6th Circuit: Collection fee authorized under contractual agreement valid under FDCPA
On August 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed a district court’s determination that a collection fee charged by a debt collector seeking to recover past due homeowner’s association fees was expressly authorized by a contractual agreement and did not violate the FDCPA. According to the opinion, after the plaintiffs fell behind on their homeownership association assessments and fees, the account was placed for collection with the defendant, who sought to collect both the past-due amount plus additional fees it charged the association for its collection services. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging that the debt collector violated the FDCPA by collecting the collection fees directly from the plaintiffs without authorization and attempting to collect an amount after agreeing to a settlement. The district court held a bench trial, which returned a verdict in favor of the defendant, finding that collecting the fees directly from the plaintiff was expressly authorized by the language in an agreement creating the debt (the Declaration). The plaintiffs appealed, arguing, among other things, that (i) the Declaration did not expressly authorize the collection of fees directly from them, and that moreover, because the association had not yet incurred the costs the additional fees should not have been collected until the original debt was paid; and (ii) the costs should have been limited to legal fees and costs.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit agreed with the district court, citing a provision in the Declaration providing that “‘[e]ach such assessment, together, with interest, costs, and reasonable attorney’s fees’. . . ‘shall also be the personal obligation’ of the property owner.” Additionally, the 6th Circuit noted that if the defendant waited to collect the additional fees, it would create an impractical, never-ending cycle of collections. Moreover, the appellate court was not persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that the Declaration limited the authorization of costs, noting that “[b]ecause collection often occurs outside of litigation, it makes little sense to read the Declaration to silently limit ‘costs’ to ‘legal costs’ associated only with litigation.”