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On June 24, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee granted a defendant debt collector’s motion for summary judgment in an FDCPA action, holding that the plaintiff did not have enough evidence to prove her claim that the defendant violated FDCPA Section 1692e(8) by failing to communicate that her debts were disputed. According to the order, the plaintiff obtained a copy of her credit report and noticed that the defendant was reporting five debts that she allegedly owed to a healthcare provider. The plaintiff’s counsel sent the defendant a letter disputing the debts. While the defendant did not report to the credit bureaus that the debts were disputed, the defendant received instructions from the healthcare provider to remove all of its consumer debts from the national credit bureaus. The defendant subsequently instructed the credit bureaus to remove all of the accounts from their services. However, the defendant did not verify that the debts were removed, claiming that it did not recall ever having “‘an issue raised as a result of one of the credit bureaus not removing a debt as requested,’” and as such “had ‘no reason to confirm that its instructions to [the credit bureau] had been carried out.’” When the plaintiff checked her credit report nearly three months later using a credit monitoring app, she saw that the debts were still being reported and were not marked as being disputed. The app showed the information to be reported as of a date that was three weeks after the defendant asked to have the debts marked as disputed. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant failed to mark the debts as disputed and alleged that it communicated information to the credit bureaus without identifying the debts as being disputed. The defendant countered, arguing among other things, that it “‘has no control over when or how [the credit bureau] inputs data from [the defendant] or how [the credit bureau] describes the report date of the data that [the defendant] submits to it.’”
In granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court determined that simply because the app used a date to indicate how current the information was does not mean that information was communicated to the credit bureaus by the defendant on that date. The app report relied upon by the plaintiff “does not indicate that [the defendant] communicated with [the credit bureau] on that date,” the court wrote. “It is simply silent on that question. It certainly gives rise to the possibility that [the defendant] communicated with [the credit bureau] on that date, but a possibility is not the same as probability.” As a result, the court found there was insufficient evidence in the record to support the plaintiff’s claims and it granted summary judgment in the defendant’s favor.
On June 16, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted a Delaware-based debt collector’s (defendant) motions to dismiss with prejudice and compel arbitration in an FDCPA, TCPA class-action case, while denying as moot the defendant’s motion to strike or stay. The plaintiff’s unpaid credit card debt was sold to the defendant, who sought to collect the debt by calling the plaintiff’s cell phone two dozen times in a span of two weeks using an automated telephone dialing system. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit originally alleging TCPA violations. He later amended the complaint to include FDCPA violations after he claimed he never received notice as required by the FDCPA. Under the FDCPA, debt collectors are required to provide a consumer with written notice containing various required information within five days after the initial communication in connection with the collection of any debt, “unless the. . .information is contained in the initial communication or the consumer has paid the debt.” The defendant initially moved to dismiss, but after the plaintiff opposed, filed an instant motion to compel arbitration based on an arbitration provision contained in a set of terms and conditions in the plaintiff’s credit card agreement with the original creditor. The plaintiff countered, among other things, that the debt collector cannot enforce the arbitration provision because the plaintiff never signed it, and further argued that the card agreement is unconscionable.
The court disagreed, ruling that the defendant did not waive its right to arbitrate the plaintiff’s claims, pointing out that the arbitration provision between the plaintiff and the defendant is part of the card agreement, which the plaintiff accepted once he began using the credit card. According to the court, the arbitration provision “states that it covers ‘any claim, dispute or controversy between you and us arising out of or related to your [a]ccount, a previous related [a]ccount, or our relationship,’ including but not limited to those ‘based on. . .statutory or regulatory provisions, or any other sources of law.’” According to the court, the plaintiff’s dispute with the defendant relates to violations of the TCPA and FDCPA and exists between the plaintiff and the original creditor’s assignee (the defendant). Thus, because the claims relate to a creditor-debtor relationship arising out of the card agreement, the court determined that the arbitration provision “constitutes a valid agreement to arbitrate” and was unpersuaded by the plaintiff’s arguments that the arbitration provision is unconscionable. With respect to the plaintiff’s TCPA claims, the court found that it “disregards as unreasonable and implausible Plaintiff’s allegation that any calls he received related to amounts unpaid arising out of his [credit card] were unlawful in light of the [c]ard [a]greement,” which expressly authorizes the original creditor or its assignees to call the plaintiff once the plaintiff accepted the card agreement. The court found that as the plaintiff did not plead sufficient facts to show that the calls were inconsistent with the FDCPA, the defendant had every right to call him.
