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Attorney John Heenan: "In Montana, a handshake is your contract."

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Billings, MTJohn Heenan runs a young one-person law shop in Billings, Montana; in a big state with a small population, that means working a broad spectrum of cases. Between college and law school, Heenan worked as a truck driver, fork lift operator, and teamster intern, experience which he says taught him the value of hard work and an honest paycheck. As we'll see, it also taught him whose side he's on.

LawyersandSettlements (LAS): Have you always been a one-man shop?

John Heenan (JH): No, I originally worked with the Edwards Law firm here in Billings. One major case I worked with there was Ammondson et al v NorthWestern Corporation et al. We represented pensioners of the former Montana Power Company, which had become NorthWestern Corporation. NorthWestern tried through bankruptcy to terminate our clients' pension contracts; they tried to push it through after the bankruptcy had already been completed, and they got caught.

We represented 17 individual retirees, incredible clients and the type of people I love to represent. They all had at least 20 years of service, many 30 and even 40, to Montana Power, which was quite an institution here in Montana. I forget how many exactly, but they had around 300 years of service collectively. NorthWestern tried to exchange their pensions' cash payments for very risky shares of the newly emerged NorthWestern Corporation stock. There was no negotiation to it; right around Christmas time all these retirees and one widow just didn't get their pension checks. Each one of our clients received over a million dollars in compensatory damages.

Now I have my own shop and have been going just since October of last year, so it's pretty new, with my focus being consumer law and taking on these consumer issues. There's not a whole lot of people in Montana, so you wouldn't specialize like you would in New York or Los Angeles, so I represent people who are victims of things like identity theft, bill collectors, bad faith insurance.

Right now I have several of these debt collection cases where I represent people who are disabled and debt collection companies have tried to take advantage of their disability to do things that are illegal, like suing them for recovery of time-barred debt—debt that was written off long ago and that's no longer owed.

It's fascinating and disturbing, this booming industry of debt purchasing, where these junk debt buyers come in and buy old credit card debt that's been written off for years. They buy it for pennies on the dollar and then aggressively try to collect it through a network of law firms and sophisticated computer software. And really what they count on is that these are people who are unable to defend themselves in the court system. One of the clients in a case I filed in December originally responded pro se. Here's what he wrote:

Forgive my spelling. I have a head injury and writing doss (sic) not come easy.
1. Statute of limitations is up. I have had no dealing with any credit card in 8 ½ years.
2. I am disabled. I get $716 a month. My mortgage is $712 [a month]. I am now diabetic. I have no money or inheritance but medicare.
3. When work comp stopped paying I ran out of money. Chase would not work with me, they passed it on to collectors- they lied to me, they insulted me, they used bad language, they called around the clock so I could not rest. They got me so wound up and confused my healing of my head injury stopped. They were hurting me so I stopped with them so I could recover, I'm still recovering. The pain they cossed (sic) is worth more than the money they want.

They count on default judgements and being able to go against people who don't know how to defend themselves in court. It's a lucrative business and one that's booming due to the situation that's arisen with subprime mortgages and things like that. These are mainly federal cases; under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, federal courts have jurisdiction to handle fair debt collection violations, and as part of that Congress built in statutory damages and attorneys' fees shifting provisions to help provide consumers access to the courts.

By Montana standards, there have been quite a few of these cases. What I think is that a lot of these blatant consumer abuses that have been curtailed or shut down in bigger states by consumer lawyers, no one's taken on head on in states like Montana, so really they've gone unchallenged.

LAS: You've also recently filed a class action against the Davidson Companies for negligence in a data security breach. Can you tell us something about that?

JH: Montana's very unique and fortunate in that our constitution is only 30 years old and includes many important and progressive rights, and one of them is a built-in heightened right to privacy. This has been explained and there's been jurisprudence that makes it clear that Montanans have a heightened right of privacy that goes beyond the federal constitution.

Businesses that work in Montana have to respect Montanans' privacy; there are explicit statutory requirements that businesses must destroy private information that they've gathered that's no longer necessary for business purposes. So in this case, the issue of concern to consumers is that even though they haven't done business with someone for many years, that business has continued to retain very private and personal information about them, like Social Security number, date of birth, and last known address, which was supposed to have been destroyed.

In the Davidson Companies case, the information was compromised by what they called sophisticated hackers. Our position is that under Montana's Consumer Protection Act, that information should have been destroyed. The other important thing is that in this modern computer age, our personal information and our ability to use that to get employment, credit, or health care, is really and truly an invaluable asset. And because it's that important it deserves to be treated with the utmost protection and privacy.

I do some fair credit reporting cases as well, so I know first hand from those cases that when someone's identity has been stolen, or when there's inaccurate information in your credit record, it can create incredible problems in terms of getting credit at the best rate. Your credit score is hugely important as to whether you get a loan at a rate you can afford. It can cause an incredible amount of frustration to get it fixed. We all as consumers know the feeling of being put on hold, being, transferred, waiting endlessly for satisfaction that often never comes. That's the type of stuff that I think of, how frustrating it is as a consumer when you can't get your problem resolved.

Are you a native Montanan?

JH: I'm not a native Montanan. I came out here for my undergraduate studies and my wife's from Montana, and it's a great place to live and raise a family. It's a wonderful place—it's called the last best place, and that's for a reason. In Montana, a handshake is your contract and people live up to their word, so what drives me is when you encounter businesses that don't live up to that ethic.

John Heenan, sole practitioner of the Heenan Law Firm, is a 1999 graduate of the University of Montana and received a JD from the University of Montana School of Law in 2003. His article, Graceful Maneuvering: Corporate Avoidance of Liability through Bankruptcy and Corporate Law, which explored the W.R. Grace Corporation's legal maneuvering around liability for asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana, won the American Association for Justice essay contest.

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