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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

8th Circuit vacates FDCPA judgment against debt buyer

Courts FDCPA Eighth Circuit Debt Collection Debt Buyer

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On December 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated a $4,000 judgment in favor of a consumer in an FDCPA action against a debt buyer (defendant), concluding that while the defendant qualifies as a debt collector, the actions of the subsequent debt collector cannot be imputed to the defendant. According to the opinion, the defendant brought a collection action against a consumer, which was dismissed by the district court after the consumer retained an attorney and the defendant failed to respond to the consumer’s dismissal motion. The defendant subsequently hired a collection agency to collect on the debt but failed to inform the collection agency that the consumer had previous retained an attorney. After the collection agency sent a settlement offer to the consumer, the consumer filed an action against the defendant alleging violations of the FDCPA and the Arkansas Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (AFDCPA) for contacting her directly when she was represented by an attorney. The district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the consumer, concluding, among other things, that the defendant (i) qualified as a debt collector under federal and state law; (ii) the defendant was acting as an agent of the collection agency; and (ii) the defendant is liable for the violations arising out of the collection agency’s contact with the consumer. The consumer accepted a $4,000 offer of judgment, and the district court entered final judgment.

On appeal, the 8th Circuit agreed that the defendant qualified as a debt collector under the FDCPA and the AFDCPA, but determined that the consumer “did not present sufficient evidence to establish that [the collection agency]’s actions may be imputed to [the defendant] as a matter of law.” Specifically, the appellate court concluded that in order to establish the defendant’s liability under the FDCPA, the consumer needed to show that the defendant was responsible for the collection agency’s action. Because it was established that the collection agency did not know that the consumer was represented by an attorney, the appellate court noted that the consumer “cannot prevail against [the defendant] on a theory of vicarious liability,” and instead, must prove that an agency relationship existed for direct liability. Because the consumer failed to put into evidence an agreement between the defendant and the collection agency and the district court failed to address the agency relationship, the appellate court concluded the district court erred in granting partial summary judgment and vacated the $4,000 judgment and remanded the case.

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