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On November 18, the CFPB issued a reminder that “debt collectors who adopt and follow certain procedures can obtain a bona fide error defense from civil liability for unintentional violations of the prohibition against third-party communications when communicating by email or text message,” as determined by the Bureau’s debt collection rule. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2020 the CFPB issued its final rule amending Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA, addressing debt collection communications and prohibitions on harassment or abuse, false or misleading representations, and unfair practices. The reminder emphasizes that for text message communications, a provision in the rule includes utilizing a “complete and accurate database” to ensure that a consumer’s telephone number has not been re-assigned. Additionally, the reminder notes that the rule’s commentary identifies the FCC’s Reassigned Numbers Database as a “complete and accurate database,” which the FCC has published.
On November 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated an opinion in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection & Management Services, ordering an en banc rehearing of the case. The order vacates an 11th Circuit decision to revive claims that the defendant’s use of a third-party mail vendor to write, print, and send requests for medical debt repayment violated privacy rights established in the FDCPA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in April, the 11th Circuit held that transmitting a consumer’s private data to a commercial mail vendor to generate debt collection letters violates Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA because it is considered transmitting a consumer’s private data “in connection with the collection of any debt.” According to the order issued sua sponte by the 11th Circuit, an en banc panel of appellate judges will convene at a later date to rehear the case.
On November 10, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York granted a defendant debt agency’s motion for judgment resolving FCRA and FDCPA allegations. A father allegedly co-signed an apartment lease for his daughter (collectively, “plaintiffs”), which included a provision that allowed the plaintiffs to terminate the lease if another individual took over the lease. The plaintiffs allegedly did not move in but identified two replacement tenants to take over the lease. The owner of the apartment allegedly signed separate leases with the identified replacement tenants and “thwarted [plaintiffs’] efforts to have someone take over [the] [l]ease.” The owner placed the debt with the defendant for collection, who reported the debt to three credit reporting agencies. The plaintiffs disputed the debt, but the defendant confirmed the accuracy of the information. The plaintiffs sued, alleging the defendant violated the FCRA for not conducting a proper investigation of the dispute, and the FDCPA for attempting to collect the allegedly invalid debt, which allegedly negatively impacted the plaintiffs’ credit scores, their ability to obtain a car loan, and efforts to apply for an apartment.
With respect to the FCRA claim, the district court found that the plaintiffs’ allegation regarding an inaccurate debt “turns on an unresolved legal question, a section 1681s-2(b) claim that a furnisher failed to conduct a reasonable investigation of disputed credit information cannot stand.” Additionally, since the claim was “tethered to a legal dispute,” the district court found that it cannot form the basis of an FCRA claim. With respect to the FDCPA allegations, the district court dismissed the claim finding that the plaintiffs did not adequately state a claim because the plaintiffs’ claim was based on “nothing more than their conclusory and self-serving allegations that they do not owe the [d]ebt.”
On October 27, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York denied a motion to dismiss an action brought by the CFPB and the New York attorney general against the operators of a debt-collection scheme, rejecting the defendants’ argument that they did not have fraudulent intent and their actions were taken for legitimate reasons. As previously covered by InfoBytes in April, the CFPB and the AG filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly transferring ownership of his $1.6 million home to his wife and daughter for $1 shortly after he received a civil investigative demand and learned that the Bureau and the AG were investigating his debt-collection activities. The complaint further alleged that the transfer of the property was a fraudulent transfer under the FDCPA and made with the intent to defraud (a violation of the New York Debtor and Creditor Law), and that the owner-defendant “removed and concealed assets in an effort to render the Judgment obtained by the Government Plaintiffs uncollectable.” In 2019 the Bureau and the AG settled with the debt collection operation to resolve allegations that the defendants established and operated a network of companies that harassed and/or deceived consumers into paying inflated debts or amounts they may not have owed (covered by InfoBytes here).
