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On July 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a mortgage servicer may be a debt collector subject to the FDCPA where it attempts to both enforce a security interest and collect a debt. Birster v. American Home Mortgage Servicing, Inc., No. 11-13574, 2012 WL 2913786 (11th Cir. July 18, 2012). The borrowers alleged that the servicer harassed them with phone calls and home inspections in connection with trying to collect mortgage payments. The district court granted summary judgment to the servicer, holding that the servicer’s actions constituted efforts to enforce a security interest, and not to collect a debt. As such, the borrower’s claims under the FDCPA could not survive. The appellate court reversed and remanded, relying on its decision in Reese v. Ellis, Painter, Rattertree & Adams, LLP, No. 10-14366, 2012 WL 1500108 (11th Cir. May 1, 2012), which came after the district court ruled in favor of the servicer, and which provides that an entity can both enforce a security interest and collect a debt. The court held that the borrowers sufficiently alleged facts to support a claim under the FDCPA, citing a letter the servicer sent in which it stated that it was attempting to collect a debt.
On June 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concluded that a misrepresentation of the creditors name in a foreclosure action may constitute a false representation actionable under Section 1692e of the FDCPA. Wallace v. Washington Mut. Bank, F.A., No. 10-3694, 2012 WL 2379664 (6th Cir. June 26, 2012). In Wallace, a law firm allegedly brought a foreclosure action before the firms bank client received an assignment of the mortgage and transfer of the promissory note. The borrower contended that the law firm violated the FDCPA in foreclosing on behalf of the bank before the transfer and assignment occurred. The district court dismissed the case, holding that the failure to record an assignment before filing a foreclosure action is not a deceptive practice under the FDCPA. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed, holding that the borrowers allegations were sufficient to support a claim of material misrepresentation that would confuse or mislead an unsophisticated consumer.
Ninth Circuit Holds Debt Validation Notice That Implicitly Requires Debtor to Dispute Debt in Writing Does Not Violate FDCPA
On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a debt validation notice does not violate the FDCPA if it only implicitly, rather than expressly, requires a debtor to dispute his or her debt in writing. Riggs v. Prober & Raphael, No. 10-17220, 2012 WL 2054640 (9th Cir. June 8, 2012). In Riggs, a debt collection law firm, in seeking to collect a debt owed to one of its clients, sent a debt validation notice to a debtor which implied that if the debtor wanted to dispute the debt, she would need to do so in writing. The debtor failed to contact the firm and made no payment towards her debt. Instead, after settling an action brought against her by the firm in state court, the debtor filed suit against the firm in federal court, alleging that the firm violated the FDCPA and its California equivalent because it required her to dispute her debt in writing and therefore misrepresented her right to dispute the debt. In affirming the ruling of the district court, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that the least sophisticated consumer could interpret the firms debt validation notice to imply that any dispute of the debt must be in writing. Nevertheless, recognizing that the FDCPA itself can be read to imply that a debtor must dispute a debt in writing, the Ninth Circuit held that there is a violation of the FDCPA only where the debt validation notice expressly requires the dispute be in writing.
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Finds that "Dunning" Notice Enforcing a Security Interest May Give Rise to FDCPA Claim
On May 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded a lower court’s dismissal of an FDCPA claim, finding that the contents of a “dunning” notice from the lender’s foreclosing law firm constitutes an attempt to collect a debt under the FDCPA. Reese v. Ellis, Painter, Rattertree & Adams, LLP, No. 10-14366, 2012 WL 1500108 (11th Cir. May 1, 2012). The borrowers received a letter and documents from the lender’s law firm demanding payment of the debt on the borrowers’ defaulted mortgage loan and threatening to foreclose on their home if they did not pay the outstanding debt. The borrowers filed a class action lawsuit against the law firm alleging that the communication violated the FDCPA. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim under the FDCPA. On appeal, the court held that the borrowers’ obligation to pay off the promissory note, which the court distinguished from a security interest, represents a debt under the FDCPA. The court then rejected the law firm’s argument that the purpose of the letter and accompanying documents was not to collect a debt, but rather to inform the borrowers of the lender’s intent to enforce its security interest through possible foreclosure. The court determined that the documents at issue, which contained disclaimers such as “This law firm is acting as a debt collector attempting to collect a debt,” had a dual purpose of providing notice of foreclosure and collecting a debt. In so holding, the court noted that following the law firm’s reasoning would create a giant loophole in the FDCPA wherein the law only would apply to efforts to collect on unsecured debt and would permit collectors to “harass or mislead [secured] debtors without violating the FDCPA.”
