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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

District Court: Failing to invoke the BFE defense does not entitle a plaintiff to judgment as a matter of law

Courts FDCPA Debt Collection Bona Fide Error Consumer Reporting Agency Consumer Finance

Courts

On March 15, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington denied a plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, ruling that just because a defendant did not invoke the bona fide error (BFE) defense when accused of allegedly violating the FDCPA it does not mean the defendant has admitted to violating the statute. In 2018, the defendant debt collector attempted to collect unpaid debt in the amount of $786.68 from the plaintiff and began reporting the debt to the consumer reporting agencies (CRAs). In 2021, after the original creditor recalled the account from the defendant for an unspecified reason, the defendant submitted two requests to the CRAs to delete the item from the plaintiff’s credit report and took no further action on the account. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff noticed a $787.00 debt on one of his credit reports. He contacted the original creditor and was told the company could not find an account in his name that was referred for collection. The plaintiff sued for violations of Section 1692e of the FDCPA and related violations of Washington state law, and later filed for a partial motion for summary judgment contending that the FDCPA “is a strict liability remedial statute that contains a single affirmative defense to liability—the bona fide error defense,” and that because the defendant did not plead the BFE defense “he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to Defendant’s liability under the statute.” While the defendant acknowledged that it did not plead the BFE defense, it countered that the plaintiff “cannot prove a prima facie case of liability.”

The court concluded that “[w]hile the statute is strict liability, ‘a debt collector’s false or misleading representation must be ‘material’ in order for it to be actionable under the FDCPA.” Noting that the alleged violation appeared to be based on the grounds that the defendant reported an inflated account balance ($787.00 versus $786.68), the court stated it “has little trouble in concluding that inflating an account balance by 32 cents is not a materially false representation. To the contrary, it is a ‘mere technical falsehood that mislead[s] no one.’” Moreover, the court stated that because the defendant immediately ceased reporting the account and sent deletion requests to the CRAs after the account was recalled, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the debt collector knew or should have known that it was communicating information that was false, the plaintiff could not show, at this stage of the proceeding, that Section 1692e was violated.

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