Metropolis: Wednesday,May 29, 2003
‘It was so unnecessary that it boggles the mind ...’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Harassment and Heartache

Being hounded by Bank of America over an already-paid loan moves local couple to sue the financial giant.

By BETTY BRINK

Fort Worth’s lovefest with Annika Sorenstam is over, and so is the press madness that surrounded her entry last week in the traditionally all-male Bank of America Colonial PGA tournament. The worldwide coverage of her historic attempt at qualifying brought a windfall of free publicity to the bank that was the tournament’s named sponsor, along with immeasurable amounts of goodwill. But when Sorenstam failed to make the cut and the media circus ended, it wasn’t a moment too soon for one elderly couple here.

Each time the banking giant’s logo appeared in a newspaper or on the tv screen touting the Colonial, Benbrook residents Henry and Gertrude Elkouri felt nothing but anger and heartache.

“This is a heartless corporation,” Henry said. “One of the worst.”

But as the world’s attention fades, the Elkouris’ involvement with the $600 billion financial empire is far from over. The 80-year-old retired Majestic Liquor Stores executive and his wife, also 80, have filed a $250,000 lawsuit against Bank of America for failing to call off its collection dogs last year, hot on the heels of what the BoA considered a delinquent loan but one that the Elkouris had long before paid off.

What they went through with Bank of America, the couple’s lawyer said, “is one of the most egregious and cruelest acts of harassment” that he has ever witnessed.

For the Elkouris, the bank has become yet another symbol of callousness in a tragic saga that began with the questionable death two years ago of their eldest son, Doran, who suffered from depression and died at 53 of an overdose of prescription medications.

The episode with the banking giant started simply enough over a loan on an old Jeep Cherokee owned by Doran.

In the early spring of 2001, still in shock over his son’s death, Henry began the process of settling Doran’s estate, which included $14,000 owed on the Cherokee. A Bank of America branch in Jacksonville, Fla., carried the note and held the title.

Henry, who speaks with a gracious and old-fashioned courtliness, said he contacted the bank’s auto loan department, told the manager of his son’s death, and inquired about a settlement. “I was asked if I would give $7,000 in cash to keep the car, and I agreed.” In April 2001 Elkouri sent the bank a check. That same month the bank sent Elkouri the title.

For Henry, it was a done deal — until a few months later when the duns started to appear. At first he just sent the notices back, with a handwritten note that the loan was paid. But in the spring of 2002 the phone calls began.

For the next six months, attorney Tim Malone said, Bank of America’s collection department hounded his clients, both of whom are in frail health, in an effort to collect an auto loan that had long been paid. “It was so unnecessary that it boggles the mind. ... A simple check of the records and none of it would have happened.”

The couple were subjected to dozens of “scurrilous letters,” Henry said, demanding payment of the “overdue account,” and more than 30 “ugly, rude, and threatening phone calls” at all hours of the day and night from different bank employees. Once the couple got two calls in one afternoon. Often the callers asked for Doran, even though Henry had notified the bank of his son’s death and continued to do so in his letters. “It was so bad that neither my wife nor I wanted to answer the phone,” he said. “It was just too much to bear. These calls and notices just kept reminding us of the loss of our dearest child, our oldest son, and brought great emotional distress and pain. There were never any apologies. Last summer, I broke down.”

After a series of stress-related illnesses, Henry is now being treated for anxiety and depression. “I realize now that I should have just hung up on some of the calls,” he said, “but most were ladies, and I just couldn’t be rude to the ladies.”

The most frustrating part for Elkouri and his attorney has been the bank officers’ disregard for requests to check the bank’s records and verify the paid-off status of the note. Henry, who speaks with pride of a lifelong reputation for honesty, first tried writing letters to the bank, explaining that the note had been paid and outlining the details of the transaction. But the bills and calls kept coming. When he politely tried to explain that his son was dead and that the note had been paid, his words were met with disdain. “All they kept saying was, ‘This note is delinquent, and it must be paid in full.’” Not one caller ever said, “I’m sorry about your son,” he said. In fact, one acted as if she didn’t believe him.

On Aug. 23, a caller who identified herself only as Yolanda asked to speak to Doran Elkouri. “When I told her that Doran was dead, she demanded to know when he died and who was paying his bills,” Henry said. Explaining once again that the note had been paid and that the car had been deeded back to the family, she said, “That’s impossible.” When Henry told her that he was old and hard of hearing and that she should contact his attorney, she became “aggravated and downright sassy,” he said.

Following that call, the couple gave Malone the go-ahead on the lawsuit. The calls have finally stopped, but Malone is hitting another stone wall from the corporation’s Houston attorney Rik Zafar. “I’m not getting a heck of a lot of cooperation in getting them to the negotiating table to settle this,” he said. “And it’s so clear. The note got paid off, [Henry] got the title. Case closed. The bank would never have released the title if there was a balance owing. But nobody ever bothered to simply pull up the account. It’s unbelievable. This is a case where good people are really being messed around by a giant, faceless corporation. What Bank of America did to them following their boy’s death two years ago is unconscionable.

“Now we’ve taken any dollar amount off the table,” Malone continued. “We’ll turn it over to a jury to decide how much money it’s going to cost Bank of America to get them to check their records before they let something like this happen again.”

“There is more to this story than you know,” BoA spokesperson Shirley Norton said. “But I can’t say more because of the litigation.” Norton admitted that the bank had settled the loan with the Elkouris “for substantially less than the original amount.” When asked why the couple received so many harassing calls, she said, “It was a timing issue. ...This will all come out in court.”

But even if BoA is finally forced to make things right, the Elkouris face another painful chapter in this tale. They have sued Doran’s physician, Jack Hardwick, for negligence in their son’s death. Hardwick ruled it a suicide; the parents claim the doctor prescribed a wrong combination of medicines and failed to monitor Doran properly. Hardwick, who was disciplined by the state medical board for negligent care of patients two years ago, is no stranger to wrongful death lawsuits (“Dr. Death,” May 13, 1999), having faced at least a half dozen in the last seven years.



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