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California Court of Appeal: Prejudgment interest accrual did not violate Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
On July 1, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District affirmed in part and reversed in part a previous superior court judgment in favor of a debt collector, holding that the debt collector did not violate the California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the Rosenthal Act) by adding prejudgment interest from the date of charge-off to a consumer’s account, and reporting the account, with such additional interest, to several credit bureaus.
The lawsuit initially arose when the debt collector sued to collect the entire amount owed, and the consumer filed a cross-complaint alleging the debt collector had violated the Rosenthal Act, among other laws, by “‘falsely representing the character, amount, or legal status of the alleged debt,’ ‘failing to verify that the amount demanded was accurate,’ and ‘failing to provide an accurate accounting of the alleged debt.’” The superior court rejected the consumer’s claims and entered judgment in favor of the debt collector in the amount of the debt plus attorney’s fees.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal concluded that the debt collector did not violate the Rosenthal Act because the consumer failed to show that the original creditor waived the right to accrue additional interest on the account by not accruing the interest after charge-off. Moreover, the Court of Appeal noted that the statutory prejudgment interest rate is only available when there is no specified contractual rate. However, the Court determined that the debt collector did not improperly accrue interest when it applied a seven percent interest rate, as seven percent is lower than the statutory interest rate and the contractual interest rate. With respect to attorney’s fees, the Court of Appeal concluded the superior court improperly awarded fees associated with the legal action to collect the debt and the cross-complaint, noting that the superior court, “should have limited the fee award to time spent on efforts necessary to prove the allegations in the complaint.” Therefore, the court reversed the fee judgment and remanded the case back to superior court for “further consideration of the fee award in accordance with our narrower interpretation of the contractual fee provision.”
On May 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held a prevailing consumer’s request for $187,410 in attorney’s fees was unreasonable in a FDCPA action. In 2014, the consumer and a debt collector settled the consumer’s FDCPA related claims for $1,001 plus attorney’s fees of $4,500. Despite the settlement agreement, the debt collector continued to attempt to collect the debt, and the consumer sued a second time alleging violations of the FDCPA and FCRA. The consumer did not respond to multiple settlement offers from the debt collector, including one in March 2015 for $3,051, proceeding to trial on the FDCPA claim, and subsequently rejected a settlement offer from the debt collector of $25,000 and reasonable attorney’s fees. At trial, the jury only awarded the consumer the $1,000 in FDCPA statutory damages, after which he sought to recover $187,410 in attorney’s fees. The district court reduced his request to $10,875, concluding that the consumer’s rejection of “meaningful settlement offers precluded a fee award in such disproportion to his trial recovery.”
On appeal, the appellate court agreed with the district court that the March 2015 settlement offer of $3,051 was reasonable, rejecting the consumer’s argument that the settlement “was not substantial and therefore should have been disregarded by the district court in determining the fee award.” The appellate court also rejected the consumer’s argument that because the settlement offer disclaimed liability for the debt collector, his results at the jury trial were much better than the settlement as it yielded judgment on the merits. The appellate court noted that settlement offers regularly disclaim liability, and by operation, judgment against the debt collector would still have been entered under Rule 68. Therefore, the appellate court concluded the district court did not abuse its discretion when reducing the attorney’s fees to $10,875 based on 29 hours’ worth of work at an hourly rate of $375 prior to the March 2015 settlement offer.
On February 8, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval to a $2.5 million putative class action settlement resolving allegations that a student loan servicer violated the TCPA by using an autodialer to contact student borrowers’ credit references without first obtaining their prior express consent. The settlement terms also require the servicer to pay more than $850,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses. According to the plaintiff’s memorandum in support of its motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement (as referenced in the final approval order), the servicer allegedly used an autodialer to contact the plaintiff’s cellphone without her prior express consent, which the servicer subsequently denied. The servicer had moved for summary judgment on multiple grounds, arguing, among other things, that the plaintiff could not establish that the servicer used an autodialer to place calls to her and other credit references listed on the delinquent student loans. Citing to the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC, which set aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as “unreasonably expansive,” (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), the servicer had argued that the decision “governs analysis of the issue” and that the plaintiff could not succeed in demonstrating that the telephone system used falls within the statutory definition of an autodialer. However, prior to the court issuing a ruling on the servicer’s summary judgment motion, the parties reached the approved settlement through mediation.
On January 31, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted final approval and class certification to a $22 million settlement resolving class action allegations that a national bank improperly charged overdraft fees on “one-time, non-recurring” transactions made with a ride-sharing company. The court found that the bank mischaracterized these one-time charges as recurring transactions, which allowed the bank to charge overdraft fees of $35. Prior to the court’s approval of the settlement, 12 state Attorneys General sent a letter to the court arguing that the agreement’s release of liability to the ride-sharing company was inequitable. The court found, however, that the release “does not compromise the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the settlement,” where, among other things, plaintiffs’ counsel investigated the viability of claims against the ride-sharing company and concluded that litigation against the company could present problems for the proposed class and for individual recovery. The $22 million settlement constitutes 80 percent of all revenues charged by the bank as a result of the overdraft fees. The court also approved $5.5 million in attorneys’ fees and $50,000 in costs.
