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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Mrs. Bratcher’s fight with banks over her missing $175,000 gets to the U.S. Senate | COMMENTARY

Things I did not know or appreciate until the last month or so:

1. The United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court, a disappointing fact in light of the keen interest here in seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals one day prosecuted for war crimes in Ukraine.

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2. St. Michael The Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, the focus of local media attention since the Russian invasion, is not the only such parish in Baltimore. Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church, in Curtis Bay, has served immigrants from western Ukraine and their descendants for nearly 110 years.

3. Louis Lautier, a Washington reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American and other publications, was the first Black journalist admitted to the White House Correspondents Association. That was in 1951. His application to the National Press Club met resistance in 1955 but the membership ultimately voted him in.

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4. The Aerospace Engineering Department at the Naval Academy has developed several small satellites over the last 20 years. Sixteen have been launched into space, either as free flying satellites or attached as payloads to host satellites. Two more are scheduled for launch this year and next.

5. The problem of victims failing to testify as witnesses in criminal cases is worse than I understood, accounting for more than half of all cases the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office had to drop in recent years. A list of reasons prosecutors cited in dropping cases is available in a summation of conviction data on the office’s website. (stattorney.org/10-year-conviction-data)

6. You cannot sue your bank or credit card company in a financial dispute. Most consumers who get a credit card or a checking account are probably not aware that they sign away the right to sue — and agree only to an arbitration process. This is the main subject of today’s column, a follow-up to those I’ve written recently about Myrle Bratcher and her loss of $175,000 from a checking account with PNC Bank.

Recap: Mrs. Bratcher is 88 years old — not yet 89, as I reported in my first column about her, nor 87, as I reported in my second column about her (sorry about that) — and she lives with a niece in Reisterstown.

Last year, she was able to afford to live in an assisted living community in Carroll County.

But Mrs. Bratcher had a habit of signing blank checks for people she trusted and who did things for her. That raised enough concerns among employees of the retirement community that one of them contacted her son, Eric Bratcher.

The warning came too late, however.

Someone — Eric Bratcher suspects a person who knew how much money she had in her account — obtained one of Mrs. Bratcher’s checks and made it out for $175,000 to a Chinese technology company for “home renovations.” The sketchy check ended up being accepted in New York City by JPMorgan Chase and, later, by PNC.

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No red flags. No phone calls. The money, mostly representing the proceeds from the sale of Mrs. Bratcher’s house in Finksburg, was gone in days.

How both of those banks accepted that check is beyond me.

Nicholas Bonadio, one of the attorneys representing the Bratchers, said the banks did not take “ordinary care” to protect Mrs. Bratcher from fraud.

And apparently PNC is neither apologetic nor sympathetic.

“The bank,” Bonadio said, “is saying that, because Mrs. Bratcher’s signature is on the check, because she signed a blank check, that, once she did that, the bank doesn’t have to do anything.”

So why not have Mrs. Bratcher sue to get at least some of her money back?

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She can’t. The fine print of her agreement with PNC states that arbitration is required to settle the dispute; she can’t go to court. This is a common contractual requirement. Consumers can’t take a dispute before a judge or jury; they must go through a private process conducted by attorneys selected as arbitrators.

In 2017, the Republican Congress repealed a rule change that would have made it easier for consumers to sue big banks and credit card companies. Former President Donald Trump signed the repeal, and Wall Street cheered.

This week, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the Democratic chair of the Senate banking committee, filed legislation to do away with forced arbitration clauses, arguing that the system is rigged in favor of large financial institutions.

At a hearing on Tuesday, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen held up Mrs. Bratcher as a prime example of a consumer who deserves her day in court.

“Consumers who are ripped off by big banks or corporations should be able to seek fair redress, but they are stripped of their right to their day in court by forced arbitration requirements that are buried deep in the fine print of purchase agreements,” Van Hollen said.

Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, argued against allowing lawsuits in financial disputes, saying they would not help consumers and be “a bonanza for trial lawyers.”

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, bluntly called forced arbitration a “scam.”

Van Hollen said he had reached out to PNC and Chase about helping Mrs. Bratcher, but had not heard back from either institution.

Just in case those banks feel shame about this — and I know that’s probably wishful thinking — here’s an idea: Mrs. Bratcher turns 89, finally, on April 4. How about the two banks pitch in and give her a check for $175,000? That would be the perfect birthday gift.


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