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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

9th Circuit vacates summary judgment in bankruptcy, FDCPA action

Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit FDCPA Bankruptcy Debt Collection

Courts

On November 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals vacated summary judgment in favor of defendants in an action alleging the defendants violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect a debt that was discharged in a bankruptcy proceeding and no longer owed. According to the opinion, after the plaintiff fell behind on dues that were owed to his homeownership association (HOA), a law firm acting as a debt collector on behalf of the HOA obtained a lien for the unpaid debt and initiated nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings. The plaintiff filed and received approval for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection. A separate collection agency that received the plaintiff’s HOA arrearage payments eventually informed the bankruptcy trustee that the HOA debt was “paid in full,” with a notice issued to that effect. An order of discharge was entered in the case by the bankruptcy court after the completion of payment was verified. Following the bankruptcy discharge order, the law firm—whose records still showed an unpaid balance—undertook collection efforts again. The plaintiff informed the law firm that the debt had been paid, and—after further review—the law firm acknowledged a communication from the collection agency that stated the debt had been paid in full. The plaintiff filed suit, but the defendants argued that the claims were precluded under Walls v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. because the debt was discharged in bankruptcy. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the plaintiff’s “FDCPA claims were precluded ‘because they are premised upon violations of the bankruptcy post-discharge injunction.’”

On appeal, the 9th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff’s claims were not precluded by the Bankruptcy Code. The appellate court observed that while its 2002 decision in Walls generally indicates that the Bankruptcy Code precludes FDCPA claims premised on a violation of a bankruptcy discharge order, it did not apply in this case. Among other things, the panel determined that the plaintiff’s FDCPA claims were not premised on an issuance or violation of the discharge order in the bankruptcy proceeding. Rather, the plaintiff’s FDCPA claims were based on a debt that was fully satisfied through arrearage payments as part of a Chapter 13 plan before a discharge order was entered. As such, the appellate court determined that “just because [the plaintiff] made his arrearage payments through operation of a bankruptcy plan” it “does not render his FDCPA claims inextricably intertwined with bankruptcy issues.”

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