On June 17, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington awarded plaintiffs approximately $62,000 in damages, including $60,000 for emotional distress, after suing a debt collector for alleged Washington Collection Agency Act and FDCPA violations when the defendant allegedly attempted to collect more than what was owed and allegedly made false and misleading statements when attempting to collect. According to the amended findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court previously granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the defendant’s actions had violated Sections 1692e, 1692e(2), 1692e(8), and 1692f of the FDCPA, in addition to a provision of the Washington Collection Agency Act entitling them to damages under the Washington Consumer Protection Act. These actions included attempts to collect amounts not owed in three separate phone calls with one of the plaintiffs, one letter that was sent to both plaintiffs, and repeated and ongoing credit reporting of an inflated balance. The defendant allegedly made false and misleading statements, including that a judgment had been entered for the alleged debt, claiming that “Plaintiffs’ wages would be garnished, that plaintiffs had been evicted, and that various charges and fees were legitimate.” Though the defendant admitted the statements were made in error, the court ruled that the plaintiffs “did not need to meet the intentional infliction of emotional distress standard to recover” in this case under the FDCPA. The defendant’s actions caused the plaintiffs “stress, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and other forms of general emotional distress … at a particularly vulnerable time for both plaintiffs, as they were experiencing the joy and challenges of raising a new baby.” The court awarded each of the two plaintiffs $30,000 in emotional distress damages.
On June 21, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York granted defendants’ motion to compel arbitration in an action accusing the defendant of violating the FDCPA by making false statements when attempting to collect outstanding debt. In 2018, the defendant purchased the plaintiff’s charged-off account and a year later filed a lawsuit seeking to collect on the outstanding credit card debt. Default judgment was entered in favor of the defendant, who then attempted to collect on the judgment by filing an income execution to garnish the plaintiff’s wages. The plaintiff filed suit, contending that the income execution contained false statements and failed to comply with various requirements under the New York State Consumer Protection Law. The defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss the complaint based on provisions in a credit card agreement between the plaintiff and the original creditor. The plaintiff argued that the arbitration provisions did not apply because the judgment obtained by the defendant on the underlying debt extinguished the agreement and, as such, “there is no longer an ‘account’ upon which to enforce the arbitration provision.” The court disagreed, noting that if the plaintiff’s assertion that “an underlying court judgment merges with and extinguishes an underlying contractual debt” was correct, “contracts would be rendered meaningless whenever a party breached any portion of an agreement and the other party obtained a judgment on such breach.” Additionally, the court noted that the agreement “expressly permitted parties to file suit without waiving the right to compel arbitration on subsequent claims.” Specifically, the agreement provides that cases filed to collect money owed by a consumer will not be subject to arbitration, but that a response to such a collection suit claiming any wrongdoing may be subject to arbitration. “Thus, regardless of whether an underlying court judgment merges with and extinguishes an underlying contractual debt, the contract itself and its obligations—including the ability to compel the arbitration of subsequent claims—do not similarly merge,” the court wrote.
On June 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling dismissing a plaintiff’s FDCPA lawsuit for lack of standing. According to the opinion, the plaintiff claimed a debt collector violated the FDCPA by engaging in deceptive debt collection practices. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing the plaintiff lacked standing because the debts they sought to collect were owed by a company listed under a fictitious name that the plaintiff created with another person as co-owner and used to buy a condominium, and was registered under the Florida’s Fictitious Name Act, not the plaintiff himself. The plaintiff argued he established standing and that his complaint stated a claim on which relief may be granted. The district court ruled the plaintiff failed to state a claim because the company created by the plaintiff was not the same as the plaintiff himself, and in the alternative ruled that the debt owed by the fictitiously named company did not meet the definition of “consumer debt,” nor was the company a “consumer” under the FDCPA. The plaintiff appealed the decision, arguing that the fictitiously named company was not a legal entity; therefore, he should be permitted to continue with his lawsuit. The appellate court sided with the defendants, ruling that the plaintiff did not justify why he and the fictitiously named company should be treated “as the same party in light of the shared ownership of the fictitious name” with a second person who was not party to the suit. The appellate court wrote: “since [the plaintiff and the fictitiously named company] cannot be treated as an interchangeable entity, [the plaintiff’s] proceeding alone lacks standing to bring the FDCPA and related claims based on Defendants’ efforts to collect debts from [the fictitiously named company].”
