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 Post subject: Threatening Consumers
PostPosted: Wed Jul 26, 2006 12:45 am 
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Firm's debt-collection tactics decried

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Lenahan Law Office accused of abusive methods

By FRED O. WILLIAMS
News Business Reporter
10/3/2004




"Their tactics appear to be very strong-arm." David Polino, president of the Buffalo Better Business Bureau


One debt collector told Maine resident Jason New that his wife would be arrested unless she paid $862 immediately.

"They said I would get picked up four three counts of criminal charges," Leonora New said.

Another collector revealed Craig Reynolds' credit card debt to an unrelated co-worker with the same last name, saying that she was in trouble for unauthorized use of funds.

"Now most (co-workers) know about it," Reynolds said of the debt and the aspersions on his integrity.

The collectors were from Lenahan Law Offices, a West Seneca-based company that has generated complaints of strong-arm tactics around the country.

It's not a criminal offense to be unable to pay off a credit card. It is against the law for collection firms to make false threats or to reveal your debt to others.

But the experiences of New and Reynolds - supported by witnesses during a regulatory hearing in Maine - weren't isolated cases. They were among five people in Maine, and dozens of others around the country, who have complained about the West Seneca-based firm's tough tactics within the past two years.

Debtors say they were threatened with jail or the loss of their home unless they paid immediately, although there were no legal actions against them. Others had their debt revealed to third parties, according to court and regulatory records.

Maine's credit regulator barred the Lenahan firm from collecting in the state in April, after the hearing found a "pattern of illegal behavior," the hearing officer wrote. The law firm didn't attend the hearing where Reynolds, New and their witnesses testified.

Jack Sortino, compliance officer for Lenahan Law Offices, said Maine's decision is being appealed.

The Lenahan firm took over debtors' accounts and offices previously held by Munson Law Offices in early 2003, according to debtors and court papers.

John Daniel Lenahan said in a letter that his company is committed to complying with the debtor protection law, and that past "human resource issues" have been resolved. But a regulator said that complaints against the Lenahan firm continue to mount.

The U.S. Fair Debt Collection Practices Act outlaws false threats and the sharing of a debtors' information by "third-party" debt collectors, including law offices that handle collection work. Some states, including Maine, have similar protections.

Nationwide, complaints against collectors are high, but crackdowns are rare.

The Federal Trade Commission, in charge of enforcing the federal law, received 34,543 complaints about debt collectors in 2003, its annual report said, while it brought just two legal actions under the fair collection act.

People who have been threatened or harassed by a collector can try to enforce the act themselves by bringing a lawsuit. But their damages under the law are limited to $1,000, and even with a winning case, collecting the award is not automatic.

Thomas Kane, FTC staff attorney for the Fair Debt Collection Act Enforcement Program, said individual awards, plus attorneys' fees for which collectors are liable, can be a strong check on abusive collectors. In addition, the FTC is not bound by the $1,000 cap on damages when it brings a case under the fair collection act, he said.

In a letter responding to a request for an interview, Lenahan said that his firm is committed to complying with the collection practices act, and that his collectors are thoroughly trained in its requirements. Collectors are subject to termination for harassment or misrepresentation, the Sept. 15 letter said.

"As any large law firm or business with numerous employees, we are not perfect in our daily operations and practices although we continually strive to obtain this standard," he said.


Firm formed last year

The Lenahan firm filed business papers with the state in July 2003, registering as a professional limited liability company based on Union Road in West Seneca. The firm includes John Lenahan and his daughter, Danielle, both licensed attorneys without any disciplinary record, according to the state Appellate Division. It has a collections office in the Munson firm's former office on Northpointe Parkway in Amherst, on Great Arrow Avenue in Buffalo, and other locations.

Debtors often lodge complaints to deflect collection attempts, Lenahan wrote. His firm's complaint record "in comparison to other firms is actually quite low," the letter said.

That prompted a burst of laughter from William N. Lund, Maine's director of Consumer Credit Regulation and past president of the North American Collection Agency Regulatory Association. The Lenahan firm's complaint record is similar to bad actors in the industry that ignore debtor protections, he said.

"This is extremely rare . . . about once a year we encounter a collector like Lenahan that seems to thumb its nose at the fair collection practices act," Lund said.

Despite the ban, Lenahan collectors continue to call debtors in Maine, generating complaints of threats and breached confidentiality, Lund said. His next step will be to ask his state's attorney general to begin court proceedings against the Lenahan firm.

Certainly, Lenahan Law Offices isn't the only firm found to have violated debtors' rights. Most debt collectors face complaints and court actions from debtors under the fair collection act, which sets a host of rules governing collectors contact with debtors.

What sets Lenahan's record apart from industry norms, according to Lund and to debtors' attorneys, is the repeated use of false threats - including imminent arrest - and the sharing of confidential information with people other than the debtor.

The Buffalo Better Business Bureau gives Munson and Lenahan an "unsatisfactory" rating for their volume of complaints, unanswered complaints, and for the serious nature of complaints against them, president David Polino said.

"Their tactics appear to be very strong-arm," he said. "When you combine that with the government action (in Maine) and everything else, it's an off-the-charts bad record."

According to papers filed in some of the fair debt collection act cases against Lenahan Law Offices:

• Philadelphia resident Christopher Lewis was told that U.S. Marshals "would be around to process him and/or pick him up."

• When Decatur, Ga. resident Octavis Campbell disputed a $5,500 debt and asked for verification, a collector threatened that her house would be seized, although no court action was taken against her. Later, another collector told Campbell's mother that Campbell would be arrested.

• In Southeastern Illinois, Rita Pinkstaff was told that a warrant had been issued for her arrest. Her mother agreed to pay $500 immediately by phone and to send a check for another $429.


A common thread?

In several court cases, "the fact pattern is almost identical," said Roy J. Dent, an attorney who represented Pinkstaff. Dent, who said he represents 40 to 50 cases under fair debt collection act a year, said it's rare for collectors to issue such threats.

It's also unusual for collection firms to ignore cases against them, attorneys and regulators said. Pinkstaff, Campbell and Lewis all won default judgments against Lenahan after the firm didn't answer their charges.

Sortino, the Lenahan firm's compliance director, said the default judgments were the result of inadequate service of legal papers. Lenahan "would never ignore a complaint," he said. The cases have since been resolved through discussion with the debtors' attorneys, Sortino said.

"That's news to me," said Dent, Pinkstaff's attorney. Rather than settling the judgment, Lenahan collectors have recently made fresh dunning calls on Pinkstaff, for the same debt involved in the lawsuit, he said. "I've just got the run-around from them."

Nor has Bruce K. Warren, the attorney for Lewis, made a settlement with Lenahan, or had any response to his phone calls, he said. "They've never done anything to rectify the situation."


e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

_ 1999 - 2004 - The Buffalo News


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