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On November 6, the CFPB announced an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to solicit input on a wide array of issues related to consumer protection in the debt collection market. With the release of the ANPR, the CFPB also announced the publication of approximately 5,000 debt collection complaints in its consumer complaint database.
The ANPR marks the Bureau’s first step toward exercising its rulemaking authority under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Notably, although the FDCPA generally applies only to third-party debt collectors, the CFPB’s regulations could extend to original creditors as well. In addition to the CFPB’s express authority to make substantive rules under the FDCPA, the Bureau made all creditors subject to debt collection guidance issued earlier this year pursuant to its general authority to regulate unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices.
The 162 questions contained in the ANPR focus primarily on the accuracy of information used by debt collectors, how to ensure consumers know their rights, and the communication tactics collectors employ to recover debts.
- Information Accuracy—Due to concern over how information is transferred, the CFPB seeks input on current processes for transferring records and ensuring the integrity of information transmitted. Specifically, the CFPB inquires about how account holders are identified and verified, how claims of improper identification are handled, how amounts of indebtedness are confirmed, and how claims of indebtedness are supported.
- Informed Consumers—Based on its belief that consumers may not sufficiently understand debt collection processes, the CFPB seeks input on the quality of information and disclosures provided to debtors. Specifically, the CFPB inquires about the information and disclosures provided with respect to the specific debt being collected and the debtors’ legal rights, including the rights to dispute debt and limit certain communications.
- Communication Tactics—Based on its concern that harmful communication tactics continue in the debt collection market, the CFPB seeks input on tactics not addressed by the FDCPA. Specifically, the CFPB inquires about frequency of contact with debtors, the means of communication employed, and the use and prevalence of threats by collectors.
The deadline for comments is 90 days from publication of the ANPR in the Federal Register.
On September 25, the FTC announced the settlement of its first case against a debt collector for using text messaging to attempt to collect debts in an allegedly unlawful manner. The complaint, filed on August 23, alleged that an individual and the two debt collection companies he controlled violated the FDCPA and FTC Act when the companies failed to disclose in English- and Spanish-language text messages and phone calls that the companies were debt collectors and that they falsely portrayed themselves as law firms. The FTC also alleged that the defendants illegally revealed debts to the consumers’ family members, friends, and co-workers. To resolve the FTC’s claims, the companies agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty, agreed not to send text messages omitting the disclosures required by law and agreed to obtain a consumer’s express consent before contacting them by text message. The defendants are also barred from falsely claiming to be law firms and from falsely threatening to sue or take any action – such as seizure of property or garnishment – that they do not actually intend to take.
On July 12, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that members of a putative class must arbitrate their claims against creditors for allegedly unlawful debt collection practices individually. Shetiwy v. Midland Credit Management, No. 12-7068, 2013 WL 3530524 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 12, 2013). A group of creditors facing allegations that they violated the RICO Act and the FDCPA by conspiring with third party debt collectors to collect debts through fraudulently obtained default judgments, including judgments obtained through practices associated with robosigning, moved to compel arbitration based on the terms of their cardmember agreements, which require mandatory arbitration on an individual basis of any claims arising from a cardmember’s account. The court held that even if the plaintiffs could show that costs associated with individual arbitration would preclude vindicating their statutory rights under RICO and the FDCPA, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent holding in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, “made clear that a generalized congressional intent to vindicate statutory rights cannot override the FAA’s mandate that courts enforce arbitration clauses” like the one at issue here. The court explained that “[n]othing in the text of RICO or the FDCPA indicate [sic] a more explicit ‘contrary congressional command’ than that contained in the federal antitrust laws at issue in Italian Colors” and that “[i]n fact, the FDCPA explicitly limits recovery obtained by unnamed class members in a class action, without regard to how that will affect total recover for each individual.” The court enforced the arbitration agreements and stayed the case as to the creditors pending arbitration.
On July 9, the FTC announced that a third-party debt collector and its subsidiaries agreed to pay a $3.2 million civil penalty to resolve allegations that the companies violated the FDCPA and FTC Act by (i) calling individuals multiple times per day, including early in the morning or late at night, (ii) calling even after being asked to stop, (iii) calling individuals’ workplaces despite knowing that the employers prohibited such calls, (iv) leaving phone messages for third parties, which disclosed the debtor’s name and the existence of the debt, and (v) continuing collection efforts without verifying a debt, even after individuals said they did not owe the debt. In addition to the monetary penalty, which the FTC described as the largest it has ever obtained against a third-party collector, the stipulated order requires, with regard to consumers who dispute the validity or the amount of a debt, that the companies close the account and end collection efforts, or suspend collection until they have conducted a reasonable investigation and verified that their information about the debt is accurate and complete. The order also restricts situations in which the defendants can leave voicemails that disclose the alleged debtor’s name and the fact that he or she may owe a debt, and requires the companies to halt or limit other alleged practices. The companies also must record at least 75% of all their debt collection calls beginning one year after the date of the order, and retain the recordings for 90 days after they are made.
