spouses to their account.

Meanwhile, the Rodriguez checks were deposited directly by PEMSLA to its savings account without any indorsement from the named payees. This was an irregular procedure made possible through the facilitation of Edmundo Palermo, Jr., treasurer of PEMSLA and bank teller in the PNB Branch. It appears that this became the usual practice for the parties. 

For the period November 1998 to February 1999, the spouses issued sixty nine (69) checks, in the total amount of P2,345,804.00. These were payable to forty seven (47) individual payees who were all members of PEMSLA.

Petitioner PNB eventually found out about these fraudulent acts. To put a stop to this scheme, PNB closed the current account of PEMSLA. As a result, the PEMSLA checks deposited by the spouses were returned or dishonored for the reason “Account Closed”. The corresponding Rodriguez checks, however, were deposited as usual to the PEMSLA savings account. The amounts were duly debited from the Rodriguez account. Thus, because the PEMSLA checks given as payment were returned, spouses Rodriguez incurred losses from the rediscounting transactions.

ISSUE: won the rule on fictitious payee rule applies.

HELD: NO. In a fictitious-payee situation, the drawee bank is absolved from liability and the drawer bears the loss. When faced with a check payable to a fictitious payee, it is treated as a bearer instrument that can be negotiated by delivery. The underlying theory is that one cannot expect a fictitious payee to negotiate the check by placing his indorsement thereon. And since the maker knew this limitation, he must have intended for the instrument to be negotiated by mere delivery. Thus, in case of controversy, the drawer of the check will bear the loss. This rule is justified for otherwise, it will be most convenient for the maker who desires to escape payment of the check to always deny the validity of the indorsement. This despite the fact that the fictitious payee was purposely named without any intention that the payee should receive the proceeds of the check.

The fictitious-payee rule is best illustrated in Mueller & Martin v. Liberty Insurance Bank. In the said case, the corporation Mueller & Martin was defrauded by George L. Martin, one of its authorized signatories. Martin drew seven checks payable to the German Savings Fund Company Building Association (GSFCBA) amounting to $2,972.50 against the account of the corporation without authority from the latter. Martin was also an officer of the GSFCBA but did not have signing authority. At the back of the checks, Martin placed the rubber stamp of the GSFCBA and signed his own name as indorsement. He then successfully drew the funds from Liberty Insurance Bank for his own personal profit. When the corporation filed an action against the bank to recover the amount of the checks, the claim was denied.

The US Supreme Court held in Mueller that when the person making the check so payable did not intend for the specified payee to have any part in the transactions, the payee is considered as a fictitious payee. The check is then considered as a bearer instrument to be validly negotiated by mere delivery. Thus, the US Supreme Court held that Liberty Insurance Bank, as drawee, was authorized to make payment to the bearer of the check, regardless of whether prior indorsements were genuine or not.

The more recent Getty Petroleum Corp. v. American Express Travel Related Services Company, Inc. upheld the fictitious-payee rule. The rule protects the depositary bank and assigns the loss to the drawer of the check who was in a better position to prevent the loss in the first place. Due care is not even required from the drawee or depositary bank in accepting and paying the checks. The effect is that a showing of negligence on the part of the depositary bank will not defeat the protection that is derived from this rule.

However, there is a commercial bad faith exception to the fictitious-payee rule. A showing of commercial bad faith on the part of the drawee bank, or any transferee of the check for that matter, will work to strip it of this defense. The exception will cause it to bear the loss. Commercial bad faith is present if the transferee of the check acts dishonestly, and is a party to the fraudulent scheme. Said the US Supreme Court in Getty:

Consequently, a transferee’s lapse of wary vigilance, disregard of suspicious circumstances which might have well induced a prudent banker to investigate and other permutations of negligence are not relevant considerations under Section 3-405 . . . . Rather, there is a “commercial bad faith” exception to UCC 3-405, applicable when the transferee “acts dishonestly — where it has actual knowledge of facts and circumstances that amount to bad faith, thus itself becoming a participant in a fraudulent scheme. . . . Such a test finds support in the text of the Code, which omits a standard of care requirement from UCC 3-405 but imposes on all parties an obligation to act with “honesty in fact”. . . .  (Emphasis added)

Getty also laid the principle that the fictitious-payee rule extends protection even to non-bank transferees of the checks.

In the case under review, the Rodriguez checks were payable to specified payees. It is unrefuted that the 69 checks were payable to specific persons. Likewise, it is uncontroverted that the payees were actual, existing, and living persons who were members of PEMSLA that had a rediscounting arrangement with spouses Rodriguez.

