The bankruptcy petition that Germantown credit counselor AmeriDebt Inc. filed late last week may jeopardize an $8 million class-action settlement the company agreed to earlier this year.
The class-action suit is one of several legal challenges that have been lodged against AmeriDebt, including ones by the Federal Trade Commission and four states. They claimed the company deceived consumers seeking debt-consolidation help by charging high fees and falsely operating as a nonprofit organization while being run to make money for its founders, Andris and Pamela Pukke, and their for-profit company, DebtWorks Inc.
AmeriDebt was one of the nation's largest and most aggressively marketed debt-management firms, advertising heavily on cable TV and the Internet. It has denied the charges and said it would vigorously defend itself. It stopped accepting new clients last fall, just before the FTC filed suit.
The $8 million class-action settlement, tentatively approved by an Illinois state judge in March, has already come under attack from the FTC and several state attorneys general on the grounds it provided too little money for AmeriDebt's customers. The FTC, which took the unusual action of intervening in the class-action lawsuit, said actual injury could be as high as $300 million for AmeriDebt's 500,000 customers.
The legal challenges to the settlement, along with other lawsuits, were a factor in AmeriDebt's decision to file for bankruptcy, company attorney Glenn A. Mitchell said yesterday. "A proliferation of litigation is a problem," Mitchell said.
According to its bankruptcy petition, AmeriDebt had $8.4 million in assets and $12.4 million in liabilities, with the largest liability being the $8 million class-action settlement. The next largest creditor, owed $3.7 million, was the Ballenger Group LLC, which purchased the assets of DebtWorks from Andris Pukke last year.
At issue in the class-action case is the "voluntary contribution" customers were asked to pay initially and monthly when they signed up for AmeriDebt's debt-management plans. The initial contribution was usually a first-month payment that consumers thought was going to their creditors, said Malik Diab, the plaintiffs' attorney in the case.
Diab said the contribution was not voluntary and adversely affected consumers since it went to AmeriDebt, not creditors. He said the average initial contribution was about $300. Under the settlement a consumer could get up to $150. "We thought a 50 percent settlement is a fair deal," said Diab, saying there was a risk that AmeriDebt and other defendants could run out of money if a lawsuit had to run its course. "We wanted to get something to consumers before it was too late. Now we're just in line with other creditors."
The FTC objected to the settlement, however, saying that consumers would get far less than $150. "If even half of the 500,000 class members made a claim, the average maximum recovery would be a mere $32," the agency said.