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CFPB warns debt collectors on “zombie mortgages”
On April 26, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion affirming that the FDCPA and implementing Regulation F prohibit covered debt collectors from suing or threatening to sue to collect time-barred debt. As such, a debt collector who brings or threatens to bring a state court foreclosure action to collect a time-barred mortgage debt may violate federal law, the Bureau said. The agency stated that numerous consumers have filed complaints relating to “zombie second mortgages,” where homeowners, operating under the assumption that a mortgage debt was forgiven or was satisfied long ago by loan modifications or bankruptcy proceedings, are contacted years later by a debt collector threatening foreclosure and demanding payment of the outstanding balance along with interest and fees.
The Bureau explained that, leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, many lenders originated mortgages without considering consumers’ ability to repay the loans. Focusing on “piggyback” mortgages (otherwise known as 80/20 loans, in which consumers took out a first lien loan for 80 percent of the value of the home and a second lien loan for the remaining 20 percent of the home’s valuation), the Bureau stated that most lenders did not pursue payment on the second mortgage but instead sold them off to debt collectors. Years later, some of these debt collectors are demanding repayment of the second mortgage and threatening foreclosure, the Bureau said, adding that for many of the mortgages, the debts have become time barred. The Bureau commented that, in most states, consumers can raise this as an affirmative defense to prevent a debt collector from recovering on the debt using judicial processes such as foreclosure. Additionally, because “Regulation F’s prohibition on suits and threats of suit on time-barred debt is subject to a strict liability standard,” a debt collector that sues or threatens to sue “violates the prohibition ‘even if the debt collector neither knew nor should have known that a debt was time-barred,’” the Bureau said. The advisory opinion clarified that these restrictions apply to covered debt collectors, including individuals and entities seeking to collect defaulted mortgage loans and many of the attorneys that bring foreclosure actions on their behalf.
CFPB Director Rohit Chopra delivered remarks during a field hearing in Brooklyn, New York, in which he emphasized that the Bureau will work with state enforcement agencies to take action against covered debt collectors who break the law. He reminded consumers that they can also sue debt collectors themselves under the FDCPA.
3rd Circuit: No ambiguity in collection dispute notice
On April 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a putative FDCPA class action debt collection lawsuit concerning allegedly misleading dispute language. A letter the plaintiff received from the defendant debt collector included the following statement:
Unless you notify this office within 30 days after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, this office will assume this debt is valid. If you notify this office in writing within 30 days after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, this office will obtain verification of the debt or obtain a copy of a judgment and mail you a copy of such judgment or verification. If you request of this office in writing within 30 days after receiving this notice[,] this office will provide you with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.
If you dispute the debt, or any part thereof, or request the name and address of the original creditor in writing within the thirty-day period, the law requires our firm to suspend our efforts to collect the debt until we mail the requested information to you.
The plaintiff argued that the suspended collection language in the second paragraph violated the FDCPA because it led her to believe “that she could suspend collection by disputing all or part of the debt orally outside of the 30-day window.” Doing so, the plaintiff maintained, would conflict with her rights under Section 1692g(b) of the statute, which “guarantees that, if a consumer invokes her § 1692g(a) right to request information about a debt, and the consumer invokes this right in writing and within the thirty-day period prescribed by statute, a debt collector must ‘cease collection of the debt’ until it has provided the requested information to the debtor.” While the defendant was not required to notify the plaintiff about her rights under 1692g(b), the plaintiff claimed that including inaccurate information about those rights gave her “contrary and inconsistent” information.
The district court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim on the premise that, when “read holistically,” the letter did not suggest that the plaintiff could have collection activity suspended by orally disputing the debt outside the 30-day window. On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court that the language that preceded the disputed statement “eliminates any ambiguity” because “it explains that a debtor who wishes to avail herself of her statutory right to validation of a debt must request validation in writing and within 30 days of receiving a collection notice.”
