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On January 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal for lack of standing of an FDCPA suit brought by a consumer who claimed that because collection letters sent to him by a law firm caused him anxiety, the firm had violated the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the consumer had two delinquent accounts with a bank, which the law firm attempted to recover by sending collection letters to the consumer. The consumer asserted that the letters the law firm sent caused him “an undue sense of anxiety” that he would be sued by the firm, and he subsequently filed a lawsuit against the firm for violating the FDCPA. The court held that the consumer did not have standing to sue under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, for three main reasons: (i) the debtor’s anxiety about a potential lawsuit amounted to a fear of future harm that was not “certainly impending” because the consumer had not alleged that the law firm had threatened to sue him or that he refused to pay, and, therefore, his anxiety did not satisfy the injury-in-fact element for Article III standing; (ii) the consumer was “anxious about the consequences of his decision to not pay the debts that he does not dispute he owes,” and such a “self-inflicted injury” is not a basis for standing because it was not “fairly traceable” to the law firm’s conduct, but instead reflected the consumer’s own behavior; and (iii) “even assuming [the law firm” violated the statute by misrepresenting that an attorney had reviewed [the consumer’s] debts,” that violation did not cause any injury to the consumer because the consumer gave the court “no reason to believe he did not owe the debts,” and, therefore, he could not show that the law firm’s alleged procedural violation of the FDCPA, by itself, was an “injury in fact.” Because the court held that the consumer did not have standing, it affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the action.
On December 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision that a collection agency was not required to explain the difference between “original creditor” and “current creditor.” After the consumer fell behind on payments owed to a bank, the debt was sold to a company that hired the agency to collect the debt. The agency sent a letter to the consumer identifying the bank as the “original creditor” and the debt buyer as the “current creditor,” listing the principal and interest balances of the debt along with the last four digits of the account number. The consumer alleged that identifying both the bank and the debt buyer without clearly explaining the difference between the companies violated the FDCPA’s requirement that a debt collector state in a written notice “the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed.” The district court disagreed and held that the letter clearly and accurately disclosed the name of the creditor to whom the consumer owed the debt.
The 7th Circuit affirmed on appeal, calling the consumer’s claim “meritless” and holding that including the names of both companies without a detailed explanation would not be confusing even to an unsophisticated consumer, who would understand that the debt had been purchased by the current creditor. The appellate court concluded that the FDCPA required no further explanation.
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 December 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a nonprofit guaranty agency that collected delinquent student loans was exempt from the FDCPA because its “collection activity was incidental to its fiduciary obligation to the Department of Education.” According to the opinion, the matter dates back decades, where a judgment on the borrower’s three defaulted student loans was eventually assigned to the defendant, which began collection efforts on behalf of the Department of Education (the Department had previously repaid the guarantor of the loans). The defendant sent the borrower a notice in 2009 that it would begin collecting the Department’s claim by having the Department of Treasury “offset ‘all payment streams authorized by law,’ including his Social Security benefits,” to which the borrower did not respond. The borrower eventually disputed the debt in 2012 once the offset took effect, and filed a lawsuit in 2015 claiming FDCPA and Fifth Amendment due process violations. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that the defendant was not a debt collector subject to the FDCPA and was not subject to due process because it was not a state actor.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding that while the defendant satisfied the general criteria for debt collectors because it regularly collected debts that were owed to someone else, the defendant qualified for an exception because its debt collection activities were “incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation.” Specifically, the appellate court held that “incidental to” a fiduciary obligation meant that debt collection could not be the “sole or primary” reason the judgment had been assigned to the defendant. The appellate court explained that the defendant had a broader role beyond the collection of debts, because it had also accepted recordkeeping and administrative duties. Finally, concerning the borrower’s argument that the defendant had “arbitrarily and maliciously” garnished his benefits in violation of his due process rights, the 9th Circuit concluded that there was no due process violation because the defendant (i) had provided the borrower with a notice of the debt and its intention to recover the claim from his Social Security benefits; (ii) the notice was sent to the correct address; and (iii) the defendant’s misstatement that the debt arose from one loan rather than the total of three loans was not a due process violation.
On December 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling overturning a jury verdict in favor of the consumer for a debt collection company’s (company) violation of the FDCPA and the Texas Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Texas Act). The consumer sued the company claiming that after she sent the company a letter disputing a debt, the company failed to report to the credit bureaus that the debt was “disputed.” At trial, the jury awarded the consumer $61,000 for the company’s alleged FDCPA and Texas Act violations. Afterwards, the district court granted the company’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, overturned the jury’s verdict, and dismissed the case, ruling that the consumer failed to provide evidence that the disputed debt was a consumer debt.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit held that it is within the jury’s discretion to make credibility determinations and that it was permissible for the jury to credit the consumer’s testimony about the consumer nature of the debt—a determination which cannot be disturbed unless it is impossible that the testimony is true. In addition, the appellate court noted that the jury has discretion to draw inferences and that it reasonably inferred that the disputed debt was, in fact, a consumer debt, as the consumer claimed.
On December 10, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an eight-to-one decision, held that the one-year time limit for filing an FDCPA action starts on the date of the violation, and that no “discovery rule” applies. According to the opinion, the respondent law firm sued the petitioner seeking payment of credit card debt. The respondent attempted service on the petitioner at his old address, where the occupant accepted service. After the petitioner did not respond, a default judgment was entered against him in 2009. The petitioner claimed that he had no knowledge of the default judgement until 2014. He then sued the respondent in district court in 2015 alleging that the respondent “purposely served process in a manner that ensured he would not receive service,” and that the respondent violated the FDCPA by filing the debt collection suit against the petitioner “after the state-law limitations period expired,” and thus had no “lawful ability to collect.” The district court dismissed the action, rejecting the petitioner’s assertion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit holding that a “discovery rule” exists, which delays the one-year limit to the date when the violation is discovered. The district court held that the FDCPA does not include a discovery rule, relying on the FDCPA’s “plain language.”
