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Miss Bean, Mayamura and me.

Pennies From Heaven

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If money doesn't grow on trees, perhaps it sprouts from class-action lawsuits, filed by adventurous lawyers in glamorous cities.

Like Brian Strange, who made me a winner.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

There used to be a Chase Visa card in my wallet. I closed the account a while back. But then a letter arrives from Chase (Slogan: "Where the right relationship is everything.") It says:

"Dear Jason B. Roop:

"Enclosed is a check for disbursement of the settlement awarded in the class action entitled "Mayamura vs. Chase Manhattan Bank USA, N.A.

"Very Truly Yours,

"Customer Service."

And there is a check. For 86 cents.

I have questions. What class action? Why 86 cents? Who is Mayamura? So I refrain from cashing the check and start to make some calls. Before I spend the money, that seems the right thing to do.

I naturally phone Chase Customer Service. After all, they signed the letter. Chase Customer Service confirms my identity. Account number? Mother's maiden name? The name of my goldfish when I was 10, and the coordinates of where it is buried?

I answer, and after a few minutes on pause, listening to the soothing harmonies in the 1990 Wilson Phillips hit, "Release Me," I am told I must call another number. I do, and I am grilled again. I am forwarded again.

Finally, one Miss Bean answers. Miss Bean repeats the information in my letter. But she is not allowed to tell me anything else, she says. The class-action lawyers have prohibited it. She does let it slip, however, that most people have received 33 cents, not 86.

"So I'm a big winner?" I ask. Apparently so, she replies, sounding a bit perturbed. For answers, Miss Bean directs me to attorney Brian Strange. No telephone number for attorney Brian Strange is available. (That is also, it seems, a request from the class-action lawyers.) Attorney Brian Strange does, however, have a P.O. box in Los Angeles. I ask Miss Bean, "Do you know who Mayamura is?" She replies, "I can't answer any other questions other than that." Miss Bean is understandably tired of me.

I try 411. Two Los Angeles law firms have "Strange" in their names. I call both. I reach the correct one. I leave a message for Brian Strange and do some background research on the guy.

It turns out Brian Strange is no slouch. He is in his mid-40s, and a jock. His most high-profile display of manliness was in October, when his four-person Team Strange and Carpenter participated in the eighth Eco-Challenge race (run by "Survivor" creator Mark Burnett). The race, in New Zealand, started with Strange riding on horseback toward the Ben Oahu Mountains. The horse threw him off and ran away. By the end of the grueling 12-day event, Strange and his team had come in 49th. They didn't win the $100,000.

Strange seems to have no trouble in the courtroom, though.

A couple of years ago, his complaint on behalf of Mr. Mayamura and other Chase customers accused Chase of calculating customer payments as late if they were received after 9 a.m. on the due date. That was in violation of the Truth in Lending Act, Strange and Mayamura alleged.

Chase settled the case in September 2000. (The bank denied liability, though, and a spokeswoman says that settling the case was in the best interests of the bank's customers.) Chase agreed to pay at least $22.2 million to customers.

My piece of the pie is that check for 86 cents.

Strange fared considerably better. Last February, Judge Lourdes Baird ordered Chase to pay him and his class-action team a tidy $3.62 million in attorneys' fees, and $79,206.67 in reimbursement expenses.

Maybe that's why Brian Strange hasn't called me back yet: He's on the phone with his accountant.

Still, I am satisfied.

If I were asked, I would cheerfully participate in one of those testimonial-type lawyer commercials for Strange. In front of a nondescript background, perhaps seated in a metal folding chair, I would stare somewhat off-camera and say: "Before I met Brian Strange, I had no idea Chase Manhattan Bank USA, N.A., owed me money. But they did owe me money. Brian fought for me. He got the bank to pay me back." The camera would zoom in on the check I held, No. 05307149, "Pay to the order of Jason B. Roop." And I would say, "Thanks, Brian Strange, for my 86 cents."

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