The court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, concluding that the CFPB and AG raised sufficient allegations that the debtor’s transfers and mortgage on his property were knowingly fraudulent. The court determined that fraudulent intent under the FDCPA may be determined by several factors, sometimes called “badges of fraud,” including whether “‘the transfer or obligation was to an insider,’ ‘the debtor retained possession or control of the property transferred after the transfer,’ ‘before the transfer was made or obligation was incurred, the debtor had been sued or threatened with suit,’ ‘the value of the consideration received by the debtor was reasonably equivalent to the value of the asset transferred or the amount of the obligation incurred,’ and ‘the transfer occurred shortly before or shortly after a substantial debt was incurred.’” The court held it was reasonable to infer that the defendant was aware “that he would likely face civil prosecution” and judgments “would be beyond his ability to pay.” The court noted that the defendant engaged in transferring a personally significant asset—his $1.6 million residence—to two insiders for nominal consideration, which was considered to be “highly unusual.” Additionally, the defendant alleged that he continued to “’reside at and exercise control over’ the property and is now unwilling or unable to pay off the judgment,” which indicated the conveyance was also part of a sham divorce. Further, the court noted that “the complaint plausibly alleges that the mortgage ‘was not granted in good faith’ and was ‘made with the intent to make it appear that the Property was encumbered.’”
On November 1, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri ordered a Missouri-based company to pay a $30,000 civil money penalty to resolve allegations that it used district-attorney letterhead to threaten consumers with criminal prosecution. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against the company claiming it allegedly engaged in deceptive and otherwise unlawful debt collection acts and practices in the course of operating “bad-check pretrial-diversion programs on behalf of more than 90 district attorneys’ offices throughout the United States.” The complaint claimed that the company not only failed to include required FDCPA disclosures in the letters it sent to consumers, it also failed to identify itself in the letters and did not inform consumers that it was a debt collector and not a district attorney. Moreover, in most cases the company did not refer cases for prosecution, even if the check writer failed to respond to the collection letter, did not pay the alleged outstanding debt and fees, or failed to complete the financial-education course. Under the terms of the settlement, the company is, among other things, permanently banned from engaging in debt collection activities and is prohibited from disclosing, using, or benefiting from customer information obtained before the order’s effective date in connection with a Pre-Trial Bad Check Diversion Program. Additionally, the company may not “attempt to collect, sell, assign, or otherwise transfer any right to collect payment from any consumer who purchased or agreed to purchase services or products in connection” with the company’s program. The company is ordered to pay more than $1.4 million in redress to harmed consumers; however, full payment of this amount is suspended upon satisfaction of certain obligations due to the company’s financial condition. The $30,000 penalty also reflects the company’s limited ability to pay.
On October 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland entered a stipulated final judgment and order against defendants (a debt collection entity, its subsidiaries, and their owner) in an action alleging FCRA and FDCPA violations. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed a complaint against the defendants in 2019 with alleged violations that included, among other things, the defendants’ failure to ensure accurate reporting to consumer-reporting agencies (CRAs), failure to conduct reasonable investigations and review relevant information when handling indirect disputes, and failure to conduct investigations into the accuracy of information after receiving identity theft reports before furnishing such information to CRAs. The Bureau separately alleged that the FCRA violations constitute violations of the CFPA, and that the defendants violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect on debts without a reasonable basis to believe that consumers owed those debts.
Under the terms of the order, the defendants—who neither admitted nor denied any of the allegations except as specified in the order—are required to, among other things, (i) update existing policies and procedures to ensure information is accurate before it is furnished to a CRA or before commencing collections on an account; (ii) ensure policies and procedures are designed to address trends in disputes; and (iii) hire an independent consultant, subject to the CFPB Enforcement Director’s non-objection, to conduct a review to ensure management-level oversight and FCRA and FDCPA compliance. The defendants must also submit a compliance plan and pay an $850,000 civil money penalty.
