It has been four years since Stephanie Gontarz, a spunky 14-year-old, was killed in a car accident at a dangerous intersection near her home in Alden.
Besides losing their only daughter, Danette and Richard Gontarz were faced with an additional trauma. Their son, Nathan, 16 at the time, was driving the family car in the fatal accident and faced his own physical and psychological healing.
It wasn't easy, but Nathan returned to Alden High School, set school records as a champion swimmer and is now in his third year at West Point with a near-perfect academic record.
But for his parents, the year 2002 just won't go away.
After Stephanie's death on Jan. 7, the company that Richard Gontarz worked for closed, and he lost his job and his health insurance.
Faced with medical bills from his wife's back and neck surgeries that they were unable to pay, the Gontarzes filed for bankruptcy.
"It was a bad year," Danette Gontarz said.
And it continued to get worse.
A $100,000 settlement they received from an insurance company after Stephanie's death was never reported to U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
That set in motion the following steps by Bankruptcy Judge Carl L. Bucki:
He revoked their bankruptcy due to fraud, leaving them liable for past debts.
He approved a judgment against them for the unreported settlement and ordered them to pay the court.
He authorized a malpractice and breach-of-contract suit against their attorney, Michael J. Cooper, and his law firm, Cellino & Barnes, now known as The Barnes Firm.
The actions of Cooper and Cellino & Barnes, the malpractice suit charges, "constituted a fraud upon the Court."
The Gontarzes deny defrauding anyone. They say they find themselves in such a legal nightmare for the sin of following their attorneys' advice.
"These are the experts," Danette Gontarz said. "They are the people who went to school to learn these things. You put your faith in them."
Their lawyer, Cooper, 44, a former assistant district attorney, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because the matter is in litigation.
"Suffice it to say that the allegations set forth in the complaint are untrue, and I vigorously deny the same," Cooper said in an e-mail in response to telephone calls seeking comment.
>About the Gontarzes
Richard and Danette Gontarz were in the Air Force when they met and married in Sacramento, Calif. After they left the service, he got a job installing and maintaining roofs for inflatable domes, and they started a family.
When the company closed, he found a similar job here with Tensar Structures, and they moved to Alden with their young children: Nathan, 5, and Stephanie, 3.
As Nathan was growing up, Gontarz became scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 117 at St. John Catholic Church and president of the house soccer league. He still runs the Eagle Scout ceremonies in Alden. He's proud that he helped 18 boys become Eagle Scouts.
Stephanie, her parents said, was developing a lively personality. Just a shade under 5 feet tall, she joked that her biggest wish was to grow another inch and pass that barrier.
Since her death, she's rarely out of their thoughts or their sight. A water color of Stephanie hangs in their living room; Danette Gontarz wears a heart-shaped locket with her picture.
A few months after the accident, their insurance company told them they would be receiving a $100,000 wrongful-death settlement. It was the third fatal accident at that intersection, Pavement Road and Walden Avenue, in the past two years.
"They said you have to get a lawyer to set up an estate," Richard Gontarz said the insurance company agent told him. "Why do I need a lawyer? They said I had to have one."
They said they called Cooper at Cellino & Barnes after a credit counselor recommended him, and he agreed to take his fee as part of the settlement.
Cooper told them they could get more money than what the insurance company offered, Richard Gontarz said.
"You could sue your son and get the maximum amount," Cooper told him, according to Gontarz.
"Sue my son?" Gontarz asked. "We're trying to shield him from this. We told him absolutely not."
"We weren't interested in money," his wife said. "No amount of money in the world could bring back Stephanie."
Once Gontarz lost his job, they were unable to pay medical bills from Danette's surgeries, and they hired Robert P. Feron at Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys to file for bankruptcy. Feron said he was prevented by attorney-client privilege from discussing the case.
What happened next is the subject of the lawsuit filed against Cooper and Cellino & Barnes.
When Thomas A. Dorey, a Bankruptcy Court trustee -- an attorney appointed by the court to see that creditors are paid from any remaining assets -- learned of the potential settlement for Stephanie's death, he contacted their lawyer, Cooper.
Cooper agreed to his appointment by Bankruptcy Court as special counsel in the case. His task was to collect the settlement and turn it over to the court so the Gontarzes' creditors could be paid, according to the malpractice suit filed by attorney Roy L. Wixson.
Instead, the lawsuit contends, when Erie County Surrogate Joseph Mattina approved the $100,000 settlement in December 2002, Cooper never informed the Bankruptcy Court trustee.
Gontarz was in Mattina's court for the settlement with his wife and Cooper. He said he got a call three weeks later from Cooper's legal assistant.
"He said we have a check for you," Gontarz said. "You can come in tomorrow to pick it up."
"The insurance company made out the check to Cellino and Barnes. They took out their fee and gave us a check," he said.
He said he and his wife were uncertain whether the money was theirs to keep because of the bankruptcy. Cooper wasn't in the office, Gontarz said, but his assistant told him to call the lawyer and ask him.
"I called Cooper. He said, 'The money is yours,' " Gontarz said.
"I then called Thomas Feron at Jeffrey Freedman's and told him I received the settlement check," he said.
"He asked if our bankruptcy was discharged. I said it was discharged in November. He said, 'Give me a few minutes.' He came back on the phone, said, 'As far as we're concerned, the bankruptcy is discharged, the money is yours,' " Gontarz said of the Dec. 24 call. " 'Have a Merry Christmas.' "
So the Gontarzes cashed the check, paid debts, put the money down on a house in the Village of Alden and got on with their life.
But the legal problems won't go away.
"Thirteen months later, I got a call from Michael Cooper," Gontarz said after he got his check.
" 'Where is the money?' " he said Cooper asked him. " 'You have to give it back, you're in trouble.' "
"I'm in trouble? I'm not in trouble," he said. "I did what you told me to do."