CFPB sues co-trustees for concealing assets to avoid fine
On April 5, the CFPB filed a complaint against two individuals, both individually and in their roles as co-trustees of two trusts, accusing them of concealing assets to avoid paying a fine owed to the Bureau. In 2015 the Bureau filed an administrative action alleging one of the co-trustees—the former president of a Delaware-based online payday lender (the “individual defendant”)—and the lender violated TILA and EFTA and engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when making short-term loans. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The Bureau’s administrative order required the payment of more than $38 million in both legal and equitable restitution, along with $7.5 million in civil penalties for the company and $5 million in civil penalties for the individual defendant.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, two different administrative law judges (ALJs) decided the present case years apart, with their recommendations separately appealed to the Bureau’s director. The director upheld the decision by the second ALJ and ordered the lender and the individual defendant to pay the restitution. A district court issued a final order upholding the award, which was appealed on the grounds that the enforcement action violated their due process rights by denying the individual defendant additional discovery concerning the statute of limitations. The lender and the individual defendant recently filed a petition for writ of certiorari challenging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of the CFPB administrative ruling, and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the high court’s ruling in Lucia v. SEC, which “instructed that an agency must hold a ‘new hearing’ before a new and properly appointed official in order to cure an Appointments Clause violation” (covered by InfoBytes here), meant that a CFPB ALJ could “conduct a cold review of the paper record of the first, tainted hearing, without any additional discovery or new testimony,” or whether the Court intended for the agency to actually conduct a new hearing.
The Bureau claimed in its announcement that to date, the defendants have not complied with the agency’s order, nor have they obtained a stay while their appeal was pending. The defendants have also made no payments to satisfy the judgment, the Bureau said. The complaint alleges that the co-trustee defendants transferred funds to hinder, delay, or defraud the Bureau, in violation of the FDCPA, in order to avoid paying the owed restitution and penalties. Specifically, the complaint alleges that between 2013 and 2015, after becoming aware of the Bureau’s investigation, the individual defendant transferred $12.3 million to his wife through their revocable trusts, for which his wife is the beneficiary. The complaint requests a declaration that the transactions were fraudulent, seeks to recover the value of the transferred assets via liens on the property in partial satisfaction of the Bureau’s judgment against the individual defendant, and seeks a monetary judgment against the wife and her trust for the value of the respective property and/or funds received as a transferee of fraudulent conveyances of the property belonging to the individual defendant.
District Court: Collection can resume after debt is verified
On March 24, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment in an action concerning whether the defendants failed to adequately validate plaintiff’s debt. Plaintiff incurred a debt that was charged off and sold to one of the defendants for collection. The defendant creditor used the second defendant to manage collection of the account. An independent third party hired by the defendant creditor to collect on the debt sent an email containing a FDCPA-required validation notice to the plaintiff, who responded by sending a written validation request to the third party. In response, the second defendant sent two letters to the plaintiff, validating the debt and including the name of the original creditor, the current creditor, the last four digits of the account number, and the amount owed. The plaintiff submitted additional validation requests to the second defendant. The account was eventually placed with a different third-party collection agency, which sent a verification letter containing the same information to the plaintiff. The plaintiff sent a validation request to the new collection agency, as well as an additional request to the second defendant, and received responses to these validation requests as well.
The plaintiff sued, premising her FDCPA claims on the argument that the defendants acted deceptively when they attempted to collect on a debt by placing the account with the second collection agency while the debt was being actively disputed. The court disagreed, stating that after the defendants “provided verification of the debt, they were free to resume collection efforts.” The court explained that the plaintiff “cannot forestall collection efforts by disputing the debt into perpetuity,” and added that nothing in the FDCPA prevents the use of more than one collection agency to collect on a debt. The court also said the fact that the initial validation response was sent after the 30-day statutory validation period expired and contained a second validation notice, did not adversely impact the plaintiff nor “create actionable confusion,” particularly because “the second validation notice was sent after Plaintiff exercised her statutory right to dispute the debt.”
