11th Circuit affirms $23 million judgment against founder of debt relief operation
On March 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the FTC and the Florida attorney general after finding that an individual defendant could be held liable for the actions of the entities he controlled. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC and the Florida AG filed a complaint in 2016 against several interrelated companies and the individual defendant who founded the companies, alleging violations of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The complaint alleged that the defendants engaged in a scheme that targeted financially distressed consumers through illegal robocalls selling bogus credit card debt relief services and interest rate reductions. Among other things, the defendants also claimed to be “licensed enrollment center[s]” for major credit card networks with the ability to work with a consumer’s credit card company or bank to substantially and permanently lower credit card interest rates and charged up-front payments for debt relief and rate-reduction services. In 2018, the court granted the FTC and the Florida AG’s motion for summary judgment, finding there was no genuine dispute that the individual defendant controlled the defendant entities, that he knew his employees were making false representations, and that he failed to stop them. The court entered a permanent injunction, which ordered the individual defendant to pay over $23 million in equitable monetary relief and permanently restrained and enjoined the individual defendant from participating—whether directly or indirectly—in telemarketing; advertising, marketing, selling, or promoting any debt relief products or services; or misrepresenting material facts.
The individual defendant appealed, arguing that there were genuine disputes over whether: (i) he controlled the entities; (ii) he had knowledge that employees were making misrepresentations and failed to prevent them; (iii) employee affidavits “attesting that they had saved customers money created an issue of fact about whether his programs did what he said they would do”; and (iv) he had knowledge of “rogue employees” violating the “do not call” registry to solicit customers.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit determined that the facts presented by the individual defendant did not create a genuine dispute about whether he controlled the entities, and further stated that the individual defendant is liable for the employees’ misrepresentations because of his control of the entities and his knowledge of those misrepresentations. The appellate court explained that while the individual defendant argued that he could not be liable because he did not participate in those representations, he failed to present any evidence in support of that argument and, even if he had, “it wouldn’t matter, because [the individual defendant’s] liability stems from his control of [the companies], not from his individual conduct.” Additionally, the appellate court held that whether the services were helpful to customers was immaterial and did not absolve him of liability, because liability for deceptive sales practices does not require worthlessness. As to the “do not call” registry violations, the appellate court disagreed with the individual defendant’s claim that an “outside dialer or lead generator”—not the company—placed the outbound calls, holding that this excuse also does not absolve him of liability.