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17.3 Problems and Issues in Negotiation

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize under what circumstances a negotiation is subject to rescission.
  2. Know the effect of reacquisition of an instrument.
  3. Understand how instruments made payable to two or more persons are negotiated.
  4. Understand how the UCC treats forged indorsements, imposters, and other signatures in the name of the payee.

Common Issues Arising in Negotiation of Commercial Paper

A number of problems commonly arise that affect the negotiation of commercial paper. Here we take up three.

Negotiation Subject to Rescission

A negotiation—again, transfer of possession to a person who becomes a holder—can be effective even when it is made by a person without the capacity to sign. Section 3-202(a) of the UCC declares that negotiation is effective even when the indorsement is made by an infant or by a corporation exceeding its powers; is obtained by fraud, duress, or mistake; is part of an illegal transaction; or is made in breach of a duty.

However, unless the instrument was negotiated to a holder in due course, the indorsement can be rescinded or subjected to another appropriate legal remedy. The Official Comment to this UCC section is helpful:

Subsection (a) applies even though the lack of capacity or the illegality is of a character which goes to the essence of the transaction and makes it entirely void. It is inherent in the character of negotiable instruments that any person in possession of an instrument which by its terms is payable to that person or to bearer is a holder and may be dealt with by anyone as a holder. The principle finds its most extreme application in the well-settled rule that a holder in due course may take the instrument even from a thief and be protected against the claim of the rightful owner. The policy of subsection (a) is that any person to whom an instrument is negotiated is a holder until the instrument has been recovered from that person’s possession.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-404, Official Comment 1.

So suppose a mentally incapacitated person under a guardianship evades her guardian, goes to town, and writes a check for a new car. Normally, contracts made by such persons are void. But the check is negotiable here. If the guardian finds out about the escapade before the check leaves the dealer’s hands, the deal could be rescinded: the check could be retrieved and the car returned.

Effect of Reacquisition

A prior party who reacquires an instrument may reissue it or negotiate it further. But doing so discharges intervening parties as to the reacquirer and to later purchasers who are not holders in due course. Section 3-207 of the UCC permits the reacquirer to cancel indorsements unnecessary to his title or ownership; in so doing, he eliminates the liability of such indorsers even as to holders in due course.

Instruments Payable to Two or More Persons

A note or draft can be payable to two or more persons. In form, the payees can be listed in the alternative or jointly. When a commercial paper says “Pay to the order of Lorna Love or Rackets, Inc.,” it is stated in the alternative. Either person may negotiate (or discharge or enforce) the paper without the consent of the other. On the other hand, if the paper says “Pay to the order of Lorna Love and Rackets, Inc.” or does not clearly state that the payees are to be paid in the alternative, then the instrument is payable to both of them and may be negotiated (or discharged or enforced) only by both of them acting together. The case presented in Section 17.4 "Cases", Wisner Elevator Company, Inc. v. Richland State Bank, deals, indirectly, with instruments payable to two or more persons.

Forged Indorsements, Imposters, and Fictitious Payees

The General Rule on Forged Indorsements

When a check already made out to a payee is stolen, an unscrupulous person may attempt to negotiate it by forging the payee’s name as the indorser. Under UCC Section 1-201(43), a forgery is an “unauthorized signature.” Section 3-403(a) provides that any unauthorized signature on an instrument is “ineffective except as the signature of the unauthorized signer.” The consequence is that, generally, the loss falls on the first party to take the instrument with a forged or unauthorized signature because that person is in the best position to prevent the loss.

Lorna Love writes a check to Steve Supplier on her account at First State Bank, but the check goes astray and is found by Carl Crooks. Crooks indorses the check “Steve Supplier” and presents it for cash to a busy teller who fails to request identification. Two days later, Steve Supplier inquires about his check. Love calls First State Bank to stop payment. Too late—the check has been cashed. Who bears the loss—Love, Supplier, or the bank? The bank does, and it must recredit Love’s account. The forged indorsement on the check was ineffective; the bank was not a holder, and the check should not have been allowed into the channels of commerce. This is why banks may retain checks for a while before allowing access to the money. It is, in part, what the Expedited Funds Availability Act (mentioned in Section 17.2 "Indorsements", “Indorsements”) addresses—giving banks time to assess the validity of checks.

Exceptions: Imposter, Fictitious Payee, and Dishonest Employee Rules

The loss for a forged indorsement usually falls on the first party to take the instrument with a forged signature. However, there are three important exceptions to this general rule: the imposter rule, the fictitious payee rule, and the dishonest employee rule.

The Imposter Rule

If one person poses as the named payee or as an agent of the named payee, inducing the maker or drawer to issue an instrument in the name of the payee to the imposter (or his confederate), the imposter’s indorsement of the payee’s name is effective. The paper can be negotiated according to the imposter ruleRule stating that if an impostor endorses a negotiable instrument and receives payment in good faith, the drawer of the instrument is responsible for the loss..

If the named payee is a real person or firm, the negotiation of the instrument by the imposter is good and has no effect on whatever obligation the drawer or maker has to the named payee. Lorna Love owes Steve Supplier $2,000. Knowing of the debt, Richard Wright writes to Love, pretending to be Steve Supplier, requesting her to send a check to Wright’s address in Supplier’s name. When the check arrives, Wright indorses it by signing “Pay to the order of Richard Wright, (signed) Steve Supplier,” and then indorses it in his own name and cashes it. Love remains liable to Steve Supplier for the money that she owes him, and Love is out the $2,000 unless she can find Wright.