District Court allows prerecorded-voice-based claims to proceed
On March 23, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York partially granted a defendant debt collector’s motion for summary judgment in an action concerning the alleged use of an automated telephone dialing system (autodialer) to collect unpaid medical debt. Plaintiff claimed the defendant repeatedly called his cell phone using an autodialer and left messages using a prerecorded voice message even after he asked the defendant to stop. These actions, the plaintiff said, violated the FDCPA and the TCPA. In partially granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that the plaintiff’s TCPA claims concerning the alleged use of an autodialer were “no longer viable” following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Facebook v. Duguid (covered by a Special Alert), which narrowed the definition of autodialer under the TCPA, resulting in the law only covering equipment that generates numbers randomly and sequentially.
Although both parties agreed that the Facebook decision does not affect plaintiff’s prerecorded-voice-based-claims (which are distinct from claims based on the use of an autodialer), the parties disputed how the defendant came to possess the plaintiff’s cell phone number. The defendant maintained that the hospital that treated the plaintiff provided the cell phone number; however, the plaintiff contended that he did not recall providing his number to the hospital. The court reviewed, among other things, whether the plaintiff expressly consented to receiving calls—prerecorded or not. Under the TCPA, “[p]roviding one’s phone number to an entity constitutes consent for that entity to use the number to collect a debt, so long as ‘such number was provided during the transaction that resulted in the debt [being] owed,’” the court explained, adding that the burden is on the defendant to demonstrate that the plaintiff consented to receiving the calls that allegedly used a prerecorded voice.
A purported hospital intake form submitted by the defendant that included the plaintiff’s cell phone number did not indicate that “it was filled out by, or includes information provided only by, [the plaintiff],” the court said, also writing that “this document merely demonstrates that whenever the document was typed, [the hospital] had [plaintiff’s] phone number from some source.” This is not sufficient to indicate that the plaintiff consented to be contacted, the court ruled, holding that the defendant was not entitled to summary judgment based on its express consent affirmative defense. As a result, the court allowed the prerecorded-voice-based-claims to proceed to trial.
6th Circuit: Each alleged FDCPA violation carries its own statute of limitations
On March 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a debt collection action, holding that every alleged violation of the FDCPA has its own statute of limitations. According to the opinion, the plaintiff financed a furniture purchase through a retail installment contract. While making payments on the contract, the company purportedly sold the debt to a third party. After the plaintiff defaulted on the debt, the third party—through the defendant attorney—sued the plaintiff in state court to recover the unpaid debt and attorney’s fees. After the third party eventually voluntarily dismissed the suit due to questions of whether the debt transfer was valid, the plaintiff sued the attorney for violating the FDCPA, alleging the defendant doctored the retail installment contract (RIC) to make it appear as if the debt assignment was legal. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint as time-barred by the FDCPA’s one-year statute of limitations. The district court dismissed the case citing the complaint was filed more than a year after the third party filed the state court complaint and later denied both the plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration and the defendant’s motion for attorney’s fees. Both parties appealed.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit agreed that the plaintiff made a timely claim. Plaintiff argued that at least one of her claims fell within the one-year statute of limitations—the attorney’s filing of the updated RIC that allegedly showed the “contrived transfer” of debt—and maintained that she filed within one year of that alleged violation. The defendant countered, among other things, that the plaintiff’s claim was time-barred because it was a continuing effect of the third party’s initial filing of the state court complaint. The 6th Circuit reviewed caselaw on the “continuing-violation doctrine” and determined that the doctrine was not relevant to the case, stating that the plaintiff never invoked it because she was not “trying to sweep in acts that would otherwise be outside of the filing period,” but rather sought “redress for a single claim that is not time-barred.” The 6th Circuit emphasized that the plaintiff’s “single claim is independent of [the third party’s] initial filing of the lawsuit—not a continuing effect of it—because it is a standalone FDCPA violation.” The opinion further stated that the only date considered for the statute of limitations is the date a lawsuit is filed when subsequent FDCPA violations within that lawsuit occurred, and wrote that “[i]f we were to only consider the date [the third party] filed suit . . . we would create a rule that disregards the fact that §1629k(d) creates an independent statute of limitations for each violation of the FDCPA . . . . And if we adopted [the defendant’s] approach, we’d be saying that ‘so long as a debtor does not initiate suit within one year of the first violation, a debt collector [is] permitted to violate the FDCPA with regard to that debt indefinitely and with impunity.’”
