Attorney General Tong Sues Stone Academy, Joseph Bierbaum, Paier College of Art for Violations of Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act
(Hartford, CT) – Attorney General William Tong today sued Stone Academy, Paier College of Art and their owner Joseph Bierbaum alleging numerous violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act following the abrupt closure of the for-profit nursing school.
Attorney General Tong is simultaneously asking the court to attach multiple millions of dollars of Stone’s and Bierbaum’s assets during the pendency of this litigation, including Bierbaum’s Rocky Hill mansion. This would prevent the defendants from offloading or shifting resources to evade accountability.
“Stone Academy promised hands-on training from industry leaders, and an education that would position students to become Licensed Practical Nurses in less than two years. These were lies. This is textbook consumer deception—our evidence is unassailable, and we will get justice for Stone’s students,” said Attorney General Tong. “While students suffered from plummeting exam pass rates, disappearing clinical opportunities, and a dearth of qualified faculty, Stone’s owners got rich. As Stone’s nursing program collapsed, Bierbaum took tuition money and spent it to promote his other business—Paier College of Art. Stone’s so-called ‘dedicated’ staff were also running Paier and in one instance Bierbaum’s own home improvement contracting business. This was not a victimless scam. Stone students took on thousands of dollars in debt and spent hundreds of hours away from their families and jobs to becomes nurses and improve their lives. Our state desperately needs these trained nurses. Stone’s day of reckoning is here—we’re demanding millions of dollars in penalties and restitution for students. We’re asking the court to appoint a receiver for Stone and to attach Bierbaum’s assets, including his Rocky Hill mansion, to ensure that Stone’s victims get every ounce of justice possible.”
“The law is clear: businesses in our state should accurately represent the product or service they are selling, and consumers should expect to receive exactly what they paid for. We support the Attorney General in his efforts to hold those accountable who utilize deceptive and aggressive advertising tactics for their own gain, while doing irreparable harm to families in our state,” said Department of Consumer Protection Deputy Commissioner Shirley Skyers-Thomas.
Attorney General Tong first launched an investigation into the shuttered nursing school on February 23, after Stone abruptly closed its doors leaving students’ education plans in limbo. Stone’s response to the state investigation has been plagued with calculated maneuvers to withhold damaging texts and emails and aggressive public relations campaigns designed to obfuscate and mislead the public, its own students, state officials and lawmakers. Evidence compiled through numerous depositions, interviews and review of thousands of documents is irrefutable. Stone, its owner Joseph Bierbaum, and Paier College of Art, also owned by Bierbaum, engaged in unfair conduct and willfully deceived its students in clear violation of Connecticut law.
Stone offered day and evening practical nursing programs at locations in East Hartford, Waterbury and West Haven. Stone aggressively advertised—targeting women and prominently featuring women of color-- on billboards, via social media, and on radio, television and internet advertisements, promising students “hands on instruction from a dedicated staff.” Stone claimed their practical nursing program would “prepare and assist students in acquiring the basic knowledge and skills necessary to be hired into an entry-level position as a Licensed Practical Nurse” in less than two years. The school promised training from “industry leading professionals,” including an 860-hour clinical rotation and a 40-hour on-campus lab component giving students the “hands-on practical experience required to work alongside and assist doctors and registered nurses, providing routine care.”
Stone’s program cost well over $30,000, plus additional fees and expenses. The majority of Stone students took loans to pay for the program, and dedicated time away from their careers and families to further their education.
Stone utterly failed to provide the education and training it promised. Stone’s multiple, blatant failures and regulatory violations created a situation that caused many of its graduates to be ineligible to sit for the NCLEX licensing exam and obtain licensure in the State of Connecticut, thus violating one of Stone’s most important promises.
Stone faculty were not “industry leading professionals.” Instead, Stone knowingly hired entry-level and associate degree nurse instructors who were not permitted to teach practical nursing students under Connecticut regulations.
Stone did not have a “dedicated staff” for its students. In fact, multiple individuals on Stone’s payroll worked as well for Bierbaum’s other for-profit entities, including Paier College and his own home improvement company.
Stone provided only a fraction of the 860 hours of “hands-on” clinical experience that it had promised. Stone students could not graduate in the time promised due to a backlog of over 1,000 students waiting for clinical hours by late 2020. Faced with this severe backlog of students in need of clinical hours, rather than stop or slow enrollment, Stone utterly disregarded state regulations. Stone unilaterally decreased the number of clinical hours it promised to students by approximately 15 percent. In violation of state regulations, Stone offered invalid “on-campus” clinical experiences, and Stone exceeded maximum 10:1 faculty-student ratios. At Bierbaum’s direction, students performed COVID-19 temperature screenings for Stone and Paier College, even though neither school is a healthcare facility and thus qualified to offer valid clinical training. At Bierbaum’s direction, Stone eliminated a requirement that attendance be taken at clinical sites. In depositions, witness interviews and internal emails Stone administrators reported many instances where students left or were dismissed early from clinicals with no academic consequences.
Stone Students Suffer while Bierbaum and his Businesses Benefit
While Stone students suffered, Stone’s owners, Bierbaum and Mark Scheinberg profited greatly, receiving many millions of dollars, including from separate businesses they created to service Stone Academy. Bierbaum’s other business ventures also benefited. Stone Academy administrators were routinely assigned to work for Paier College. Stone’s Admissions Director simultaneously worked for Paier, and also spent over one and a half years working for Bierbaum’s home improvement company while being paid by Stone. Bierbaum’s Chief of Staff at Paier College was exclusively on Stone’s payroll.
In multiple instances, Stone Academy paid expenses on behalf of Paier, including marketing costs and charitable contributions. Through Bierbaum, between 2019 and through at least 2021, Stone subsidized nearly $1 million of Paier College’s expenses each year using Stone tuition money. These subsidies occurred while Stone students lacked books, lab supplies, adequate classroom space, and even at some times adequate heat and running water.
State Seeking Millions of Dollars in Penalties and Restitution
For repeated, willful acts of deception and unfairness in violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, the Office of the Attorney General is seeking civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation—a sum likely totaling many millions of dollars, in addition to the disgorgement of all revenues, profits and gains achieved through such acts and practices. The complaint also seeks restitution for the victims of Stone’s conduct—students.
The complaint further requests that the court appoint a receiver for Stone Academy to marshal its assets.
Assistant Attorneys General Joseph Gasser and Kate Hsu Hagmann-Borenstein, Legal Investigator Caylee Ribeiro, and Deputy Associate Attorney General Michael Wertheimer, Chief of the Consumer Protection Section are assisting the Attorney General in this matter.