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California's highest court on Monday ruled that Bank of America Corp need not pay a potential $1 billion or more to customers who claimed the bank illegally raided Social Security benefits to collect fees.

Plaintiffs in the class-action case had accused the largest U.S. bank of dipping into their Social Security direct deposit accounts between 1994 and 2003 to collect fees for overdrafts and other debts.

A San Francisco trial court in 2004 ordered the Charlotte, North Carolina bank to pay $284.4 million of damages, plus up to $1,000 to each customer who suffered substantial emotional or economic harm. The case was filed on behalf of more than 1.1 million customers, many of whom were elderly or disabled.

In 1974, the California Supreme Court had ruled that a bank may not satisfy a credit card debt by deducting fees owed from a separate checking account containing deposits that "derived from unemployment and disability benefits."

But in Monday's unanimous ruling, the court distinguished the current case by saying the transactions at issue occurred "within a single account" rather than in multiple accounts.


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