Illinois Court Sets Nationwide Standard For Notary Employers

In Vancura v. Katris, the Illinois Appellate Court held a national photocopy chain directly liable for the misconduct of a Notary employee at a suburban Chicago store because the business failed to properly train & supervise him — even though state law imposed no such requirement.

A relatively obscure appellate ruling in the nation’s heartland carries implications that reverberate from coast to coast, potentially affecting the business practices of employers & the way liability law is interpreted by the courts.

The case centered around a real estate deal that involved a Notary’s acknowledgement of one documents containing the forged signature of plaintiff Richard P. Vancura. Notary Gustavo Albear admitted that he notarized one of the documents but denied notarizing the second. He did admit that the seal on the second document appeared to be his. During the trial, Albear testified that he only necessary signers to present an ID with a signature — & not a photo — so he could match it to the signature on the document.

While the appellate court rejected a quantity of the trial judge’s findings against Albear’s employer, it upheld what may turn out to be the most far-reaching conclusions — that the employer was liable for damages because it had a broad, legal responsibility to make sure its Notaries followed notarial best practices above & beyond what state law necessary.

The court specifically cited the standards of conduct & training detailed in the National Notary Association-crafted Model Notary Act. A legal opinion penned by the prestigious national law firm Proskauer Rose concluded that the Vancura ruling could have a national impact because courts in other jurisdictions can apply the same principles used by the Illinois court.

According to the appellate ruling, the employer “knew or should have known that [the Notary’s] failure to positively identify persons requesting notarizations through pictorial identification & signature documents such as local driver’s licenses would, sooner or later, permit fraud or forgery to occur. When the purpose of notarization is to prevent fraud & forgery, adequate identification involves over accepting a customer’s personal statement & signature exemplar.”

“The (Illinois) Court relied on the standards set forth in the Model Act with respect to what constitutes satisfactory evidence of identification, proper maintenance of a notary’s seal, & what constitutes consent of an employer to a notary employee’s misconduct,” writes Arthur F. Silbergeld, a partner in Proskauer Rose. “The Court reasoned that because the state statutes were silent on those issues, it was reasonable to look to industry standards to decide what is thought about reasonable conduct by a Notary.” The appellate court was impressed with the “expertise & representative breadth of the Act’s drafters,” comparing it to model acts & codes of conduct drafted by the American Bar Association & other professional organizations.

In other words, where the law fails to set a standard, the Model Notary Act should act as a guide — not for Notaries, but for their employers, the public officials who regulate them, & the courts that ultimately pick liability when a transaction goes wrong.

Those who supervise Notaries also should have some knowledge of what they can & cannot do, & should periodically check up on Notary employees to ensure they’re following the right procedures.

The Act offers a clear outline of what constitutes nice Notary training, which should be conducted by a knowledgeable professional & culminate in some sort of check that gauges the trainees’ understanding of what they have learned. Additionally, the Notary Code of Professional Responsibility provides a solid set of guidelines for ethical behavior by Notaries.

One fact that emerged during the Vancura case was that Albear’s supervisor had no knowledge or training, & lacked any guidelines to ensure Notary employees adhered to sound procedures. These include verifying the signer’s identity through a government-issued identification card that includes a photograph, signature & physical description of the bearer; storing the journal & seal in a secure place; making sure the journal is a bound book that can’t be altered by removing pages; & ensuring that the signer personally appears before the Notary.