NEWS DETAIL

Reuther family rebuilds business while pursuing justice

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 | BY DAVID NICKLAUS, STLTODAY.COM

Janet Reuther-Schopp doesn't like to remember what happened to Reuther Automotive Group three years ago this week.

Her family's 53-relationship with the Chrysler and Jeep brands came to an abrupt end during Chrysler's government-orchestrated bankruptcy. Thinking about it still makes Reuther-Schopp sad and angry, so she'd rather talk about the positive things that have happened since May 14, 2009.

The former new-car dealership in Creve Coeur has remade itself as a used car sales and service business. Reuther has found new sources for financing and parts and has built relationships with nearby employers, which authorize it to pick up employees' vehicles for service. It also has relied on longtime niche businesses like snowplow maintenance.

The business has 19 employees, down from 100 in the new-car days. “We're getting by, which is better than some of the dealers in our situation,” Reuther-Schopp says. “I just get up each morning and say, 'Today is a new day; let's see where this one goes.'”

Not that she and three business-partner siblings are ready to let go of the past. Their father, Leo Reuther Sr., began selling Jeeps when they were used more as farm trucks than as commuter vehicles, and his children are fighting to be compensated for the loss of that legacy.

Reuther Automotive is one of 140 former Chrysler dealers pursuing a lawsuit against the federal government. They're relying on the Fifth Amendment, which says private property can't be taken for public use without just compensation.

Leonard Bellavia, a Mineola, N.Y., attorney who represents the dealers, says his clients lost more than $500 million.

“The government controlled the Chrysler bankruptcy, in that they made the bailout contingent on filing for bankruptcy and terminating 25 percent of the dealers,” Bellavia said. “The government was using Chrysler as its agent to facilitate the governmental taking of private property.”

Many such “takings” suits are thrown out quickly, but a judge has already rejected the government's attempt to dismiss this one. It's now in the discovery phase, and Bellavia says he believes that emails and other documents from the federal automotive task force will bolster his case.

He intends to subpoena task force officials, including former chairman Steven Rattner, as he seeks justice for Reuther and the other dealers.

The government's dealership strategy was “arrogant and uncaring,” Bellavia says. “I don't want to give you a Fourth of July speech here, but it goes against the idea of working hard and building something that you can hand down to your family.”

Family ties certainly mattered to the Reuthers, but relatives were among those who had to leave the dealership payroll.

“Having a family-run business and having to allow your children to go out and find other jobs, that's not what we had worked all these years for,” Reuther-Schopp said.

If the Reuthers once felt privileged, with a business they expected to pass on to the next generation, they now feel like struggling entrepreneurs. The inventory of 30 or so used cars looks sparse on a five-acre lot that once held 300 vehicles.

Reuther-Schopp says the family has had offers for the land, and might sell for the right price. The current business might be more profitable on a smaller site, she said.

Usually, though, she doesn't allow herself to think that far ahead, just as she tries not to dwell on the injustices of three years ago. “You have to keep your thoughts in the here and now,” she said.

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US COURT OF APPEALS ALLOWS CHRYSLER CASE TO MOVE FORWARD


LEONARD BELLAVIA FEATURED ON COVER OF PREMIERE ISSUE OF ATTORNEY AT LAW MAGAZINE.


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