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On December 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the trial court in favor of a debt collector in an FDCPA action brought by a consumer claiming that the debt collector used false, deceptive, or misleading means in attempting to collect a debt. The consumer, in 2006, opened a credit card account with a bank, but stopped sending payments in December of 2008, without paying off the balance. The bank later sold the consumer’s unpaid account to a debt collector in 2009, after which the debt collector sent a letter to the consumer in 2017 in an effort to collect the past due balance. The consumer filed a complaint against the debt collector, claiming that the debt was “time-barred” as the six-year statute of limitations had run and that the debt collector violated the FDCPA by not disclosing this in the letter to him. The district court granted the debt collector’s summary judgment motion.
On appeal, the consumer again claimed that the debt collector’s language is “deceptive or misleading,” specifically in the debt collector’s disclosure in the letter that read, “[t]he law limits how long you can be sued on a debt and how long a debt can appear on your credit report. Due to the age of this debt, we will not sue you for it or report payment or non-payment of it to a credit bureau.” The court disagreed. According to the opinion, even though the six-year statute to sue in order to collect had expired, “nothing in the letter falsely implies that [the debt collector] could bring a legal action against [the consumer] to collect the debt.” Further, the court determined that the “least sophisticated debtor would [not] likely be misled” by the debt collector’s disclosure, because the “natural conclusion” that could be drawn from the collector’s language was that the debt was time-barred. Additionally, the court rejected the consumer’s contention that the debt collector’s letter was “deceptive or misleading” because it failed to warn the consumer that in some states, the statute of limitations to sue on a debt may be revived if the debtor promises to pay or makes a partial payment on the debt. The court stated that the FDCPA does not require a debt collector to “provide legal advice” about specific issues such as a revival provision in a state statute of limitations. The panel also pointed out that although the statute may have run for the debt collector to take legal action in order to recover the outstanding debt, as long as it complies with the law and does not use misleading, false, or deceptive means, the FDCPA allows it to continue its efforts to collect on a lawful debt.
On November 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision that a debt collector does not violate the FDCPA by sending notices to consumers that do not clarify that a debt is static. The plaintiff in that case alleged that the defendant violated the FDCPA’s prohibition on false, deceptive, or misleading representations in connection with the collection of a debt when it sent her a letter that contained a breakdown of interest and charges or fees accrued on the balance as separate line items, even though the amounts accrued explicitly reflect $0, along with the phrase “[a]s of the date of this letter, you owe $ [amount].” By implying that the amount owed might increase, the plaintiff argued that the least sophisticated consumer may erroneously think the debt is dynamic. The district court disagreed and granted the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.
In affirming this decision on appeal, the 2nd Circuit cited its own holding in Taylor v. Financial Recovery Services, Inc., in which it previously determined “that ‘a collection notice that fails to disclose that interest and fees are not currently accruing on a debt is not misleading within the meaning of [the FDCPA].” The appellate court was not persuaded by the plaintiff’s attempt to distinguish her case from Taylor, finding that the language in the plaintiff’s letter is “stock language. . .present in a number of collection notices, including those considered not misleading in Taylor.” The 2nd Circuit further noted that “requiring debt collectors to draw attention to the static nature of a debt could incentivize collectors to make debts dynamic instead of static.”
On October 21, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted judgment for a debt collection law firm, concluding the law firm properly identified the current owner of the consumer’s debt in its collection letter. According to the opinion, the law firm sent a letter in March 2018 seeking to collect a debt from the consumer. The letter acknowledges the law firm is a debt collector and provides the balance due, a reference number, the last four digits of the associated bank account, and in two places, states “Re: [bank name].” The consumer filed the action against the law firm, alleging it violated the FDCPA because the least sophisticated consumer would be confused as to whether the bank or the law firm is “the creditor to whom the alleged debt is now purportedly owed.” Both parties moved for judgment and the court agreed with the law firm. Specifically, the court noted that the letter refers to the original creditor twice by stating, “Re: [bank name],” and also the subject line of the letter “identifies both the creditor, [the bank], and plaintiff’s account number with that institution,” which “strongly suggests” that the listed bank is the current creditor. Moreover, the court rejected the consumer’s argument that the least sophisticated consumer would understand the bank is the “source” of the debt but would not understand the bank is the “owner” of the debt, concluding that the least sophisticated consumer would “not likely make such a leap” to assume the debt may have been subsequently sold to another party not mentioned in the letter.
On August 15, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut held that a law firm violated the FDCPA, rejecting the law firm’s bona fide error defense, and awarded the consumer statutory damages. According to the opinion, the consumer alleged that the law firm violated the FDCPA in a 2016 debt collection letter sent to the consumer. Specifically, the consumer argued that the letter “‘ma[de] it impossible for a consumer to know how much is owed and if the debt will be considered paid if payment is made in full,’” because the letter contained two different balance amounts: (i) a “Charge-Off Balance” listed at $663.94 and (ii) a “Balance” or “Current Balance” listed as $565.46. The law firm acknowledged the existence of two different balance amounts, but asserted that the Current Balance was the correct amount and that the consumer “was not confused about what he owed.” The court rejected this argument, finding that under the “least sophisticated consumer standard,” a consumer would be confused by the two different balances, noting that the letter provided no explanation about the two different amounts. The law firm also argued that the inaccuracy was not material, and therefore it should not give rise to liability under the FDCPA. The court disagreed, finding that the difference between the two amounts was “more than trivial,” noting it almost exceeded one hundred dollars, and could induce a consumer to delay payment. Lastly, because the error in amounts was not a result of human judgment, but a failure in programming, the court rejected the law firm’s bona fide error defense. The court awarded the consumer statutory damages and authorized the consumer to seek reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.
On July 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed the dismissal of a FDCPA action against a debt collector, holding that the collection letter failed to apprise the least sophisticated debtor of the creditor’s identity. The complaint alleges that the debt collector “failed to identify ‘the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed’” as required by the FDCPA because the letter listed “at least four entities” that were connected in some way to the debt. The district court dismissed the complaint, concluding the debt collector sufficiently identified the creditor.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the letter failed to notify the least sophisticated debtor of the creditor’s identity for three reasons: (i) the letter did not expressly state that the bank was the creditor or the owner of the debt; (ii) the letter identified the bank as the “assignee of” three other financial entities and “assignee” is a legal term that does not assist a debtor in understanding the relationships between the parties; and (iii) the letter as a whole failed to sufficiently identify the bank as the creditor, as the reference to three other entities “‘overshadowed’ the creditor’s identity.” The appellate court concluded that the letter failed to properly disclose the creditor and therefore, violated the FDCPA, reversing the district court’s dismissal of the complaint.
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