Bernsteins make generous gift to Brandeis National Committee
By David E. Nathan
Lucky for the Brandeis National Committee, retired lawyer Howard Bernstein takes a very close look at his credit-card statements.
Two years ago, Bernstein won a $5 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit he initiated over a questionable $15 credit-card charge. Recently, he and his wife, Elinor, a leader in BNC’s Wellworth chapter, earmarked nearly $145,000 of the settlement’s proceeds for the Sustaining the Mind campaign.
“We thank the Bernsteins for their generosity in supporting Brandeis’ efforts to solve the riddle of neurodegenerative diseases,” says BNC executive director Beth Bernstein. “Howard’s fight to right a wrong is in keeping with Brandeis’ commitment to pursuing social justice in all its forms.”
The Bernsteins have been active with the BNC since they moved to Lake Worth, Florida, in 1999, when Howard retired from Dworken & Bernstein, the Cleveland law firm he founded in 1959. Elinor has served as the Wellworth chapter treasurer. Howard frequently gives talks to BNC members about the couple’s travels to such exotic locales as Iguazu Falls, in Argentina; Iceland; Alaska; and the Galápagos Islands.
“We enjoy the people, the study groups and the opportunities to hear from Brandeis professors,” Elinor says. “Since Brandeis is at the forward edge in the sciences, we thought it made sense to designate proceeds from the settlement to Sustaining the Mind.”
Howard’s quixotic quest against the financial institution (although the settlement details are public, the Bernsteins have agreed not to publicize the bank’s name) began 10 years ago, shortly after he signed up for a special promotion that offered a 2 percent loan for six months. He took out a $25,000 loan and deposited the proceeds into a bank account that paid a higher interest rate.
In a subsequent statement, Howard noticed the credit-card company had charged him $15 extra by applying his monthly payment to pay down the low-interest loan rather than his card balance, which had a higher rate. Although the bank had assured him the payment would be used to pay off the loan, the agreement’s fine print allowed it to designate the payment however it wanted.
Bernstein, realizing that thousands of unsuspecting consumers had likely been victimized by the bank’s scheme, reached out to a former law partner at Dworken & Bernstein, Patrick Perotti, to discuss the feasibility of filing a class-action lawsuit.
After a five-year court battle, in 2014 the bank agreed to a $5 million settlement, while denying any wrongdoing. Card holders who took out loans with the bank were entitled to $20 each. Funds that went unclaimed were distributed to charities. The Bernsteins chose the BNC as one of their charities, in addition to organizations in South Florida.
“The first time I appeared in court in this case, the judge referred to it as an ‘I got you’ case. That’s exactly what it was,” Howard says. “This type of behavior is not exclusive to this bank. Companies are thinking, ‘How do we make an extra buck from people who don’t look at their bills?’”
Bernstein brought his lawsuit to ensure that people were compensated and the bank’s behavior was punished. Dworken & Bernstein pioneered the “cy pres” concept by which unclaimed funds from class-action settlements are distributed to charities rather than defendants.
Now, thanks to Bernstein’s close examination of his bills, some settlement dollars are supporting Brandeis researchers as they take aim at neurodegenerative diseases.