On June 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned a district court’s decision, holding that a debt collector’s offer to settle an outstanding debt did not require informing the consumer that the balance could increase as a result of interest and fees. The plaintiff allegedly incurred credit card debt, which was then placed with the defendant for collection. The defendant sent the plaintiff a collection letter offering to settle the account for less than what was owed. The plaintiff sued, alleging that the letter violated Section 1692e of the FDCPA because it did not specify that interest was accruing on the balance. The district court, relying on the 2nd Circuit’s 2016 decision in Avila v. Riexinger & Associates, held that the defendant violated the FDCPA because the letter did not indicate that the balance would increase as a result of interest and fees.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit clarified that its Avila decision discussed two exceptions, or “safe harbors,” to the requirement for debt collectors to disclose the possibility of interest and fees accruing, which are if the collection notice: (i) “ accurately informs the consumer that the amount of the debt stated in the letter will increase over time”; or (ii) “clearly states that the holder of the debt will accept payment in the amount set forth in full satisfaction of the debt if payment is made by a specified date.” The 2nd Circuit pointed out that the “payment of an amount that the collector indicates will fully satisfy a debt excludes the possibility of further debt to pay.” The appellate court further held that “a settlement offer need not enumerate the consequences of failing to meet its deadline or rejecting it outright so long as it clearly and accurately informs a debtor that payment of a specified sum by a specified date will satisfy the debt.” Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the collection notice to the consumer did not violate FDCPA section 1692e “because it extended a settlement offer that, if accepted through payment of the specified amount(s) by the specified date(s), would have cleared [the plaintiff’s] account.”
On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a district court’s finding that an obligation for a rental property cannot be “primarily consumer in nature” under the FDCPA. The plaintiff and his wife purchased two properties in the same community in Arizona. The plaintiff and his wife claimed that they initially purchased the first property as a retirement home and only decided to use it as a rental property later. The plaintiff also claimed that he and his wife purchased the two properties with the intent of having tenants occupy them until they moved into one of them upon retirement. The defendant homeowner’s association sued the plaintiff in state court for allegedly failing to pay assessments and late fees associated with one of the properties. The plaintiff sued the defendant in federal court, alleging the attempts to collect the money violated the FDCPA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant concluding that, “because there is no genuine dispute that the [first property] was a rental property, the obligation associated with the property is commercial, not consumer, in nature.” Consequently, because the obligation was not consumer in nature, the district court determined that it does not qualify as a “debt” subject to the FDCPA.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the entry of judgment for the defendant and remanded to the district court with instructions that the court, “make a factual determination of the true purpose of the [plaintiff’s] acquisition of [both properties].” The 9th Circuit also noted that, “to determine whether the transaction was primarily consumer or commercial in nature, the court must ‘examine the transaction as a whole, paying particular attention to the purpose for which the credit was extended.’”
On June 7, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon partially granted a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, finding that a debt buyer who puts accounts with a debt collector can be held vicariously liable for the actions of the debt collector, since the debt buyer “bear[s] the responsibility of monitoring the activities of those it hires to collect debts on its behalf.” The case is on remand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit and found that a company that purchases consumer debt is defined as a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, even if there is no direct interaction with consumers and the debt collection is outsourced to a third party (covered by InfoBytes here).
