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Bank of America must pay as much as $1.75 billion to its customers for taking their Social Security funds to pay for overdraft checks and other bank charges, a San Francisco jury concluded Wednesday. The jury awarded $75 million in damages to the nearly 1.1 million California customers who had Social Security direct deposit accounts with Bank of America as of 1994. In addition, the jury awarded special statutory damages of $1,000 to each class member who suffered substantial emotional or economic damage as a result of the bank’s conduct. Paul Miller filed the class action, Miller v. Bank of America, 301917, in August 1998. The bank mistakenly credited $1,800 to Miller’s account and later debited that amount, withdrawing his Social Security payments. “The law provides that Social Security funds are designed to provide a safety net and subsistence benefits are exempt from collection,” said plaintiffs lead counsel Thomas Brandi, of the Brandi Law Firm. Not only did the bank unlawfully take these funds, the jury made a separate finding that the bank “took advantage of an especially vulnerable class — the poor, elderly and disabled.” Arne Wagner, a partner at Morrison & Forester, and Joseph Genshlea, of Sacramento’s Weintraub Genshlea Chediak Sproul, represented Bank of America. Genshlea referred questions about the case to a Bank of America spokeswoman who could not immediately be reached for comment.

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