Federal Appeals Court Finds Plaintiff States FDCPA Claim Against Servicer, Creditor When Acquiring Debt Purportedly in Default
On April 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a mortgage servicer and a creditor can be sued as a debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) when acquiring a debt in default at the time of acquisition. The plaintiffs, a borrower and her non-borrower husband, alleged that the servicer and creditor violated the FDCPA in attempting to collect from the borrower and her husband, notwithstanding that the mortgage was not in default and despite plaintiffs’ repeated requests the servicer cease further communication. The servicer argued that it could not be liable under the FDCPA based upon its status as a mortgage loan servicer and because the debt was not actually in default. Similarly, the creditor argued that as the purchaser of the debt it could not be a debt collector and that it was neither a debt collector nor a creditor under the circumstances of the case. The district court, assuming plaintiff’s allegations that the servicer was not a servicer and that the creditor was not a creditor for purposes of the motion to dismiss, granted the motion on the basis that neither the servicer nor owner was a debt collector under the FDCPA. On appeal, the court, relying on congressional intent and previous decisions from the Third and Seventh Circuits, held that an entity that acquires a debt it seeks to collect must be either a creditor or a debt collector, depending on the status of the debt at the time it was acquired. Similarly, the court held the servicer may be either a servicer or debt collector when acting on behalf of the debt-acquiring entity. To hold otherwise, the court reasoned, would frustrate the purpose of the FDCPA’s broad consumer protections. Further, the court held that after years of attempting to collect on the debt and acting as a debt collector, the servicer could not now attempt to defeat the broad protections of the FDCPA by relying on the borrower’s assertion that the loan was not actually in default. Finally, the court rejected the defendants’ claims that the plaintiff-husband failed to state a claim since he was not actually obligated on the debt in light of the FDCPA’s application to debt collectors when attempting to collect a debt “owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” The appellate court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On March 30, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a FDCPA claim stemming from a communication to the plaintiff that erroneously identified MERS Corp. as the plaintiff’s creditor. Shoup v. McCurdy & Candler LLC, No. 10-14619, 2012 WL 1071196 (11th Cir. Mar. 30, 2012). The plaintiff obtained a mortgage from America Wholesale Lender. MERS was the grantee acting as the lender’s nominee under the mortgage contract. After the plaintiff defaulted, MERS’s law firm sent an initial communication letter described as an attempt to collect a debt and identifying MERS as the “creditor on the above referenced loan.” The mortgagee filed suit under the FDCPA, alleging that MERS is not a creditor and that by falsely stating so, the law firm committed a FDCPA violation. The district court granted the defendant law firm’s 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, concluding that MERS was a creditor and that even if it was not, the purported violation was harmless. In its reversal, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned that the FDCPA makes clear that (i) “any false representation” in the collection of a debt is a violation of the statute, (ii) a “creditor” under the statute would not include MERS in this instance, because MERS was not owed a debt, and (iii) any failure to comply with the law subjects the violator to actual and statutory damages.
On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected a lawsuit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) that was premised on pleadings filed in an unsuccessful state court collection action. Hemmingsen v. Messerli & Kramer, P.A., No. 11-2029, 2012 WL 878654 (8th Cir. Mar. 16, 2012). Plaintiff debtor successfully defended against a collection lawsuit in state court and thereafter commenced an FDCPA action for harassment, false or misleading representations in the state court action, and unfair practices. The claims were based upon defendant debt collection counsel’s summary judgment motion and supporting affidavit; the factual allegations in these documents were deemed unsupportable by the state court when it dismissed the collection lawsuit. A federal district court dismissed the FDCPA action on the ground that representations in the motion and affidavit in the collection action were made to the state court, and not to the plaintiff as required by the FDCPA. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit rejected this broad FDCPA defense and instead embraced a “case-by-case” approach. The court held that these particular FDCPA claims failed because evidence introduced in federal court provided some factual support for the pleadings filed in the state court action.