The plaintiff sued the debt buyer (defendant) claiming it was “vicariously and jointly liable” for alleged FDCPA violations by the third-party collector. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the plaintiff failed to state a claim because debt purchasing companies like the defendant “who have no interactions with debtors and merely contract with third parties to collect on the debts they have purchased simply do not have the principal purpose of collecting debts.” The district court reasoned that Congress intended the FDCPA to apply only to those who directly interact with customers, based on the court’s interpretation of the language used in the substantive provisions of the law.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the dismissal, determining that the FDCPA does not solely regulate entities that directly interact with consumers. The appellate court concluded that an entity that otherwise meets the “principal purpose” definition of debt collector—“any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts”—cannot avoid liability under the FDCPA merely by hiring a third party to perform debt collection activities on its behalf.
On remand, the district court judge found that the debt buyer and debt collector were in a principal-agent relationship “because the undisputed facts demonstrate that [the debt buyer] had a right to control [the debt collector’s] debt collection activities to a significant degree.” According to the opinion, the agreement between the debt buyer and collector allowed the debt buyer to audit the accounts it placed with the debt collector. During an audit, the debt buyer pointed out that the debt collector’s “collection efforts needed much improvement with regard to consumer compliance” and that “simple guidelines were not being followed.” In addition, the audit found that the debt buyer had prior knowledge of phone scripts the debt collector used when contacting debtors on its behalf. The judge concluded that “[b]y its acquiescence, [the debt buyer] ‘impliedly authorized’ [the debt collector’s] use of the script ‘and thus is liable for any violations of law caused by the firm’s use of those practices.”
On May 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a consumer’s alleged “confusion and anxiety” does not constitute a concrete and particularized injury under the FDCPA. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s debt collector, an attorney’s office, violated the FDCPA when it communicated with him, on behalf of a bank, by sending a letter stating the plaintiff’s mortgage loan was sent to foreclosure. The letter also informed the plaintiff that the bank “might have already sent a letter about possible alternatives,” further explaining how the plaintiff could contact the bank “to attempt to be reviewed for possible alternatives to foreclosure.” The plaintiff also alleged that the attorney’s office “sent a form of this letter to tens of thousands of homeowners and that it did so without having any attorney provide a meaningful review of the homeowners’ foreclosure files, so the communications deceptively implied they were from an attorney.” The plaintiff alleged the letter confused him because he was unsure if it was from an attorney, and that, moreover, the letter “raised [his] anxiety” by suggesting “that an attorney may have conducted an independent investigation and substantive legal review of the circumstances of his account, such that his prospects for avoiding foreclosure were diminished.”
The 6th Circuit found the plaintiff’s allegations to “come up short” in regard to proving that the statutory violations caused him individualized concrete harm. In addition, the appellate court said that “confusion doesn’t have a close relationship to a harm that has traditionally been regarded as providing a basis for a lawsuit.”
On May 19, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted a lender’s motion to compel arbitration in a putative class action debt collection case, ruling that the lender’s collection lawsuit against an individual did not waive the arbitration clause in the underlying promissory note. After the plaintiff borrower defaulted on a personal loan, she received a collection letter from a law firm hired by the creditor, which contained a warning that if payment was not made within 30 days, a recommendation would be made to the creditor to file a lawsuit to collect on the debt. Six days after sending the letter, the creditor filed suit in small claims court to recover the unpaid debt. The plaintiff then filed a separate lawsuit against the creditor and the law firm, alleging violations of the FDCPA and the Texas Debt Collection Act (TDCA). The plaintiff claimed, among other things, that the letter made “false, deceptive, or misleading representations” because the creditor demanded payment within 30 days even though the FDCPA provides borrowers 30 days to dispute a debt after receiving a collection letter. The plaintiff further sought to hold the creditor “vicariously liable [under the TDCA]” for the law firm’s allegedly unlawful collection activities. The defendants moved to compel arbitration, but the plaintiff argued that the arbitration clause in the underlying promissory note was waived when the defendants sued to collect on the unpaid debt. The plaintiff also argued that the law firm hired by the creditor could not compel arbitration because it was not a party to the promissory note. The court disagreed, finding that the creditor’s decision to file a lawsuit for breach of contract in small claims court “should not prevent it from later enforcing its right to arbitrate a completely separate claim.” The court further concluded that the allegations brought against the law firm are “inextricably enmeshed and have a significant relationship to the terms” of the promissory note, and that, as such, the law firm may compel arbitration even though it is a nonsignatory to the agreement.
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