Current Events in December 2001

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    Class Action Suits Hit WaMu

    Not too long ago, Washington Mutual was a small savings and loan in Seattle. Then it went on a voracious acquisition spree, devouring 20 other companies and expanding into new businesses including investment advice, insurance and consumer banking.

    Today WaMu is the No. 1 home lender and manages more than 200,000 investment accounts. It's also acquiring a growing portfolio of consumer class action suits.

    One of the suits, expected to be filed this winter, charges that since WaMu bought Bank United of Houston, it has been gouging customers with late fees that are too high or unjustified. WaMu claims it "inherited" the practices with its purchase of Bank United.

    Another suit charges that agents of WM Financial Services, WaMu's stock brokerage house, routinely prey on elderly bank customers, convincing them to move their FDIC-insured savings accounts into uninsured bond funds. The agents use WaMu bank records to identify likely prospects, the suit alleges.

    WaMu's most recent acquisition is Homeside Lending, the U.S. mortgage unit of National Australia Bank Ltd. (NAB). The transaction is expected to be completed in January 2002. WaMu will be taking over about $187 billion in mortgages representing about 2 million customers.

    Class Action Suits Hit WaMu...

    Families Sue Menorah Gardens of Florida

    December 22, 2001
    Two Florida Jewish cemeteries owned by the world's largest funeral company allegedly dug up bodies, crushed burial vaults and dumped human remains in wooded areas to make room for additional graves.

    Lawyers said that as many as 1,000 bodies could have been displaced at Menorah Gardens cemeteries in Palm Beach and Broward counties. The cemeteries are owned by Service Corp. International, a Houston-based giant.

    Company officials say they are appalled and vowed to will conduct a full investigation. There is no evidence of similar abuse at any of the company's 3,851 funeral homes and cemeteries worldwide.

    Relatives are suing for unspecified damages and are also asking the court to order changes in company policies. Also, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth has opened a criminal probe of the company.

    One of the plaintiffs, Carol Prisco of Long Island, said her father, Meyer Goldstein, was buried atop the grave of another woman instead of next to an empty plot he had bought for his wife. His body was allegedly among hundreds jammed into spaces that were too close to other bodies.

    Lawyers for the families displayed photos of a leg bone lying on the ground beside chunks of a concrete vault. Finger bones, Jewish burial shrouds and a Star of David were found nearby.

    Families Sue Menorah Gardens of Florida...

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      New Jersey Sues Jennifer Convertibles

      The state of New Jersey has filed suit against Jennifer Convertibles Inc. charging it with selling defective merchandise and improperly billing customers. The state is seeking an order barring the company from violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and ordering it to pay up to $7,500 for each violation.

      The suit also names Jennifer Leather retail stores. New Jersey authorities said they opened an investigation after receiving more than 100 consumer complaints.

      The suit, filed in Union County Superior Court, alleges that the company sold damaged and substantially damaged furniture. It also says Jennifer violated state consumer protection laws by failing to disclose the former price range and the actual price reduction of sale items in its advertising.

      Undercover consumer affairs agents said they were unable to find advertised sale items in any of the New Jersey Jennifer showrooms they visited.

      The state also charges that Jennifer improperly billed consumers, failed to return deposits, failed to make refunds on canceled orders and failed to respond to consumer reports of damaged or defective merchandise.

      "These practices cannot and will not go unpunished," Michael Herr, director of New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs, said.

      In neighboring New York, the Attorney General's office said it mediated 15 complaints against Jennifer this year. In 1998, the New York Attorney General entered into a consent decree with the company, enjoining it from engaging in any deceptive, fraudulent or illegal activity.

      New Jersey Sues Jennifer Convertibles...

      Judge Refuses to Dismiss $81 Million Bank of America Suit

      $81 Million Class Action

      December 10, 2001
      A federal judge in Baltimore has refused to dismiss an $81 million class-action lawsuit accusing Bank of America Corp. of illegally obtaining and distributing thousands of confidential consumer credit reports (earlier story).

      U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis rejected the bank's motion to throw out the suit, opening the way for a trial, which may begin as early as next summer.

      The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., and claims the bank used the confidential reports "without a permissible purpose" under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. A Bank of America spokesman said the suit had no merit and called it "an attempt to get money out of us."

      Attorney Robert Sweetland III of Arlington, Va., said the bank sold the data to third-party companies for "black market" purposes. Sweetland said 27 of his clients were among 3,000 to 5,000 consumers whose credit reports were wrongfully made available to third parties. Some of his clients did not even have a banking relationships with BofA, he said.

      The suit claims the plaintiffs suffered damages because of the dissemination of their personal financial information. They also claim an invasion of privacy and impairment of their ability to obtain credit.

      Based in Charlotte, N.C., Bank of America Corp. is the nation's third-largest bank.

      Judge Refuses to Dismiss $81 Million Bank of America Suit...