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, holding that “there is no default presumption” of a discovery rule in the FDCPA.
Upon review by the Court, Justice Thomas, who penned the majority opinion, averred that the FDCPA explicitly provides a one-year limitation starting on “the date on which the violation occurs.” Moreover, the opinion points out that Congress would have added a provision to delay that limitation until after a violation was discovered if it meant for the FDCPA to have such a provision.
According to Justice Ginsberg’s dissenting opinion, though she agreed with the one-year limitation for filing suit under the FDCPA, she added that the discovery rule should be observed when fraud prevents the petitioner from filing within the one-year period, distinguishing the “fraud-based discovery rule” from general “equitable tolling” principles.
On November 15, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia entered a stipulated final judgment and order to resolve allegations concerning one of the defendants cited in a 2015 action taken against an allegedly illegal debt collection operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB claimed that several individuals and the companies they formed attempted to collect debt that consumers did not owe or that the collectors were not authorized to collect. The complaint further alleged uses of harassing and deceptive techniques in violation of the CFPA and FDCPA, and named certain payment processors used by the collectors to process payments from consumers. While the claims against the payment processors were dismissed in 2017 (covered by InfoBytes here), the allegations against the outstanding defendants remained open. The November 15 stipulated final judgment and order is issued against one of the defendants who—as an officer and sole owner of the debt collection company that allegedly engaged in the prohibited conduct—was found liable in March for violations of the FDCPA, as well as deceptive and unfair practices and substantial assistance under CFPA.
Among other things, the defendant, who neither admitted nor denied the allegations except as stated in the order, is (i) banned from engaging in debt collection activities; (ii) permanently restrained and enjoined from making misrepresentations or engaging in unfair practices concerning consumer financial products or services; and (iii) prohibited from engaging in business ventures with the other defendants; using, disclosing or benefitting from certain consumer information; or allowing third parties to use merchant processing accounts owned or controlled by the defendant to collect consumer payments. The stipulated order requires the defendant to pay a $1 civil money penalty and more than $5.2 million in redress, although full payment of the judgment is suspended upon satisfaction of specified obligations and the defendant’s limited ability to pay.
On November 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an order reversing in part and affirming in part a district court’s dismissal of claims brought by a consumer who claimed a bank violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the FDCPA when it allegedly provided debt information using a “false name” to a credit reporting agency and requested the consumer’s credit report without a proper purpose. In 2016, the consumer filed a lawsuit asserting the bank (i) violated the FDCPA by using a name other than its true name in connection with the collection of debt; and (ii) violated the FCRA when it failed to investigate the accuracy of the information provide to the credit reporting agency, and requested his credit report without a permissible purpose. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the FDCPA claim, concluding that, while the false-name exception stipulates that the FDCPA applies to a creditor that uses any name other than its own when collecting its own debts (which may indicate a third party was collecting or attempting to collect the debt), the exception does not apply in this instance because “even the least sophisticated consumer” would understand that the bank and the entity named in the consumer report were related. However, the appellate court held that the district court erred in dismissing the FCRA claims. According to the opinion, the consumer stated three plausible claims for relief, including that the bank failed to investigate the accuracy of the information it sent, as required when a dispute arises, and that it unlawfully obtained his credit report. The 11th Circuit noted that while it has never addressed the meaning of “false pretenses” under the FCRA, it now joins other courts in holding that “intentionally obtaining a credit report under the guise of a permissible purpose while intending to use the report for an impermissible purpose can constitute false pretenses.” Moreover, the appellate court noted that while the bank may have obtained the consumer’s credit report for proper purposes, or that it may have disclosed the true purpose to the credit reporting agency, “this fact question cannot be resolved on a motion to dismiss.”
On November 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of an action against a debt collector, concluding that tax consequence language in a debt collection letter may violate the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the debt collector sent a consumer four collection letters with at least one letter stating in part that “[s]ettling a debt for less than the balance owed may have tax consequences and [the creditor] may file a 1099C form.” The consumer filed an action against the debt collector alleging that the language violated the FDCPA because the creditor is not obligated to file a 1099C with the IRS unless it has forgiven at least $600 in principal. The consumer also claimed that the creditor at issue would never file a 1099C unless it was legally obligated to do so, and as applied to the consumer’s debt at issue, none of the settlement options offered in the dunning letter would have reached the $600 threshold. The district court granted the debt collector’s motion to dismiss the action and the consumer appealed.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit focused on the letter’s reference to the possible 1099C filing. The court noted that “it is impermissible for a creditor to make a ‘may’ statement about something that is illegal or impossible,” and while it is not technically illegal or impossible for the creditor to file a 1099C form for amounts less than $600, the debt collector did not dispute that the creditor “would never file a 1099C form with the IRS unless required to do so by law.” The court observed that the “language of a collection letter can be literally true and still be misleading in a way that violates the Act.” Thus, the consumer plausibly alleged that “it is, in fact, misleading to state that [the creditor] may file a Form 1099C, when it never would.” And because questions as to whether specific statements are deceptive or misleading are “almost always questions of fact,” the appellate court reversed the dismissal and remanded the case back to district court for further proceedings.
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.”
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