On November 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a Texas district court’s denial of attorney’s fees in an FDCPA action, concluding the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the fees based on the “outrageous facts” in the case. The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a consumer against a debt collector, alleging the company violated the FDCPA and the Texas Debt Collection Act (TDCA) by using the words “credit bureau” in its name despite having ceased to function as a consumer reporting agency, and therefore misrepresented itself as a credit bureau in an attempt to collect a debt. The district court adopted a magistrate judge’s recommendation and found the company violated the FDCPA, granted summary judgment in part for the plaintiff (while denying the TDCA claims), and awarded her statutory damages of $1,000. The plaintiff then filed a motion for $130,410 in attorney’ fees, based on her attorney’s hourly rate of $450. The magistrate judge denied the attorney’s fees, noting that although violation of the FDCPA ordinarily justifies awards of attorneys’ fees, the amount claimed was “excessive by orders of magnitude,” and the lawsuit appeared to have been “created by counsel for the purpose of generating, in counsel’s own words, an ‘incredibly high fee request.’” The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s order.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit noted that other circuits have held there can be narrow exceptions to the FDCPA’s attorneys’ fees mandate, including the presence of bad faith conduct on the part of the plaintiff. In determining the “extreme facts” of the case justify the district court’s denial of attorney’s fees, the appeals court noted the almost 290 hours claimed to be worked by the attorneys are not reflected in the pleadings filed, which were “replete with grammatical errors, formatting issues, and improper citations.” The poor craftsmanship of the filings, the court noted, did not justify the $450 hourly rate charged.
On October 19, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio entered an order rejecting a request that the CFPB pay $1.2 million in attorney’s fees after the Bureau lost its debt collection lawsuit, finding no evidence of bad faith. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the court entered judgment against the Bureau on all counts after ruling that the agency failed to meet its burden to show that the debt collectors mislead consumers when it sent demand letters on law firm letterhead even though the attorneys at the firm were not meaningfully involved in preparing those letters.
According to the opinion, the law firm argued that it was entitled to attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act because, among other things, it suffered reputation harm and expended significant resources in its defense. Furthermore, the law firm claimed that the Bureau knew or should have known its claims were meritless. But the court decided otherwise, pointing to the advisory jury’s findings that the law firm’s debt collection letters to some consumers were “false, deceptive, or misleading” and acknowledging the Bureau’s reliance on expert testimony and its survival of summary judgment and judgment on the pleadings. The court found that even if the litigation was “an overreach based on facts, or that the Bureau was attempting to expand consumer protection laws past their useful purpose,” there is no evidence to suggest the suit was targeted or in bad faith.
On September 14, a Florida appeals court held that a consumer was entitled to attorney’s fees after a debt collector voluntarily dismissed its “account stated” collection lawsuit for an unpaid credit card balance. Following the debt collector’s voluntary dismissal, the consumer moved for attorney’s fees under a provision in the credit card account agreement that provides for fees to the creditor in any collection action and the reciprocity provision in Section 57.105(7), Florida Statutes (2015). The Florida reciprocity statute permits a court to grant reasonable attorney’s fees to a prevailing party, whether as plaintiff or defendant, with respect to an action to enforce the contract. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s order and found that the consumer was entitled to attorney’s fees. The court concluded that, because the consumer was the prevailing party and the collection action was to enforce the contract, the reciprocity provision in section 57.105(7) applied to the consumer’s request for attorney’s fees under the terms of the agreement. The court remanded the case to the trial court to determine the attorney’s fee award.
On May 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed sanctions against three attorneys for challenging the authenticity of a loan document for two years without revealing they had obtained a copy of the document from their client before filing the original complaint. The action results from a now closed case in which a consumer alleged he received loans at predatory interest rates (annual interest rate of about 139 percent) from a tribal lender and sought to impose liability on the non-lenders, including a credit union, which processed the debit transactions under the loan agreement. In response to a motion to dismiss, the attorneys for the consumer challenged the authenticity of the loan agreement provided by the credit union. After years of litigation, the credit union discovered the consumer had provided his attorneys with the loan agreement prior to the original complaint filing and moved for sanctions against the attorneys. The attorneys argued that they had no affirmative duty to disclose documents before the opening of discovery.
The lower court disagreed, determining that each attorney had “acted in bad faith and vexatiously and violated their duty of candor by hiding a relevant and potentially dispositive document from the Court in connection with a long-running dispute over arbitrability.” In February 2017, the lower court ordered two attorneys and their respective law firms jointly liable for $150,000 in attorneys’ fees and a third associate attorney jointly liable for $100,000. Upon appeal, the 4th Circuit held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in awarding the compensatory sanctions, stating “without losing the forest for the trees, we conclude that the district court reasonably described sanctioned counsels’ conduct as evincing a multi-year crusade to suppress the truth to gain a tactical litigation advantage.”
On May 17, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that an attorney fees award imposed under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) is a civil penalty and is not dischargeable under the Bankruptcy Code. According to the opinion, the State of Colorado sued a law firm, its owners, and affiliated companies for allegedly violating the CCPA and the Colorado Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (CFDCPA) by fraudulently billing mortgage servicers for full costs associated with title insurance premium charges even though not all the costs were incurred. The district court agreed with the State and awarded attorney fees and costs for the violations. In the appeal, one of the defendants argued, among other things, that the district court was precluded from awarding attorney fees because his debts had previously been discharged in bankruptcy. In affirming the district court’s decision, the appeals court concluded that attorney fees awards made under the CCPA and the CFDCPA are not dischargeable because the award “made under the CCPA’s mandatory provision was sufficiently penal to constitute a ‘fine, penalty or forfeiture’ under § 523(a)(7) [of the Bankruptcy Code] and was not dischargeable.”
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