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Triffin v. Travelers Express Co.

June 29, 2004


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Hudson County, Docket No. DC-5432-02.

Before Judges Coburn, Wells and C.S. Fisher.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, J.A.D.


Argued March 30, 2004

Checks Cashed Etc., LLC and G&R Check Cashing Corp. assigned to plaintiff Robert J. Triffin any causes of action they may have obtained from having cashed seventeen money orders which were later dishonored. Triffin commenced suit in Special Civil Part against twelve individuals whose signatures appear on the money orders, but made no attempt to serve them with process. Triffin also sought relief against Travelers Express Company, Inc., which defended the claim by asserting that the money orders were stolen and the signatures appearing on the money orders were unauthorized.

In seeking summary judgment, Travelers provided the following undisputed explanation as to a typical money order transaction:

The purchaser pays the agent the amount for the desired money order, plus a small fee. After receiving payment from the purchaser, the agent imprints the money order with the purchased amount using a specialized imprinting machine and issues the money order to the purchaser.

Once the money order is issued, the purchaser is then authorized to name the payee and sign the instrument. The purchaser must write in the name of the payee and sign at a line entitled"Purchaser, Signer for Drawer."

[Travelers] is the entity obligated to pay on the money order and authorizes payment through the signature of its authorized representative, the purchaser.

Travelers asserted, also without contradiction, that the seventeen money orders were stolen from a Brooklyn pharmacy. Once alerted to the theft, Travelers stopped payment, but the money orders were presented to and cashed by Triffin's assignors.

Triffin presented no evidential information in response to the motion for summary judgment. Instead, he submitted his own certification which merely described the appearance of the money orders in question. The trial judge correctly recognized that the material facts -- the money orders were stolen, later signed by an unauthorized person, and cashed -- were not in dispute, and the matter was ripe for summary judgment. The judge rejected Triffin's legal arguments and granted Travelers' motion for summary judgment. We affirm.

When a lost or stolen money order, unsigned by the purchaser, is later presented by the thief or finder, the majority view is that the issuing bank is not liable. See William D. Hawkland, Hawkland Uniform Commercial Code Series, §3-401:8 (rev. 2002). This approach was followed in Trump Plaza Assocs. v. Haas, 300 N.J. Super. 113, 118 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 151 N.J. 75 (1997), where we rejected the contention that personal money orders are"the equivalent of cash or have the credit of the issuing bank behind them." Instead, we re enforced an earlier holding that"a personal money order is a check and that a bank should not be deemed to have accepted a money order merely because its name and logo are printed on the face of the instrument." Trump Plaza, supra, 300 N.J. Super. at 117 (citing Newman v. First Nat'l State Bank of Toms River, 173 N.J. Super. 598, 604 (App. Div. 1980)).

However, a determination of the transactional relationship of the persons identified by the instrument turns upon the instrument's entire content. In many instances, as in Trump Plaza and Newman, there is"small difference" between a transaction memorialized by a money order and the circumstance"where a person deposits with a bank a sum of money and receives a quantity of blank checks[;] [t]he obvious difference is that [with most money orders] a single deposit was made and a single blank check received with the amount of the deposit inserted therein." Newman, supra, 173 N.J. Super. at 602 (quoting, with approval, Garden Check Cash. Serv., Inc. v. First Nat'l City Bank, 267 N.Y.S.2d 698, 702 (App. Div.), aff'd o.b., 223 N.E.2d 566 (N.Y. 1966)).

Here, the particular appearance and substance of the money orders compel a different understanding of Travelers' relationship to the transaction than that engaged in by the banks in the authorities cited above. That is, Travelers' name is embossed on the money orders, like the banks in Trump Plaza and Newman, but in a materially different way. The money orders in question contain an additional description of Travelers' role in the transaction --"Issuer/Drawer: Travelers Express Company, Inc." -- which logically persuades that, in a normal transaction, Travelers is ultimately intended to be the drawer of the money orders. See N.J.S.A. 12A:3-103(a)(3) ("'Drawer' means a person who signs or is identified in a draft as a person ordering payment."). And, while it is true that the nature of a transaction between Travelers and a purchaser, like the transactions in Trump Plaza and Newman, required that the purchaser deposit the amount of the money order with Travelers and pay the required fee for the service, unlike the transactions in Trump Plaza and Newman, the purchaser, by taking those steps, becomes authorized to execute the money order as the agent or representative of the drawer, Travelers. When these events lawfully occur, the terms of the instrument require Travelers to pay the money order. Triffin, thus, correctly argues that ...

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