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Attorney represents creditors in business bankruptcy cases

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News 

Bankruptcy attorney Lisa Gretchko originally planned to be a geneticist, but the science prerequisites proved daunting, as well as the possibility of spending every waking moment in a lab with no time for a family. Abandoning that idea, she became a history major at the University of Michigan where she studied the history of the Constitution – so studying law was a natural progression.

In becoming a lawyer she followed the career path of her father, Norman Sommers of Sommers Schwartz in Southfield. 

“He enjoyed a wonderful career as a lawyer and his work always seemed very interesting to me,” she says. 

After graduating cum laude from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law – where she was awarded the National Order of the Barrister, was an elected member of the Justice Frank Murphy Honor Society, and an associate editor of the UDM Journal of Urban Law – she worked at Sommers Schwartz, where she got her lucky break into bankruptcy and real estate litigation.

When one of the firm’s biggest clients, Chatham Supermarkets, filed Chapter 11 in the early ‘80s, Gretchko was assigned to the case – especially memorable as one of the early cases under the Bankruptcy Code. She litigated several issues of first impression under the Bankruptcy Code.  

“Although I never took bankruptcy in law school, I got hooked on bankruptcy during the Chatham case, and I’ve remained hooked ever since. I am drawn to the fact that no two business bankruptcies are the same and the cases move relatively quickly.” 

A bankruptcy expert with Howard & Howard in Royal Oak, Gretchko – whose kudos include being named to The Best Lawyers in America, dbusiness “Top Lawyers,” Michigan Super Lawyers, Top 100 Michigan Lawyers and Top 50 Women Michigan Lawyers and receiving the Michigan “Women in the Law” Award in 2011 – concentrates her practice in creditors’ rights and commercial litigation.

She also handles real estate litigation cases. In her first year as a lawyer, a plaintiff claimed the defendant sold him an apartment complex based on one sentence written on a napkin. 

“That sentence included an asterisk stating that the alleged ‘deal’ was subject to the partner’s approval,” she says. “Fortunately, we were able to get the case dismissed very quickly based on a theory I researched and briefed. At that very early stage in my career it was wonderful to have the opportunity to work up the theory that won the case.”

Fraud and forgery cases have presented interesting challenges, including forged signatures on important documents, such as loan documents or deeds.  

“In one fraud case, I was defending a client accused of a business tort and, during discovery, the plaintiff admitted it was actually ‘cooking the books,’” she says.  

In another case, a consultant to a bankruptcy trustee improperly endorsed the trustee’s name on checks. 

“It took time but, fortunately, we were able to recover most of the money and distribute it to creditors,” she says. “Bankruptcy cases that involve fraud are especially challenging, like solving a puzzle.” 

 Most often, Gretchko represents creditors in business bankruptcy cases.  

“My clients tend to get frustrated with the legal system and its delays, so I try to manage their expectations,” she says. “I’ve also represented people whose businesses have fallen on hard times. In those situations, I make myself as available as possible – to listen to the client and help him or her through this very difficult experience. I’m quick to give clients my home phone and cell phone numbers so they don’t have to worry about something overnight or over the weekend.”

Formerly a member of the Advisory Committee of the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, she is currently a member of the Business Law Advisory Board for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education, and a member of the American Bankruptcy Institute, where she is a Co-Chair of the Unsecured Trade Creditors’ Committee and a coordinating editor for the monthly ABI Journal. A former council member and secretary of the Real Property Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan, she has also served as chair of the Oakland County Bar Association Creditors’ Rights Committee.

From 2001-03, Gretchko taught as an adjunct professor at Wayne State University Law School. 

“It was great to teach such bright students. I taught in the evening and many of my students had day jobs, so they brought real-life experiences into the classroom for us to analyze. They worked hard and asked great questions.”

Explaining bankruptcy law as clearly as possible, she tried to convey important ideas in fun ways that would make a lasting impression: such as likening personal bankruptcy to taking a shower – dischargeable debt is the kind of dirt you can wash off, but non-dischargeable debt is like a tattoo. She would liken the process of a business Chapter 11 to Superman’s phone booth –transforming a debtor from a tired, frumpy Clark Kent with a heavy briefcase full of burdensome contracts, and a schleppy suit – i.e. underperforming business divisions – to emerge re-energized and with these burdens removed.

Watching her students take final exams was gratifying, she says. 

“I’ve always thought that one of the most beautiful things is to watch a bright person solve a problem. They seemed excited to read the questions and show all they had learned. I’m proud to have been a part of their learning experience and hope to have the opportunity to teach again, now that my children are growing up.”

Gretchko and her husband Steve– a lawyer, accountant and financial adviser at Morgan Stanley in Bloomfield Hills – make their home in Birmingham. Married for 23 years, the couple has two sons: David, 19, a graduate from Seaholm High School, is attending the College of Performing Arts at Point Park University in Pittsburgh; Ben, 15, is a freshman at Seaholm.  

In her leisure time, Gretchko enjoys exercising, reading novels, and hanging out with her sons – playing Scrabble with them, watching a movie, traveling to a new city to explore, or just talking over a cup of cocoa.

She serves on the fund committee of Affirmations, an organization supporting the LGBT community, and was honored with the organization’s Outstanding Ally award in 2013. 

“It saddens Steve and me that Michigan does not afford equal rights based on sexual orientation, and that young people are often met with such hostility when they ‘come out,’” she says. “Affirmations strives to create a safe place for young people to ‘come out,’ and supports the LGBT community in general.”

She and her husband also support organizations that provide services for autistic youngsters and their parents, having learned so much from their own experience with Ben, whose autism showed up when he was very young.  

“Our son Ben is a miracle in our midst,” she says. “He’s worked so hard to overcome his challenges that you wouldn’t know he is autistic.”

In 2001, the family was referred to pediatric autism specialist Dr. Rick Solomon in Ann Arbor, and enrolled in the PLAY Project – Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters. The couple was taught how to play with Ben at whatever developmental stage he had attained at that month, with strategies designed to cajole him out of his comfort zone and toward normal behaviors and interactions. Ben didn’t speak until he was between 3 and 4 years old and needed intense speech therapy until he was 7. 

“Steve and I – along with many wonderful professionals – worked very hard with Ben when he was younger, but Ben has worked the hardest to overcome his challenges,” Gretchko says. “Today he is a happy young man with a wonderful sense of humor and a serious interest in current events. Despite his learning challenges, he does well in school and hopes to be a meteorologist.”

When Ben was young and his parents were frightened about his prognosis, Steve would buoy his wife’s spirits with two lines from the movie Apollo 13: “Failure is not an option,” and “This will be our proudest moment.”  

Gretchko knows only too well how terrifying and isolating it is for parents when their child is diagnosed with autism. 

“I do what I can to provide support, on a very informal basis, to the parents of autistic youngsters who call or e-mail asking for help,” she says. “Mostly, I try to provide the parents who contact me with a little bit of hope and comfort. If our experiences with Ben can help any other parent facing this journey, we’re happy to share what we’ve learned.” 

 

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