The difference between this case and the one involving the forger Carl Crooks is that in the second case the imposter (Wright) “induced the maker or drawer [Lorna Love] to issue the instrument…by impersonating the payee of the instrument [Steve Supplier]” (UCC, Section 3-404(a)), whereas in the first case the thief did not induce Love to issue the check to him—he simply found it. And the rationale for making Lorna Love bear the loss is that she failed to detect the scam: she intended the imposter, Wright, to receive the instrument. Section 3-404(c) provides that the indorsement of the imposter (Wright, posing as Steve Supplier) is effective. The same rule applies if the imposter poses as an agent: if the check is payable to Supplier, Inc., a company whose president is Steve Supplier, and an impostor impersonates Steve Supplier, the check could be negotiated if the imposter indorses it as Supplier, Inc.’s, agent “Steve Supplier.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-404, Official Comment 1.

Similarly, suppose Love is approached by a young man who says to her, “My company sells tennis balls, and we’re offering a special deal this month: a can of three high-quality balls for $2 each. We’ll send your order to you by UPS.” He hands her a sample ball: it is substantial, and the price is good. Love has heard of the company the man says he represents; she makes out a check for $100 to “Sprocket Athletic Supply.” The young man does not represent the company at all, but he cashes the check by forging the indorsement and the bank pays. Love takes the loss: surely she is more to blame than the bank.

The Fictitious Payee Rule

Suppose Lorna Love has a bookkeeper, Abby Accountant. Abby presents several checks for Love to sign, one made out to Carlos Aquino. Perhaps there really is no such person, or perhaps he is somebody whom Love deals with regularly, but Accountant intends him to have no interest here. No matter: Love signs the check in the amount of $2,000. Accountant takes the check and indorses it: “Carlos Aquino, pay to the order of Abby Accountant.” Then she signs her name as the next indorser and cashes the check at Love’s bank. The check is good, even though it was never intended by Accountant that “Carlos Aquino”—the fictitious payeeA payee who has no existence or is intended to have no interest in the instrument.—have any interest in the instrument. The theory here is to “place the loss on the drawer of the check rather than on the drawee or the Depositary Bank that took the check for collection.…The drawer is in the best position to avoid the fraud and thus should take the loss.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-404, Comment 3. This is also known as “the padded-payroll rule.”

In the imposter cases, Love drew checks made out to real names but gave them to the wrong person (the imposter); in the fictitious payee cases she wrote checks to a nonexistent person (or a real person who was not intended to have any interest at all).

The Dishonest Employee Rule

The UCC takes head-on the recurring problem of a dishonest employee. It says that if an employer “entrust[s] an employee with responsibility with respect to the instrument and the employee or a person acting in concert with the employee makes a fraudulent indorsement of the instrument, the indorsement is effective.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-405(B). For example (adapted from UCC 3-405, Official Comment 3; the Comment does not use the names of these characters, of course), the duties of Abby Accountant, a bookkeeper, include posting the amounts of checks payable to Lorna Love to the accounts of the drawers of the checks. Accountant steals a check payable to Love, which was entrusted to Accountant, and forges Love’s indorsement. The check is deposited by Accountant to an account in the depositary bank that Accountant opened in the same name as Lorna Love, and the check is honored by the drawee bank. The indorsment is effective as Love’s indorsement because Accountant’s duties include processing checks for bookkeeping purposes. Thus Accountant is entrusted with “responsibility” with respect to the check. Neither the depositary bank nor the drawee bank is liable to Love for conversion of the check. The same result would follow if Accountant deposited the check in the account in the depositary bank without indorsement (UCC, Section 4-205(a)). Under Section 4-205(c), deposit in a depositary bank in an account in a name substantially similar to that of Lorna Love is the equivalent of an indorsement in the name of Lorna Love. If, say, the janitor had stolen the checks, the result would be different, as the janitor is not entrusted with responsibility regarding the instrument.

Negligence

Not surprisingly, though, if a person fails to exercise ordinary care and thereby substantially contributes to the success of a forgery, that person cannot assert “the alteration or the forgery against a person that, in good faith, pays the instrument or takes it for value.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 4-406(a). If the issuer is also negligent, the loss is allocated between them based on comparative negligence theories. Perhaps the bank teller in the example about the tennis-ball scam should have inquired whether the young man had any authority to cash the check made out to Sprocket Athletic Supply. If so, the bank could be partly liable. Or suppose Lorna Love regularly uses a rubber signature stamp for her tennis club business but one day carelessly leaves it unprotected. As a result, the stamp and some checks are stolen; Love bears any loss for being negligent. Similarly liable is a person who has had previous notice that his signature has been forged and has taken no steps to prevent reoccurrences, as is a person who negligently mails a check to the wrong person, one who has the same name as the payee. The UCC provides that the negligence of two or more parties might be compared in order to determine whether each party bears a percentage of the loss, as illustrated in Victory Clothing Co., Inc. v. Wachovia Bank, N.A. (Section 17.4 "Cases").

Key Takeaway

A negotiation is effective even if the transaction involving it is void or voidable, but the transferor—liable on the instrument—can regain its possession and rescind the deal (except as to holders in due course or a person paying in good faith without notice). Instruments may be made payable to two or more parties in the alternative or jointly and must be indorsed accordingly. Generally, a forged indorsement is ineffective, but exceptions hold for cases involving imposters, fictitious payees, and certain employee dishonesty. If a person’s own negligence contributes to the forgery, that person must bear as much of the loss as is attributable to his or her negligence.

Exercises

  1. A makes a check out to B for $200 for property both parties know is stolen. Is the check good?
  2. What is the difference between (a) the imposter rule, (b) the fictitious payee rule, and (c) the dishonest employee rule?
  3. How does comparative negligence work as it relates to forged indorsements?