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On July 9, the FTC announced that a third-party debt collector and its subsidiaries agreed to pay a $3.2 million civil penalty to resolve allegations that the companies violated the FDCPA and FTC Act by (i) calling individuals multiple times per day, including early in the morning or late at night, (ii) calling even after being asked to stop, (iii) calling individuals’ workplaces despite knowing that the employers prohibited such calls, (iv) leaving phone messages for third parties, which disclosed the debtor’s name and the existence of the debt, and (v) continuing collection efforts without verifying a debt, even after individuals said they did not owe the debt. In addition to the monetary penalty, which the FTC described as the largest it has ever obtained against a third-party collector, the stipulated order requires, with regard to consumers who dispute the validity or the amount of a debt, that the companies close the account and end collection efforts, or suspend collection until they have conducted a reasonable investigation and verified that their information about the debt is accurate and complete. The order also restricts situations in which the defendants can leave voicemails that disclose the alleged debtor’s name and the fact that he or she may owe a debt, and requires the companies to halt or limit other alleged practices. The companies also must record at least 75% of all their debt collection calls beginning one year after the date of the order, and retain the recordings for 90 days after they are made.
On July 3, the CFPB released its spring 2013 regulatory agenda. Among the agenda items are three rulemaking activities listed for the first time: (i) “prerule activities” related to payday loans and deposit advance products anticipated for January 2014, (ii) “further action” on debt collection regulations expected in October 2013, and (iii) “prerule activities” related to Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act privacy notices planned for November 2013. The agenda also indicates that the CFPB expects, among other things, to (i) finalize its integrated mortgage disclosures rule in October 2013, (ii) issue a final student loan servicer “larger participant” rule in September 2013, and (iii) propose a rule regarding general purpose reloadable prepaid cards in December 2013. The agenda does not mention any planned activities related to small business lending data collection or auto finance issues.
CFPB Puts Creditors, Third-Party Collectors on Notice Regarding Unfair, Deceptive, and Abusive Debt Collection Practices
This morning, the CFPB issued new debt collection guidance that, among other things, seeks to hold CFPB-supervised creditors accountable for engaging in acts or practices the CFPB considers to be unfair, deceptive, and/or abusive (UDAAP) when collecting their own debts, in much the same way debt collectors are held accountable for violations of the FDCPA. Bulletin 2013-07 reviews the Dodd-Frank Act UDAAP standards, provides a non-exhaustive list of debt collection acts or practices that could constitute UDAAPs, and states that even though creditors generally are not considered debt collectors under the FDCPA, the CFPB intends to supervise their debt collection activities under its UDAAP authority.
Separately, in Bulletin 2013-08, the CFPB provided guidance to creditors, debt buyers, and third-party collectors about compliance with the FDCPA and sections 1031 and 1036 of Dodd-Frank when making representations about the impact that payments on debts in collection may have on credit reports and credit scores. The Bulletin states that potentially deceptive debt collection claims are a matter of “significant concern” to the CFPB and describes the CFPB’s planned supervisory activities and other actions the CFPB may take to ensure that the debt collection market “functions in a fair, transparent, and competitive manner.”
In addition, the CFPB announced that it will begin accepting consumer complaints related to debt collection, and published five “action letters” that consumers can use to correspond with debt collectors. The letters address the situations when the consumer: (i) needs more information on the debt; (ii) wants to dispute the debt and for the debt collector to prove responsibility or stop communication; (iii) wants to restrict how and when a debt collector can contact them; (iv) has hired a lawyer; (v) wants the debt collector to stop any and all contact.
On June 26, the CFPB announced that its next field hearing will focus on debt collection and will be held in Portland, Maine on July 10, 2013. The event, which is open to members of the public who RSVP, will feature remarks from CFPB Director Richard Cordray, as well as testimony from consumer groups and industry representatives. In the past, the CFPB has made policy announcements in connection with field hearings, and this time may announce, among other things, that it will begin accepting debt collection complaints through its public complaint database.
On May 1, the FTC and the CFPB announced a roundtable to “examine the flow of consumer data throughout the debt collection process” and discuss (i) the amount of documentation and other information currently available to different types of collectors and at different points in the debt collection process, (ii) the information needed to verify and substantiate debts, (iii) the costs and benefits of providing consumers with additional disclosures about their debts and debt-related rights, and (iv) information issues relating to pleading and judgment in debt collection litigation. The event will be held on June 6, 2013 in Washington, DC and is open to the public.
Michigan Court of Appeals Holds Companies Hired by Automobile Lenders to Arrange for the Repossession of Collateral Need Not Be Licensed as Collection Agencies
On April 11, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s ruling that the Michigan Occupational Code did not require licensure of companies that contract with automobile lending institutions to handle collection services on delinquent accounts (“forwarding companies”) because the forwarding companies did not directly or indirectly engage in collections activities. Badeen v. Par, Inc., 2013 WL 1489372 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 11, 2013). Plaintiffs, licensed debt collectors, filed multiple amended complaints alleging that defendants, automobile lenders and forwarding companies, violated the Michigan Occupational Code by hiring unlicensed collections agencies and indirectly engaging in collections activities. The court of appeals held that plaintiffs were not entitled to relief for their claims that defendants engaged in licensable activity without a license. The court explained that because the forwarding companies hired by the automobile lenders contract out the activities of solicitation of claims and repossession of property to properly licensed collection agencies, and do not themselves “directly or indirectly” engage in the collection of debts, the forwarding agencies are not required to be licensed.