Recently, the Connecticut Department of Banking entered into a consent order with a North Carolina-based company resolving allegations that it violated Connecticut collection practices laws and regulations by allegedly using a name other than the company’s legal name when collecting unpaid debts without a Connecticut consumer collection agency license. The Department’s investigation stemmed from a newspaper article in which a Connecticut resident complained that he received bills from a company in an attempt to collect $314 for a Covid-19 test. The company responded to the Department’s inquiry by stating that a collection agency license was not required because the collections were made by an in-house division of the company, and not on behalf of a third party. The company also cited cases in which federal courts dismissed similar allegations under the federal FDCPA. After an investigation, the Department alleged that the company constituted as a “creditor” and by using a different name, was in violation of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies, “which prohibits the use of any business, company or organization name other than the true name of the creditor’s organization.” The consent order requires that the company pay a civil money penalty of $10,000 and that the company cease and desist from using any name other than its true legal name to collect debts.
On October 19, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied a defendant’s motion for judgment without prejudice concerning allegations that it knowingly ignored cease-and-desist letters sent by an individual while the individual had a pending bankruptcy petition. The plaintiff allegedly incurred a debt that was placed with the defendant for collection. After, the plaintiff sought protection under the Bankruptcy Code. During the bankruptcy case, the defendant allegedly sent the plaintiff text messages to collect the debt, the plaintiff responded with a cease-and-desist letter, and then the defendant sent the plaintiff a collection letter. The plaintiff sent another cease and desist letter and the defendant sent four more collection letters. Based on the defendant’s post-petition actions, the plaintiff sued for FDCPA and Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act violations. The defendant argued that the plaintiff failed to disclose this lawsuit in her bankruptcy case, which would result in the FDCPA case being dismissed on judicial estoppel grounds. However, the court found that while the plaintiff omitted the name and specific circumstances of her claims against the defendant, she “put the Bankruptcy Court, trustee, and creditors on notice she had a claim against a creditor and properly sought approval from the Bankruptcy Court before retaining counsel to pursue it.” The court went on to state that if the plaintiff “intended to deceive creditors or others in bankruptcy, filing the Application strayed from that intent,” and that “the filing mitigates any prejudice claimed by [the defendant].”
On October 20, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia entered a default judgment and order against five participants in an allegedly illegal debt collection scheme involving certain payment processors and a telephone broadcast service provider (collectively, “default defendants”) for their role in the operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed claims brought by the CFPB against the default defendants. (See additional InfoBytes coverage here.) According to a complaint filed in 2015, the defendants “knew, or should have known” that the debt collectors were contacting millions of consumers in an attempt to collect debt that consumers did not owe or that the collectors were not authorized to collect by using threats, intimidation, and deceptive techniques in violation of the CFPA and the FDCPA.
The court entered a $5.1 million judgment against the default defendants, who are jointly and severally liable with the non-default defendants. The default defendants must pay civil monetary penalties ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 to the Bureau. The judgment also, among other things, permanently bans the default defendants from attempting collections on any consumer financial product or service and from selling any debt-relief service.
On October 20, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California approved a settlement with two non-parties in an action brought by the CFPB, the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney, alleging a student loan debt relief operation deceived thousands of student-loan borrowers and charged more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the complaint asserted that the defendants violated the CFPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and various state laws. Amended complaints (see here and here) also added new defendants and included claims for avoidance of fraudulent transfers under the FDCPA and California’s Uniform Voidable Transactions Act, among other things. A stipulated final judgment and order was entered against the named defendant in July (covered by InfoBytes here), which required the payment of more than $35 million in redress to affected consumers, a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau, and $5,000 in civil money penalties to each of the three states. The court also previously entered final judgments against several of the defendants, as well as a default judgment and order against two other defendants (covered by InfoBytes here, here, here, and here). The most recent settlement resolves a dispute between a court-appointed receiver and the two non-parties. The settlement requires the non-parties to pay $675,000 to the receiver.