When a West Seneca-based bill collector threatened her with jail for not paying her ex-husband's credit card bill, Barbara Roan took the collector to court.
Last year the Illinois resident won part of a $217,000 judgment against the collector, Lenahan Law Office, for making illegal threats.
But collecting from the collector turns out to be difficult.
Roan is among more than two dozen people around the county whose court judgments have been frozen by the December bankruptcy filings of John Daniel Lenahan and Danielle Lenahan, his daughter. The lawyers and their firm face multiple court actions under debtor protection law.
"You know about the lawsuits under Fair Debt Collection Practices Act? That's the reason they filed bankruptcy," said Terry Granger, the Lenahans' bankruptcy lawyer. The debtor protection act outlaws false threats and harassment.
John Daniel Lenahan's financial statement lists debts of $1.5 million, mainly owed to people like Roan who were on the receiving end of the firm's collection efforts.
Against those debts are listed assets of $152,000 -- including his home in West Seneca and a 1994 Plymouth Suburban.
A bankruptcy filing automatically puts on hold any efforts to collect from the debtor, Granger said, including judgments in court actions. The Lenahans filed Dec. 15 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York in Buffalo.
Granger said he didn't know whether the Lenahan firm continues to collect debts. The Lenahans could not be reached for comment, and Granger said he would advise them not to speak because of the ongoing court action.
The Lenahans' licenses to practice law in New York remain in force, and they don't have a record of disciplinary sanctions, according to the state Appellate Division.
In addition to complaints from debtors, the firm has had run-ins with regulators. The state of Maine's consumer protection department banned Lenahan Law Offices from collecting there in 2004 for what it called a pattern of illegal tactics.
David Ganje, an Albany lawyer who represents Roan and Rita Pinkstaff, another Illinois resident who shares in the court award, said he thinks it will take about six months to find out how how much, if anything, his clients will collect.
"The bankruptcy system is a slow and careful one," he said.
A bankruptcy trustee will gather information about the Lenahans' assets, using tax returns and other records. Bankruptcy rules will determine how much of their property can be sold to pay debts, Ganje said.
The bulk of the award to Roan and Pinkstaff was made up of $150,000 in punitive damages, states the decision by U.S. District Judge James L. Foreman in Illinois. Other damages and attorney fees made up the rest of the $217,000 judgment.
The Lenahans' bankruptcy filing came a day before a hearing in a court action aimed at collecting the award, Ganje said.
In court papers, John Lenahan said the scheduling of the hearing forced him to file the bankruptcy petition before having a chance to get credit counseling, which is required under bankruptcy reforms enacted last year.