Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Wacky Caterer Files for Bankruptcy

This is a true story, only the client names are changed.

The angriest person I ever encountered was in Bronx Small Claims Court. Luz Calderon had made the unfortunate decision to do one stop wedding shopping with my client, Banderas Wedding Center (Juan Banderas, President). Juan's business model was to take his modest catering operation, and expand it into a Walmart of wedding services. At Banderas Wedding Center, you could get your invitations, wedding gown, bridesmaid dresses, tuxedos, photos, videos, limos, honeymoon, band, rings, and anything else needed for that special day...on a tight budget. He was a general contractor for nuptuals, using a hapless collection of cretinous subcontractors.

I don't know how the food was at Luz' wedding. All I knew was she had not received her wedding pictures and she was not happy. When Juan first came to my office he told me he had some "small problems." He showed me six different small claims cases, three Civil Court cases, one Supreme Court case, and a friendly letter from the New York Attorney General. Luz Calderon's case was the fourth time I had gone to court for Juan. Before I went to the Bronx on Calderon v Banderas, I asked him what happened to Luz' wedding pictures. He said, "the photographer has them."
Prompting me to ask, "why doesn't Luz have them?"
"Well, the photographer wants to be paid."
"Why don't you pay him?"
"Well, he wants to be paid on this job, AND all the other jobs."
After a lot more prompting, I learned that Banderas owed ALL his subcontractors, and they were all taking the same position: no piecemeal payments. Pay in full, or we hold hostages.

Wedding photos were powerful hostages, since the customers desperately wanted them, but this was not prompting Banderas to pay for their release. He had the trump card, one which many a client has played over the years: "I don't have the money." He had small amounts of money - enough to pay me to go to court and defend him "as best as you can." Sometimes he didn't even come with me. It was me against the embittered brides. Sometimes I got to joust with the grooms too, though they always sensed my empathy, not so much for their ruined wedding day, but for their ruined lives.

Luz told the Judge her story. I told the Judge my clients story, such as it was. The Judge wanted to talk to my client, but I had to tell the Judge he "couldn't make it" that night. The Judge told Luz she would win her case, such as it was, meaning she would get a judgment which might not be so easy to collect. The Judge wanted to talk to me privately, off the record. When I approached he whispered, "what kind of piece of shit, moron, asshole of a client do you have here?" I wanted to say, "all of the above," but instead I said, "I'm just trying to represent my client the best I can, and I realize he is going to lose this case, he surely realizes it too, but there is a problem in the business." The Judge asked me what I thought the problem was, and it boiled down to this: The business had all kinds of claims against it, no money to pay, and the second any money came in, various creditors were grabbing it. The Judge then gave me some advice and said, "you can't keep representing him in these individual cases, you'll end up on one of those consumer fraud TV news shows. This client should file for bankruptcy."

From the little I knew about bankruptcy, the Judge's advice was correct. I could not continue defending the wackster on a case by case basis. We needed to stop the insanity, something I later learned was the hallmark of EVERY bankruptcy case. Unfortunately, I had never had a case with bankruptcy issues, nor had I even taken the class in law school. I only knew of one attorney who was a "bankruptcy attorney," but I didn't really know him. However, I had always meant to call him, and here was my chance.

I had never actually spoken to Barry N. Seidel, but I knew he was a bankruptcy attorney. I knew this because sometimes people mistakenly called my office looking for him. I also knew that when I was a freshman at Stony Brook, he was a junior, and we once accidentally got each others history grades. When the error was corrected, he got the A and I got the B. So, seeking to refer the wacky caterer, I made the following phone call:
"May I speak to Barry Seidel, please?"
"Who is calling?"
"Barry Seidel."

He remembered the grade mix-up in college, but he had not mistakenly been getting calls from people looking for ME. I told him I was in general practice, that I had a client who needed a bankruptcy attorney, and I had heard he did that. He said, "I am a bankruptcy attorney. I work at a big firm in Manhattan. Right now I'm heavily involved in the Texaco/Pennzoil bankruptcy. Who would the client be in the case you want to refer?"
"A wacky caterer."
"I'm not so sure I could get involved in a case like that."
I said, "I know, any chance you could refer me to someone?"
He thought about it a bit and said, "I know a guy named Jim Pagano. He just left a good bankruptcy firm to go out on his own. He'd probably be able to do a wacky caterer case."

Not only did Jim Pagano turn out to be a great bankruptcy lawyer who could help the wacky caterer, he became a trusted colleague and friend to this day. We have worked on a lot of cases together. I have found that in every area of practice, a working knowledge of bankruptcy comes in very handy. I have learned certain little things about bankruptcy that are worth sharing:
1. It is often a very strong card.....particularly when unplayed.
2. Sometimes it's the best and only economic alternative.
3. People resist doing it, but there is usually a "catalyst" that forces them.
4. As far as negotiating and business skills, it is a very interesting field, and if I were starting out and looking for something to specialize in, I would look at this field very seriously.
5. People often think of bankruptcy as being about the debtor who is filing, but many bankruptcy lawyers focus on the creditors rights side.

I have not spoken to Barry N. Seidel since, but I have always been gratetful to him for introducing me to Jim Pagano. Here is Barry N. Seidel's impressive bio.

One other related story... a few years after the wacky caterer stopped catering, he called me for some advice. He was managing a restaurant where a story had been published in El Diario (largest Spanish language newspaper in New York) saying the restaurant was a drug dealing location. The story was erroneous and El Diario printed a retraction. Nevertheless, according to Juan, business was way off. He wanted to know if anything could be done, and whether the retraction insulated El Diario from a claim. (OK, he didn't say THAT, but it was what he wanted to know.) I did not think he was calling me "officially" - meaning he was not going to PAY for my opinion, but I told him I would "look into it." A pretty stupid thing to offer, I admit, and I regretted saying it, but this is what I did...

My legal brain knew that I did not know, which generally prompts me to do MY style of research, which is where I say to myself, "who can I call?" I categorized this as a "First Amendment case" because it had something to do with a newspaper. The only First Amendment lawyer I had ever heard of was Floyd Abrams. If he were a baseball player, his nickname would have been "Mr. First Amendment."
So, what I did was, I called Floyd Abrams.

Wanna get through to a famous lawyer? Call at 7 PM. I got right through. I told him I was a solo practitioner in Forest Hills and I had this potential case. He said, "Forest Hills? I went to Forest Hills High School."
So did I.
So, we shot the breeze for awhile, and eventually he told me the law on newpaper retractions and liability. I gave the info to the wacky caterer, but did not tell him who I had called. I did tell all my lawyer friends though, and they always said the same thing:

Yeah... and I'd do it again too.


  1. Such a nice story. That was really kind of Jim Pagano to help the “wacky caterer”, as filing for bankruptcy is a very difficult pill to swallow, not to mention a very complex process. I'm glad you and Mr. Pagano became good colleagues.

    Justin Myers @

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