On March 20, the CFPB submitted to Congress its first annual report on the administration and enforcement of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA). The CFPB inherited the annual reporting function as part of the Dodd-Frank Act’s transfer to the CFPB of the primary regulatory responsibility for the FDCPA. Prior to this report, the FTC prepared the annual report, and this year it submitted a letter to the CFPB detailing its efforts under the FDCPA. The report, as informed by the FTC letter, provides (i) a brief background on the FDCPA, (ii) a summary of consumer complaints about the debt collection industry, (iii) a description of the CFPB’s FDCPA supervision authority, including its rulemaking to expand that authority by defining “larger participant” nonbanks, (iv) an outline of recent FTC and CFPB enforcement activity and amicus briefs filed against entities engaged in debt collection, including ongoing non-public investigations of debt collection practices, and (v) each regulator’s FDCPA-related research and policy initiatives.
On March 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that International Collection Corporation (ICC) and its director were liable for violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) by falsely claiming in communications to debtors that ICC was entitled to interest and legal fees. Cruz v. International Collection Corp., No. 09-17449, 2012 WL 742337 (9th Cir. Mar. 8, 2012). In 2006, Cruz wrote two checks to Harrah’s Casino in Reno, Nevada. The checks bounced. Over the course of the next year, ICC sent Cruz eight collection letters, some of which falsely claimed that ICC was entitled to treble damages, interest, and legal fees. The director and sole owner of ICC signed and sent at least one such collection letter. The FDCPA bars the use of any false, deceptive, or misleading representation in connection with the collection of any debt. 15 U.S.C. § 1692e. Cruz filed suit and the district court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision against ICC and affirmed that Hendrickson was personally liable. Because the director was personally involved in at least one illegal collection attempt, the court did not need to reach the question of whether an officer who qualifies as a debt collector may be held personally liable based solely on the action of serving in his role as an officer of the company.
CFPB Director Addresses State Attorneys General, Spotlight on Payday Lenders, Debt Collectors, and Servicing Rules
The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) met this week in Washington, DC. Among the topics covered at the annual meeting was the ongoing and future coordination between federal and state law enforcement with regard to financial services. CFPB Director Cordray, a former state attorney general, noted that NAAG and the CFPB already have several working groups organized to address payday loans, foreclosure scams, auto loans, and debt collection. These efforts will be supported through a formal Memorandum of Understanding that is expected to be finalized soon. In his remarks and in follow up questioning, Director Cordray specifically addressed enforcement and supervision with regard to payday lenders and debt collectors. It was reported that Director Cordray indicated that the CFPB and the FTC are “zoning in” on issues related to payday lenders associated with Native American tribes. Regarding debt collectors, the Director stated that aggressive enforcement by the FTC and states is not enough, and that the CPFB would like federal and state regulators and enforcement agencies to develop a national strategic plan that leverages the CFPB’s supervision and enforcement capabilities. Finally, on planned rulemaking by the CFPB, the Director noted ongoing efforts to develop rules governing mortgage servicing, including force-placed insurance products and hybrid ARMs.
- Daniel R. Alonso to moderate an interactive roundtable at the Latin Lawyer and GIR Connect: Anti-Corruption & Investigations Conference
- APPROVED Checkpoint Webcast: You have license renewal questions, we have answers
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Truth in lending” at the American Bar Association National Institute on Consumer Financial Services Basics
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss anti-money-laundering at FELABAN Spanish-language webinar “Perspective for banks: LAFT, FINCEN, OFAC, Cryptocurrency”
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "What’s new in BSA/AML compliance?" at the Institute of International Bankers Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Regulatory update: What you need to know under the new boss; It won’t be the same as the old boss" at the IMN Residential Mortgage Service Rights Forum (East)
- Benjamin B. Klubes to discuss “Creating a Fantastic Workplace Culture”
- John R. Coleman and Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss “Consumer financial services government enforcement actions – The CFPB and beyond” at the Government Investigations & Civil Litigation Institute Annual Meeting
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Regulators always ring twice: Responding to a government request” at ALM Legalweek