Run up thousands of dollars in credit card bills.
Walk away, debt-free.
It happens every day in bankruptcy courts here and across the nation, but a judge has drawn the line for a Clarence Center couple.
Lawrence and Mary Wolniewicz, who amassed debts of $336,328 on 59 credit cards, will not be allowed to wipe out their debt, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Carl L. Bucki said in a rare departure from the norm.
The Wolniewiczes could not possibly have expected to pay off a plastic debt more than six times their annual $50,000 income, the judge ruled as he dismissed their bankruptcy petition.
The couple, whose finances were detailed in a Buffalo News series on bankruptcy last October, explained that their huge credit card bills came not from an extravagant lifestyle, but from renovations on their still-unfinished Goodrich Road home.
But allowing the couple to use bankruptcy to walk away from their debt, the judge ruled, would be a "substantial abuse" of a system that was set up to help people hit by illness, unemployment or other hardships.
"This court finds that, for Lawrence and Mary Wolniewicz, finances became a game, rather than an honest attempt to address financial obligations," Bucki wrote in a decision filed this week.
"The extraordinary facts of the case demonstrate that the Wolniewiczes have crossed the line of legitimacy, in that they seek to use bankruptcy primarily as the last act of a scheme to avoid obligations that they never truly intended to pay," Bucki added.
It is believed to be the first time in Western New York that a bankruptcy was dismissed because of reckless credit card spending.
Bucki's decision affects only the individual case, but some legal experts believe it may make people with huge credit card debts reluctant to file bankruptcies. It is no longer unusual to see bankruptcies with more than $100,000 in credit card debts.
"This decision sends a message to the legal community in Buffalo -- don't come into court with a case like this," said one court official.
"It will discourage abuse of the system by anyone who might be planning to run up their credit card bills and then filing a Chapter 7 (bankruptcy)," predicted William F. Savino, a Buffalo business attorney.
Bucki also criticized a banking industry that continued to issue credit cards to the Wolniewiczes and allow them -- as Citicorp Credit Services did -- to run up nearly $53,000 on seven cards. Chase Bank Card Services gave the couple six different cards, which they used to accumulate $50,000 in charges.
Even after the Wolniewiczes filed their bankruptcy petition, Bucki said, lenders continued to offer the couple unsolicited, pre-approved credit cards.
None of the couple's creditors filed objections to the bankruptcy. U.S. Trustee Christopher Reed, the Justice Department watchdog for bankruptcy courts in Buffalo, sought the dismissal.
But the ultimate responsibility, the judge said, rests with those who borrow and spend.
"Although the credit industry may be fully to blame for an environment which allows irresponsible consumer conduct, the debtors must also bear responsibility for having seized the opportunities that were presented," the judge wrote. "The debtors' actions demonstrate the rejection of any accountability for their legitimate obligations."
Mary Wolniewicz works two nursing jobs, earning a total gross pay around $50,000 a year. Her husband, according to court papers, has not worked since he held a department store job around 1980.
The $300,000-plus they ran up on credit cards did not give the couple, who are in their late 40s, a life of luxury. No one associated with their case claims they are living the high life.
The Wolniewiczes insist they don't gamble or own a fancy home and have not taken a family vacation in almost 20 years. Wolniewicz did say last year that they own two computers, three computer printers, several VCRs, 1,500 videocassettes and six television sets.
Their home was built in the 1920s and appears to be a handyman's special, with plastic covering the front doorway for the past year. Most of the 12 rooms are still unfinished, Wolniewicz told the court.
They own two used cars, a 1984 Olds Cutlass Ciera and a 1988 Chevrolet Caprice.
Wolniewicz angrily declined to give his side of the story and ordered two reporters to leave his property.
He and his wife defended their actions during past court appearances. Wolniewicz estimated last year that only 30 percent of the credit bill was money that they actually spent. The other 70 percent, he said, was interest, which accumulated over a period of about 20 years.
The interest on the couple's credit debt alone amounted to $67,000 a year, the judge said.
Their attorney, Louis B. Toth, said the couple never intended to abuse the bankruptcy system.
"I look at people like the Wolniewiczes as honest, working people," Toth said. "They used (bankruptcy) as a last resort."
One major cause of the couple's financial problems was the expensive home renovation project going on since the late 1970s, Toth said.
"I don't think these people thought of this as a game, to use the judge's words," Toth said. "I think they just got in over their heads. They always honestly believed if they got the house fixed up, they could remortgage the property and pay off their debts."
Why didn't Wolniewicz get a job?
