Credit union and repo service sued by Pa. woman, blamed for husband's suicide

By Jon Campisi | Jan 11, 2012

A Huntingdon Valley, Pa. woman has filed a lawsuit against a local credit union and an automobile repossession service company, alleging a string of actions that began with allegations of fraud, and ended with the taking of the family vehicle, led to the suicide death of her husband in the summer of 2010.

Philadelphia attorney William C. Bensley filed the civil action Jan. 3 at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Cheryl Lastella, whose married name was Cheryl Rhoads.

Lastella represents the estate of her late husband, Jeffrey Rhoads.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are West Chester, Pa.-based Benchmark Federal Credit Union and Ambler, Pa.-based Sterling Credit Corp.

Two additional defendants are named only as John Doe Repo-Service and John Doe Repo-Man.

Lastella claims in her suit that her husband killed himself on June 4, 2010, after suffering from severe anxiety and depression related to his harassment by the defendants.

It all began in January 2009, when Lastella purchased a used 2005 Chevrolet Avalanche from Saturn of West Chester.

Lastella financed the purchase of the vehicle by taking out a personal loan from defendant Benchmark, with whom she had savings account through her employment with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, according to the complaint.

The payments for the vehicle were automatically deducted from Lastella’s paychecks.

In August 2009, Lastella was the victim of fraud in connection with the sale of her wedding dress and some jewelry, the suit claims, after the buyer, who was located through the website Craigslist, supplied the plaintiff with a fraudulent money order.

More than a month after the money order was deposited in the Benchmark account, Lastella closed her savings account with the credit union and liquidated her holdings because Benchmark was not within convenient access to her new home or new employer, the lawsuit states.

Lastella had since left her job with Wyeth.

In mid September 2009, Lastella terminated the automatic deduction of her car payments from her paycheck and began making the monthly payments by mail.

It wasn’t until late September of that year that Lastella discovered that the money order given to her in exchange for the wedding dress and assorted jewelry was fraudulent and worthless, the suit claims.

Sometime thereafter, Benchmark accused Lastella of committing fraud by depositing the worthless money order into her savings account, and subsequently closing and liquidating the account.

Benchmark then contacted the police, who ended up investigating and, eventually, exonerating Lastella, the suit states.

Lastella has tried repeatedly to negotiate a payment plan with Benchmark for the vehicle, but the company has refused to speak to Lastella, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit states that unbeknownst to Lastella, Benchmark began diverting her car payments and, rather than applying them to the vehicle loan, instead applied them to the liability caused by the worthless money order and the closing of the savings account.

On Dec. 10, 2009, at the behest of Benchmark, the unnamed repo service took back the vehicle from Lastella.

Jeff Rhoads, Lastella’s late husband, was operating the vehicle at the time of its repossession. Rhoads was called a “deadbeat” and otherwise harassed by the defendant repo service, the lawsuit claims.

“Defendant Sterling Credit’s agent and/or employee Jim Dowd repeatedly accused plaintiff of committing a crime in connection with the deposit of the aforementioned money order and closure of the savings account,” the lawsuit states.

Dowd also threatened to report Lastella to the FBI and IRS and have those agencies completely turn Lastella’s life “upside down,” the suit claims.

After the vehicle was repossessed, Lastella arranged to sell it to a third party to cover the debts, the suit states. The defendants orally agreed to accept and approve the sale of the vehicle to said third party.

The defendants eventually reneged, however, and refused to permit the sale.

The defendants also did not cooperate with Lastella after she claimed to have made arrangements to refinance the debt, and they continued to call and harass her for payment on the alleged accounts and debts, the suit states.

The alleged harassment led to Jeffrey Rhoads’ anxiety and depression, which caused him to take his own life, the lawsuit claims.

The complaint alleges that a report by the National Consumer Law Center shows many examples of consumers having been killed, injured or traumatized in situations such as these so-called “self-help repossessions” done under state laws that allow automobile dealers and lenders to take cars without court action or law enforcement involvement.

The Lastella complaint accuses the defendants of violating the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code, the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicles Sales Finance Act, the Pennsylvania Fair Credit Extension Uniformity Act and the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.

The lawsuit contains counts of conversion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death and survival action.

For each of the counts listed, the plaintiff demands judgment in excess of $50,000, plus attorney’s fees and other litigation costs.

The case ID number is 120100080.

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