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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

California appellate court upholds judgment in RFDCPA suit

Courts State Issues Appellate California Debt Collection Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act


On November 23, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District upheld a summary judgment ruling for a creditor over allegations that it violated the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (RFDCPA). The plaintiff, the widow of a former patient of the defendant doctor, asserted claims against the doctor and his professional corporation (collectively, “defendants”) alleging that they were debt collectors within the meaning of the RFDCPA. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants violated the RFDCPA by sending “multiple bills and making incessant” phone calls seeking payment for services provided to her husband before he died. The plaintiff requested that the defendants stop contacting her and seek payment through insurance and the hospital. The defendants used two different companies for its third-party billing services, and those companies sent invoices to the plaintiff, who responded that payment inquiries for her deceased husband should only be submitted to the insurance company and the medical center. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, ruling they did not meet the statute’s definition of a debt collector.

The appellate court affirmed, finding that “a medical service provider that exclusively uses an unaffiliated, third-party billing service to collect payment for services rendered to patients” is not a “debt collector” within the meaning of the RFDCPA. The court found that although the RFDCPA “applies to those who collect debts on behalf of themselves,” the law still requires that a defendant “must regularly and in the ordinary course of business ‘engage in’ debt collection” for liability to attach. The appellate court emphasized that it was not holding that “a creditor may never be vicariously liable for the actions of a debt collector on an agency theory.” Instead, the plaintiff carried “the burden to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact on the existence of such an agency relationship, and she failed to do so on this record.”