On April 8, the Massachusetts Division of Banks sent a letter to state-licensed debt collectors advising them that it is illegal to collect on consumer loans that violate the Massachusetts small loan statute. The action follows a similar step taken by the New York Department of Financial Services last month. The Massachusetts letter reminds debt collectors that entities engaged, directly or indirectly, in the business of making loans of $6,000 or less with interest and expenses paid on the loan in excess of 12% annually must be licensed with the Division of Banks. Further, state law limits the annual interest rate that can be charged on small loans to 23%. The letter advises debt collectors that (i) loans made in violation of these rules are void, (ii) it is illegal to attempt to collect on debt that is void or unenforceable, and (iii) it is the responsibility of licensed debt collectors to ensure that they do not facilitate the creation or collection of illegal loans. The letter urges licensed debt collectors to review all client contracts and debtor accounts to ensure that all consumer, compliance, and reputational risks are appropriately evaluated and addressed on an ongoing basis.
On March 20, the CFPB presented to Congress its annual report on implementation and enforcement of the FDCPA. The report (i) summarizes the Bureau’s Consumer Response function, which does not currently cover debt collection complaints, and the number and types of consumer complaints regarding debt collection received by the FTC in 2012, (ii) describes the CFPB’s debt collection supervision program, (iii) presents recent enforcement and advocacy program developments, (iv) discusses recent education and outreach, as well as research and policy initiatives, and (v) discusses coordination and cooperation between the CFPB and the FTC. Because the FTC and the CFPB share FDCPA implementation and enforcement responsibilities, the report incorporates a letter from the FTC regarding its FDCPA-related activities. The CFPB reported that the FTC continues to receive more complaints for the debt collection industry than for any other. The report also highlights (i) the debt collection aspects of a CFPB enforcement action against a credit card company, (ii) the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding court discretion to award costs to prevailing FDCPA defendant creditors, and (iii) FTC enforcement activities.
On February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the FDCPA does not limit a court’s discretion under federal rules to award costs to a prevailing defendant creditor alleged to have violated the Act. Marx v. Gen. Revenue Corp., No. 11-1175, 2013 WL 673254 (Feb. 26, 2013). The Tenth Circuit had earlier held that the defendant creditor did not violate the FDCPA, and that the creditor could be awarded costs under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(1). On appeal, the debtor, supported by the United States as amicus, argued that any statute specifically providing for costs displaces Rule 54(d)(1), regardless of whether it is contrary to the Rule. The relevant FDCPA provision, §1692k(a)(3), provides that “[o]n a finding by the court that an action under this section was brought in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment, the court may award to the defendant attorney’s fees reasonable in relation to the work expended and costs.” The Court affirmed the Tenth Circuit and held that the language and context of §1692k(a)(3) indicate that Congress did not intend it to prohibit courts from awarding costs. The Court explained that (i) the statute is best read as codifying a court’s pre-existing authority to award both attorney’s fees and costs, (ii) by including “and costs” in the second sentence of the statute, Congress foreclosed the argument that defendants can only recover attorney’s fees when plaintiffs bring an action in bad faith and removed any doubt that defendants may also recover costs in such cases, and (iii) the statutory language sharply contrasts with that of other statutes in which Congress has placed conditions on awarding costs to prevailing defendants.
On February 22, the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) sent letters to all debt collectors in the state to remind them that it is illegal to attempt to collect a debt on a payday loan made in New York, even if such loans were made on the Internet. Under New York law, nonbank lenders and state-charted banks are prohibited from making loans or forbearances under $250,000 at an interest rate of 16 percent or higher. Any loans made in violation of those limitations are void and cannot be collected by a debt collector. The DFS claims that “[l]enders attempt to skirt New York’s prohibition on payday lending by offering loans over the Internet, hoping to avoid prosecution.” The DS states that, regardless of the method used to make the loan, payday loans made in New York are not valid debts and cannot lawfully be collected.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Getting your company ready: Managing fair lending for IMBs” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Independent Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Be Your Compliance Best in 2022” at the California Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Lauren R. Randell to discuss “Significant legal developments in the Northeast” at the 37th Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where it is heading?” at the Consumer Bankers Association Live program
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Regulators always ring twice: Responding to a government request” at ALM Legalweek
- Jonice Gray Tucker and Kari Hall to discuss “Equity, equality, regulation and enforcement – The evolving regulatory landscape of fair lending, redlining, and UDAAP” at the ABA Business Law Committee Hybrid Spring Meeting