District Court: Debt buyer vicariously liable for debt collector's actions
On June 7, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon partially granted a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, finding that a debt buyer who puts accounts with a debt collector can be held vicariously liable for the actions of the debt collector, since the debt buyer “bear[s] the responsibility of monitoring the activities of those it hires to collect debts on its behalf.” The case is on remand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit and found that a company that purchases consumer debt is defined as a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, even if there is no direct interaction with consumers and the debt collection is outsourced to a third party (covered by InfoBytes here).
The plaintiff sued the debt buyer (defendant) claiming it was “vicariously and jointly liable” for alleged FDCPA violations by the third-party collector. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the plaintiff failed to state a claim because debt purchasing companies like the defendant “who have no interactions with debtors and merely contract with third parties to collect on the debts they have purchased simply do not have the principal purpose of collecting debts.” The district court reasoned that Congress intended the FDCPA to apply only to those who directly interact with customers, based on the court’s interpretation of the language used in the substantive provisions of the law.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the dismissal, determining that the FDCPA does not solely regulate entities that directly interact with consumers. The appellate court concluded that an entity that otherwise meets the “principal purpose” definition of debt collector—“any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts”—cannot avoid liability under the FDCPA merely by hiring a third party to perform debt collection activities on its behalf.
On remand, the district court judge found that the debt buyer and debt collector were in a principal-agent relationship “because the undisputed facts demonstrate that [the debt buyer] had a right to control [the debt collector’s] debt collection activities to a significant degree.” According to the opinion, the agreement between the debt buyer and collector allowed the debt buyer to audit the accounts it placed with the debt collector. During an audit, the debt buyer pointed out that the debt collector’s “collection efforts needed much improvement with regard to consumer compliance” and that “simple guidelines were not being followed.” In addition, the audit found that the debt buyer had prior knowledge of phone scripts the debt collector used when contacting debtors on its behalf. The judge concluded that “[b]y its acquiescence, [the debt buyer] ‘impliedly authorized’ [the debt collector’s] use of the script ‘and thus is liable for any violations of law caused by the firm’s use of those practices.”