A woman who had the father of her two daughters arrested for failing to pay child support as he entered a courthouse for bankruptcy proceedings has been ordered to pay him $10,000 in attorney fees.
While Northern District Bankruptcy Court Judge Diane Davis found that Donald Jenkins Sr.’s ex-girlfriend “acted with the best intentions,” she nevertheless granted Jenkins’ motion in In re: Donald J. Jenkins Sr., 05-73127, for reimbursement of legal fees and other costs he incurred.
Davis had previously found the woman, Barbara Snyder, and the Support Collection Unit of the Otsego County Department of Social Services in contempt for violating a 2007 court order that stayed the collection of pre-bankruptcy child support.
Jenkins was living in Florida when he was arrested in 2010 and had returned to New York to attend his daughter’s graduation and a meeting of his creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Binghamton, where his Chapter 7 bankruptcy case was being heard.
Jenkins said he would not have returned to the state had he known that an arrest warrant had been issued in September 2009 by a Family Court judge. Otsego County officials contended that Jenkins was in arrears as much as $8,000 in combined child support and medical support payments to the two children he had with Snyder.
Jenkins was arrested as he entered the courthouse and jailed for 17 days at the Otsego County jail in Cooperstown.
Jenkins sued Otsego County and Snyder seeking $5,687 for reimbursement of fees paid to attorney Kevin Guyette, $9,614 for attorney Carol Malz of Oneonta, $2,500 for lost wages and $50,000 for emotional distress Jenkins said he and his family experienced because of his arrest and incarceration.
The county and Jenkins reached a settlement in July 2012 that Malz said contained a confidentiality clause prohibiting her from discussing its details.
That left Snyder, who appeared pro se before Davis, as the lone respondent of Jenkins’ claim.
Jenkins contended that his wife, two stepdaughters and son were experiencing lingering confusion and distress because they witnessed his arrest and from the protracted delay they experienced before returning to their home in Florida following Jenkins’ incarceration.
Davis noted in a Jan. 2 decision that debtors have a private right of action against anyone who willfully violates an automatic stay if the debtor can demonstrate that he has been injured.
“Debtor has satisfied his burden of proving that he was injured by Snyder’s actions and that there was a causal connection between those actions and the harm that ensued,” Davis wrote. “The emotional distress suffered by Debtor, lost wages, attorneys’ fees, and costs are directly attributable to the jailing of Debtor.”
She shaved the legal fees for Malz to $5,700 from $9,614; granted the $5,687 in fees requested by Guyette; awarded $1,000 to Jenkins for emotional distress and $432 for wages lost during the days of work he missed while jailed.
The judge rejected Jenkins’ request for $50,000 in punitive damage, saying that Snyder “did not act with maliciousness or bad faith so as to warrant punitive damages. Her conduct was not egregious. Rather, Snyder vehemently asserts that her sole intention at all times was to abide by the state court orders and to secure for the parties’ daughters the support that was due to them from Debtor….Furthermore, it is not clear from the record that Snyder desired or singlehandedly caused Debtor’s period of incarceration to be lengthened by one day.”
Jenkins acknowledged that he was in arrears for about $4,200 in child support payments when he sought bankruptcy protection in 2005, but Davis’ rulings indicated that he had repaid virtually the entire amount when then-Bankruptcy Court Judge Stephen Gerling enjoined any enforcement actions in 2007.
Malz said of her reduction in fees, “I don’t necessarily expect to get 100 percent of what I ask for.”
She did, however, say she thought the judge’s award of $1,000 for Jenkins’ emotional distress was low considering the substantial time he spent in jail and Davis’ awards in similar circumstances.
Snyder, of Laurens, did not return a call seeking comment.
Guyette represented Jenkins in his effort to win his release from jail. The lawyer said Jenkins was prepared to make a payment toward his child-support arrears, but could not get a straight answer from county officials about how much he owed, even after he was arrested and jailed.
“He is not a deadbeat dad,” Guyette said. “He was someone who was trying to do the best he could.”
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at email@example.com.