8th Circuit reverses debt collection action for lack of standing
On February 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated and remanded the dismissal of a class action lawsuit concerning a medical collection letter that listed amounts due but did not distinguish between the principal and the interest that the debt collectors were attempting to charge. Plaintiff, who never paid any part of the interest or principal, filed a class action against the defendant debt collectors alleging violations of the FDCPA and the Nebraska Consumer Practices Act (NCPA). The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff lacked Article III standing. The district court denied the motion and the jury found for the defendants on all counts except for the NCPA claim, which was not tried before a jury. After trial, the district court determined it had provided improper jury instructions, and sua sponte, entered judgment for the plaintiff as a matter of law on both the NCPA and FDCPA claims. The district court specifically ruled that the NCPA does not allow collection of prejudgment interest by a debt collector without an actual judgment. The defendants appealed.
On appeal, the 8th Circuit focused on whether the plaintiff had standing. The appellate court held that the collection letter did not cause the plaintiff concrete harm, and concluded (quoting TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, citing Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins) that without a concrete injury in fact, she “is ‘not seeking to remedy any harm to herself but instead is merely seeking to ensure a defendant’s compliance with regulatory law (and, of course, to obtain some money via the statutory damages).’” Without suffering a tangible harm, the appellate court said it could only recognize injuries with “a ‘close relationship’ to harm ‘traditionally’ recognized as providing a basis for a lawsuit in American courts.” The plaintiff pointed to fraudulent misrepresentation and conversion as analogous to her alleged injury, but the appellate court disagreed and determined that the consumer could not establish injury sufficient to satisfy Article III standing. In vacating and remanding the district court’s ruling, the 8th Circuit pointed out that, absent standing, it lacked jurisdiction to decide any other issues raised on appeal.
District Court says undated collection letter is misleading
On February 9, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida partially granted a defendant debt collector’s motion to dismiss an action alleging an undated collection letter violated various provisions of the FDCPA. Plaintiff received a collection letter from the defendant providing information on the amount of outstanding debt and instructions on how to dispute the debt, as well as a timeframe for doing so. However, the letter sent to the plaintiff was undated, and the plaintiff asserted that it was impossible for him to determine what “today” meant when the letter said “‘[b]etween December 31, 2021 and today[,]’” or what “now” referred to in the context of “[t]otal amount of the debt now.” He argued that by withholding this necessary information, the letter appeared to be illegitimate and misleading, and ultimately caused him to spend time and money to mitigate the risk of future financial harm. The defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, maintaining that the letter “fully and accurately stated the amount of the debt and otherwise complied with all requirements of the [statute].” The defendant further argued that the letter “conforms exactly to” the debt collection model form letter provided by the CFPB, and insisted that, because it complied with 12 C.F.R. § 1006.34(d)(2), it fell within the safe harbor provided by Bureau regulations to debt collectors that use the model form letter. The defendant contended that, even if it did not qualify for the safe harbor provision, it is not a violation of the FDCPA for a debt collection letter to be undated. The plaintiff asked the court to ignore the Bureau’s safe harbor provision and find that the undated letter is sufficient to state a plausible FDCPA claims.
In dismissing one of plaintiff’s claims, the court agreed with the defendant that the plaintiff failed to provide any factual or plausible allegations demonstrating “harass[ment], oppress[ion], or abuse” by the defendant (a requirement for alleging a violation of 15 U.S.C. section 1692d). “An undated letter, with little else, is not ‘the type of coercion and delving into the personal lives of debtors that [section] 1692d in particular was designed to address,” the court wrote.