He told Bucki last year he has devoted so much of his time to caring for the house and his four daughters -- then ages 14 to 23 -- that he never had time for a job. He said the cost of earlier sending the daughters to a child-care center would have been too expensive.
"His parents weren't that well, and then he was taking care of their children," Toth said. "Then he was redoing the house. He was trying to do too much, too quickly."
With so many credit card bills, how did the couple keep creditors off their backs for so many years?
Wolniewicz said he spent one day each week figuring out how to take money from one card and use that money to pay enough on other cards to keep all the cards current.
Last year, more Americans filed bankruptcies -- 1.3 million -- than graduated from college. Experts say consumers' dependence on credit card spending is a major cause of a bankruptcy explosion -- both locally and nationwide.
Congress is currently considering changes in the bankruptcy laws in response to the staggering trend. Despite the strong economy, the number of Americans filing personal bankruptcies last year jumped more than 300 percent since 1980.
The Wolniewiczes' credit card bill is unusually high, but each week, dozens of Western New Yorkers wind up in a similar predicament -- facing plastic debts they cannot come close to paying.
Two of the region's busiest bankruptcy attorneys -- Jeffrey M. Freedman of Buffalo and Scott F. Humble of Jamestown -- blame banks for pushing credit cards on people like the Wolniewiczes who can't afford to pay their bills.
Freedman said his office sees at least 10 people a month who owe at least $100,000 on plastic, but neither attorney had seen a credit card debt as high as the one the Wolniewiczes have built up.
"A case like this really is an aberration," Freedman said. "Most people we see for bankruptcies are dealing with financial problems beyond their control -- like a divorce, major illness or a job loss."
Humble said: "The banks are always pushing the envelope. Now they're pushing credit cards on kids in college. Our educational system gives very little training to people on how to manage their personal finances. A big part of the problem is that the banks are giving cards to people who can't handle them.
"Some people get addicted to credit cards, and I find it very irritating that the banks then criticize them for filing a bankruptcy."
In any case where a person owes $100,000 or more on credit cards, "there is some recklessness involved," said Freedman's associate, Kenneth R. Hiller. "But that is not the typical bankruptcy filer."
David F. Butterini, a Kenmore attorney who filed 200 bankruptcy cases last year, said he applauds any effort to stop abuse in the bankruptcy system.
"But I have found that abuse is rare. The bankruptcy system is very much needed in today's world," he said. "One big reason is that many jobs today simply do not pay enough to allow someone to pay for the bare necessities."
Toth, the couple's attorney, said he doubts they will appeal the judge's ruling or use an expensive alternative of filing a Chapter 11 personal repayment plan that would cost $2,000 a year in fees alone.
"They are going to have to deal with it," Toth said.
Creditors now will be able to file judgments against the couple, but a trustee earlier seized the few items of any resale value from them.
Attorneys expect they will be able to hang on to their home.
The Wolniewiczes told the judge they felt it would be worth $300,000 when finished but say it's worth only $62,500 now and carries a mortgage of nearly $45,000.
With the $20,000 exemption for their home allowed under state law, it means no creditor could gain anything by forcing a sale.
No credit card company appeared before the judge at any stage of the bankruptcy proceedings to object to the couple's request to wipe out the debts they owed the banks.
The judge singled out Chase Manhattan and Citibank for issuing multiple cards to the couple and each allowing them to charge more debt than they earned in a year.
"Perhaps the creditors themselves recognized that their practices have contributed mightily to the disturbing state of the debtors' financial affairs," Bucki wrote.
Maria Mendler, a spokeswoman for Citibank, said customers are allowed multiple cards for different purposes.
"But when you see instances like this," she said of the nearly $53,000 on seven Citicorp cards, "it's clear we need to do a better job."
"We want our customers to use their cards in their best interests and in our best interests," she said.
A Chase Manhattan spokeswoman, Julie VanBenthusyen, said the large number of bank mergers over the years could explain how the Wolniewiczes ended up with six credit cards from her bank.
But pointing out that 96 percent of all credit card customers meet their obligations, she said, "I think this case, in particular, is not the norm. It's actually an aberration of that process."
No matter what the credit card policies, however, Bucki put the blame on the Wolniewiczes.
"A fundamental purpose of bankruptcy law is to afford to qualified debtors the opportunity of a fresh start," he said. "Bankruptcy, therefore, represents a solution to problems that result from either misfortune or mistake. When the use of bankruptcy becomes part of the problem, however, that use loses its legitimacy and becomes a vehicle for substantial abuse."