What remains to be determined is if the payees, though existing persons, were “fictitious” in its broader context.

For the fictitious-payee rule to be available as a defense, PNB must show that the makers did not intend for the named payees to be part of the transaction involving the checks. At most, the bank’s thesis shows that the payees did not have knowledge of the existence of the checks. This lack of knowledge on the part of the payees, however, was not tantamount to a lack of intention on the part of respondents-spouses that the payees would not receive the checks’ proceeds. Considering that respondents-spouses were transacting with PEMSLA and not the individual payees, it is understandable that they relied on the information given by the officers of PEMSLA that the payees would be receiving the checks.

Verily, the subject checks are presumed order instruments. This is because, as found by both lower courts, PNB failed to present sufficient evidence to defeat the claim of respondents-spouses that the named payees were the intended recipients of the checks’ proceeds. The bank failed to satisfy a requisite condition of a fictitious-payee situation — that the maker of the check intended for the payee to have no interest in the transaction. cTCADI

Because of a failureto show that the payees were “fictitious” in its broader sense, the fictitious-payee rule does not apply. Thus, the checks are to be deemed payable to order. Consequently, the drawee bank bears the loss.

PNB was remiss in its duty as the drawee bank. It does not dispute the fact that its teller or tellers accepted the 69 checks for deposit to the PEMSLA account even without any indorsement from the named payees. It bears stressing that order instruments can only be negotiated with a valid indorsement.

A bank that regularly processes checks that are neither payable to the customer nor duly indorsed by the payee is apparently grossly negligent in its operations. This Court has recognized the unique public interest possessed by the banking industry and the need for the people to have full trust and confidence in their banks. For this reason, banks are minded to treat their customer’s accounts with utmost care, confidence, and honesty.

In a checking transaction, the drawee bank has the duty to verify the genuineness of the signature of the drawer and to pay the check strictly in accordance with the drawer’s instructions, i.e., to the named payee in the check. It should charge to the drawer’s accounts only the payables authorized by the latter. Otherwise, the drawee will be violating the instructions of the drawer and it shall be liable for the amount charged to the drawer’s account.

In the case at bar, respondents-spouses were the bank’s depositors. The checks were drawn against respondents-spouses’ accounts. PNB, as the drawee bank, had the responsibility to ascertain the regularity of the indorsements, and the genuineness of the signatures on the checks before accepting them for deposit. Lastly, PNB was obligated to pay the checks in strict accordance with the instructions of the drawers. Petitioner miserably failed to discharge this burden.

The checks were presented to PNB for deposit by a representative of PEMSLA absent any type of indorsement, forged or otherwise. The facts clearly show that the bank did not pay the checks in strict accordance with the instructions of the drawers, respondents-spouses. Instead, it paid the values of the checks not to the named payees or their order, but to PEMSLA, a third party to the transaction between the drawers and the payees.

Moreover, PNB was negligent in the selection and supervision of its employees. The trustworthiness of bank employees is indispensable to maintain the stability of the banking industry. Thus, banks are enjoined to be extra vigilant in the management and supervision of their employees. In Bank of the Philippine Islands v. Court of Appeals, this Court cautioned thus: cCaIET

Banks handle daily transactions involving millions of pesos. By the very nature of their work the degree of responsibility, care and trustworthiness expected of their employees and officials is far greater than those of ordinary clerks and employees. For obvious reasons, the banks are expected to exercise the highest degree of diligence in the selection and supervision of their employees.

PNB’s tellers and officers, in violation of banking rules of procedure, permitted the invalid deposits of checks to the PEMSLA account. Indeed, when it is the gross negligence of the bank employees that caused the loss, the bank should be held liable.

PNB’s argument that there is no loss to compensate since no demand for payment has been made by the payees must also fail. Damage was caused to respondents-spouses when the PEMSLA checks they deposited were returned for the reason “Account Closed”. These PEMSLA checks were the corresponding payments to the Rodriguez checks. Since they could not encash the PEMSLA checks, respondents-spouses were unable to collect payments for the amounts they had advanced.

A bank that has been remiss in its duty must suffer the consequences of its negligence. Being issued to named payees, PNB was duty-bound by law and by banking rules and procedure to require that the checks be properly indorsed before accepting them for deposit and payment. In fine, PNB should be held liable for the amounts of the checks. 

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