However, the court determined that the plaintiff’s other three claims survive the motion to dismiss. First, the court held that the defendant’s reliance on the model form letter “overstates both the meaning and scope of the regulatory safe harbor provided by the CFPB.” Specifically, the plaintiff did not allege that the defendant violated any CFPB regulations—he alleged violations of the FDCPA, and the court explained that nowhere does the Bureau state that using the model form letter “suffices as compliance with the corresponding statutory requirements of [FDCPA] section 1692g.” Moreover, while use of the model form might provide a safe harbor from some of the statute’s requirements, “a safe harbor for the form of provided information is different from a safe harbor for the substance of that information,” the court said, adding that using the model form letter alone does not bar plaintiff’s claims. Additionally, the court determined that under the “least-sophisticated consumer” standard, the plaintiff alleged plausible claims for relief based on the omission of the date in the letter. Among other things, the undated letter could be interpreted as not stating the full amount of the debt, nor does the letter provide a means for plaintiff to assess how the debt might increase in the future if he did not make a prompt payment. With respect to whether the defendant used “unfair or unconscionable means to collect” the debt, the court determined that the undated letter’s misleading nature as to the full amount of the debt might “be ‘unfair or unconscionable’ to the least-sophisticated consumer.”
2nd Circuit says collection letter sent on law firm letterhead did not violate FDCPA
On February 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a defendant law firm accused of violating the FDCPA when it sent the plaintiff a collection letter on law firm letterhead. The plaintiff claimed both that the letter overshadowed her validation notice by failing to advise her that her validation rights were not overridden because her account had been placed with a law firm and that the letter falsely implied it was a communication from an attorney even though no attorney was meaningfully involved in collecting the debt, which courts have found is prohibited under the FDCPA. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant on both grounds. The district court held that “because there was meaningful attorney involvement in the collection of plaintiff’s debt,” the letter was not required to include a disclaimer regarding the lack of attorney involvement in the debt collection effort. Additionally, the district court held that because the letter did not refer to any consequences should the plaintiff fail to repay the outstanding debt, “the mere fact that [the] Collection Letter is printed on law firm letterhead does not, by itself, imply an immediate threat of legal action overshadowing a validation notice in violation of the FDCPA.” The plaintiff appealed.
In affirming the grant of summary judgment, the appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that, because several of the steps the attorney supposedly followed were “performed by non-attorneys,” were “automated,” or could have been completed in a minimal amount of time, there was not meaningful attorney involvement. According to the 2nd Circuit, even if these facts were true, they did not refute the attorney’s “statement that he conducted a meaningful legal analysis of [plaintiff’s] account and ‘formed an opinion about how to manage [the] case.’” “We have never established a specific minimum period of review time to qualify as meaningful attorney involvement, and the only function that [plaintiff] has identified that [defendant] did not perform before approving the letter was establishing a specific plan to sue in the event of non-payment.” Consequently, the appellate court concluded that the FDCPA did not require the defendant to provide a disclaimer in its initial collection letter to the plaintiff.
CFPB finds 33 percent decline in collections tradelines on credit reports
On February 14, the CFPB released a report examining debt collection credit reporting trends from 2018 to 2022. The Bureau’s report, Market Snapshot: An Update on Third-Party Debt Collections Tradelines Reporting, is based on data from the agency’s Consumer Credit Panel—a nationally representative sample of roughly five million de-identified credit records maintained by one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies. According to the report, from Q1 2018 to Q1 2022, the total number of collections tradelines on credit reports declined by 33 percent, from 261 million tradelines in 2018 to 175 million tradelines in 2022. The Bureau determined that this decline was driven by contingency-fee-based debt collectors (responsible for primarily furnishing medical collections tradelines), who furnished 38 percent fewer tradelines during this time period. The total number of unique contingency-fee-based debt collectors also declined by 18 percent (from 815 to 672).
In a related blog post, the Bureau estimated that while medical collections tradelines declined by 37 percent between 2018 and 2022, these tradelines still constitute a majority (57 percent) of all collections on consumer credit reports. The Bureau explained that the “decline may be partly explained by structural dysfunctions in medical billing and collections, which increase the risk that debt collectors will not meet their legal obligations” and can result in false and inaccurate information. The Bureau said it will continue to closely examine medical billing and collection practices and highlighted a bulletin published in January 2022, which reminded debt collectors and credit reporting agencies of their legal obligations under the FDCPA and the FCRA when collecting, furnishing information about, and reporting medical debts covered by the No Surprises Act. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)