WATERTOWN — The owner of Legal Docs by Me appears to be defying a court order to stop operating his Franklin Street business.
It continued to remain open Thursday, despite a Jefferson County judge issuing a restraining order to stop operating.
The company’s CEO, Derek B. Distenfield, said that his staff continues to help existing customers with outstanding issues but is not taking new ones. An office manager was heard fielding questions from a customer on Thursday afternoon.
The company is in the process of retaining a law firm, at its expense, so that current customers can receive help, Mr. Distenfield said.
On Wednesday, state Supreme Court Justice James P. McClusky signed an order to show cause and issued a temporary restraining order, effectively suspending business at two Legal Docs by Me locations, on Franklin Street in Watertown and in Syracuse.
According to the restraining order, the company must stop “offering any services which constitute the unauthorized practice of law, including but not limited to providing consumers anything other than official forms for completion by consumers themselves.”
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a news release Wednesday that his office presented proof to the court that Legal Docs by Me misrepresented the services it was providing to consumers, misrepresented pricing of its services, regularly provided misinformation to consumers about legal transactions, and regularly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
Three months ago, the Jefferson County Bar Association filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office about the company.
In a letter he posted on a window of the company’s storefront office, Mr. Distenfield said he planned to fight to serve his customers.
“We never thought that challenging powerful interests on behalf of consumers would be easy. But we are confident that we will win this fight because the facts and fairness are on our side,” he wrote in his letter.
Mr. Distenfield opened the local office in March to provide an alternative to hiring a lawyer. The business has been preparing documents such as wills, divorces, prenuptial agreements, living trusts and incorporations. It charges $99 to $399 for the service.
According to the news release, the attorney general’s office provided specific examples to the judge that included: Advising a divorce client to empty joint bank accounts and take her husband’s car and not to report actual income on divorce filings where it was under the table; failing to properly serve legal papers; offering to “draw up” buy-sell agreements and deeds, and relying on legal guidance obtained via Google search.
A hearing also is scheduled before Judge McClusky on July 15 for Mr. Distenfield’s attorney to show cause as to why the business should be allowed to operate.
Mr. Distenfield criticized Judge McClusky for having a bias since he is a member of the Jefferson County Bar Association.
Mr. Distenfield said he was unaware of Wednesday’s court action in Jefferson County, contending that it was an “ex parte” proceeding, without his attorney present.
Albany attorney Lee C. Kindlon had already been representing the company in Albany County.