By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
About 10 Valley "mediation" businesses routinely compile the names of people whose spouses recently have filed for divorce in Maricopa County. The firms use the lists to do their own direct-mail marketing effort, trying to get consumers to hire them to mediate the breakup.
The letters these businesses send warn of allegedly dire consequences for not responding quickly to the divorce petition, such as losing one's home, car, even custody of the children. The firms suggest that they can handle everything but court appearances -- including filing papers and discussing legal issues with the opposing side -- for far less than any attorney might charge.
In a complaint to the Bar last year, Chandler attorney Bill Spence noted "the letters also suggest that the senders do much more than prepare documents.' . . . The fact that they seek to be retained' by one party presently adverse to another dispels any notion of legitimate mediation."
The mediation-mill concept also has proved physically perilous to some unsuspecting consumers, including Sally Collins, the single mother of an 11-year-old daughter.
Collins' husband physically assaulted her in December 2000 after he learned from a solicitation letter sent by the local "mediation" business of McLaughlin Martin and Associates that she'd filed for divorce.
Collins' voice trembles as she talks about the beating.
Court records indicate it happened four days after Collins' attorney filed for divorce on her behalf at Maricopa County Superior Court. In part, the petition alleged that Rodrick Collins had been physically abusive during the 10-year marriage.
Collins says she didn't tell her husband she'd filed because she didn't want to move until after the holidays.
"I didn't want to spoil my daughter's Christmas, and my only other choice right then was to go to a shelter," says Collins, a Tempe schoolteacher. "I knew he'd go nuts when he found out. But my lawyer said we didn't have to serve him until after I got a new place, so that's what the plan was."
Collins says she arrived home on the afternoon of December 23, 2000, and brought in the mail. Her husband opened up a letter addressed to him -- "I thought it was just junk," Sally Collins says -- then dropped it on the floor.
"He said, Is this what I think it is?'" she recalls. "I knew I was dead right then. Honest, I would have been if [my daughter] hadn't been home."
Dated December 22, the letter was from McLaughlin Martin and Associates. It warned in part: "You may have been served a divorce petition by your spouse and are now required to answer [it] within 20 days of being served if you live in-state. If you choose not to respond, be aware that your spouse may be awarded all they have requested in terms of your home, alimony/spousal maintenance, bank accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, and, if applicable, child support and custody of any minor children."
The fee requested by McLaughlin then was $1,450 (it's now up to $1,850), which was said to include "all documents and mediation/consultation."
According to police reports, Rodrick Collins put a choke hold on his wife, and repeatedly punched her in the face. He instructed his sobbing daughter not to call 911, then wouldn't let mother and daughter leave the home.
"I was in a traumatic place," Collins says. "I had learned to survive by just going along and pleasing him. So when he told me I wasn't going anywhere, I wasn't."
Court records show that, the next day, Rodrick Collins took his battered spouse to a Phoenix urgent-care center. She had suffered a broken nose, two black eyes, and deep bruises. By way of explanation, he told medical personnel that Sally had stepped into a few punches while the couple had been horsing around.
The day after Christmas, Sally Collins took out an order of protection against her husband, and moved with her daughter out of the house. Rodrick Collins soon was arrested, and later pleaded guilty to felony assault.
Last April, Sally Collins filed a civil lawsuit against McLaughlin Martin and Associates for consumer fraud and other counts. Rodrick Collins is also listed as a defendant.
Collins' attorney, Lisa Counters, alleged in the suit, "Any knowledgeable or experienced divorce mediator would know that mediation is not needed or even possible before the petition is served, and that some petitions are filed, but never served."
Says Sally Collins, "I want to get the law changed. You shouldn't be allowed to send these unsolicited letters to people, especially when it lists domestic violence in the divorce. You're completely unprotected. None of this would have happened if he hadn't gotten that letter."
But Darrel Martin Montero, who says he is a consultant to McLaughlin Martin and Associates (his son, David, is the "McLaughlin" in the firm), disagrees with Collins.
"We get 10 thank-yous for every complaint for alerting someone to the fact that they've been sued for divorce," says Montero, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. "If the Superior Court thinks this was such a dangerous thing to do, wouldn't they block public-records access to the names and addresses for a few months? I think the questions on this ought to go to the court, not to us."