On July 3, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a mortgage servicer’s alleged repeated delivery of notices of default and acceleration to borrowers who were current on their obligation could be “adverse action,” triggering the ECOA notification requirements. Schlegel v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 11-6816, 2013 WL 3336727 (9th Cir. July 3, 2013). According to the borrowers, although they received a discharge in bankruptcy, they reaffirmed their mortgage loan, subject to a modification that apparently reduced their monthly payment obligation. The borrowers claimed that the servicer did not correct its records to reflect the loan modification and sent several notices of default and acceleration. The Ninth Circuit held that, while sending a mistaken default notice would not necessarily constitute an adverse action, the conduct alleged in the complaint, in which the creditor repeatedly stated that the obligation was immediately due and payable, fell within the definition of an “adverse action” as, among other things, a “revocation of credit.” Therefore, the court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the borrowers’ claim that the mortgage servicer had failed to provide a notification within 30 days after taking adverse action, as required under ECOA. The appellate court, however, upheld the district court’s dismissal of the borrowers’ claim under the FDCPA, holding that the complaint failed to adequately allege that the servicer was a “debt collector” under the FDCPA — i.e., either that its principal business was the collection of debts or that it was collecting the subject debt “for another.”
CFPB Puts Creditors, Third-Party Collectors on Notice Regarding Unfair, Deceptive, and Abusive Debt Collection Practices
This morning, the CFPB issued new debt collection guidance that, among other things, seeks to hold CFPB-supervised creditors accountable for engaging in acts or practices the CFPB considers to be unfair, deceptive, and/or abusive (UDAAP) when collecting their own debts, in much the same way debt collectors are held accountable for violations of the FDCPA. Bulletin 2013-07 reviews the Dodd-Frank Act UDAAP standards, provides a non-exhaustive list of debt collection acts or practices that could constitute UDAAPs, and states that even though creditors generally are not considered debt collectors under the FDCPA, the CFPB intends to supervise their debt collection activities under its UDAAP authority.
Separately, in Bulletin 2013-08, the CFPB provided guidance to creditors, debt buyers, and third-party collectors about compliance with the FDCPA and sections 1031 and 1036 of Dodd-Frank when making representations about the impact that payments on debts in collection may have on credit reports and credit scores. The Bulletin states that potentially deceptive debt collection claims are a matter of “significant concern” to the CFPB and describes the CFPB’s planned supervisory activities and other actions the CFPB may take to ensure that the debt collection market “functions in a fair, transparent, and competitive manner.”
In addition, the CFPB announced that it will begin accepting consumer complaints related to debt collection, and published five “action letters” that consumers can use to correspond with debt collectors. The letters address the situations when the consumer: (i) needs more information on the debt; (ii) wants to dispute the debt and for the debt collector to prove responsibility or stop communication; (iii) wants to restrict how and when a debt collector can contact them; (iv) has hired a lawyer; (v) wants the debt collector to stop any and all contact.
On May 29, in a case of first impression for that circuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a debt collector’s collection notice requiring a debtor to dispute a debt in writing violated the FDCPA’s debt notice provisions, provided for in Section 1692g. Hooks v. Forman, Holt, Eliades & Ravin, LLC, No. 12-3639, 2013 WL 2321409 (2nd Cir. May 29, 2012). In so holding, the Second Circuit joined the Ninth Circuit but split from the Third Circuit, which has held that a notice imposing a written requirement does not violate the FDCPA. Here, a district court dismissed a case brought by two debtors in a putative class action against a debt collector for allegedly violating the FDCPA by including in debt notices a requirement that debt disputes be submitted in writing. On appeal, the Second Circuit held that language of Section 1692g(a)(3), which provides the basic right to dispute the debt, does not incorporate the writing requirement included specifically in other sections of 1692g. The court held that the FDCPA intentionally established a bifurcated system that allows a debtor to protect that basic right through an oral dispute, while triggering a broader set of rights by disputing a debt in writing. The court vacated a judgment of the district court and remanded for further proceedings.
On March 20, the CFPB presented to Congress its annual report on implementation and enforcement of the FDCPA. The report (i) summarizes the Bureau’s Consumer Response function, which does not currently cover debt collection complaints, and the number and types of consumer complaints regarding debt collection received by the FTC in 2012, (ii) describes the CFPB’s debt collection supervision program, (iii) presents recent enforcement and advocacy program developments, (iv) discusses recent education and outreach, as well as research and policy initiatives, and (v) discusses coordination and cooperation between the CFPB and the FTC. Because the FTC and the CFPB share FDCPA implementation and enforcement responsibilities, the report incorporates a letter from the FTC regarding its FDCPA-related activities. The CFPB reported that the FTC continues to receive more complaints for the debt collection industry than for any other. The report also highlights (i) the debt collection aspects of a CFPB enforcement action against a credit card company, (ii) the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding court discretion to award costs to prevailing FDCPA defendant creditors, and (iii) FTC enforcement activities.
On February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the FDCPA does not limit a court’s discretion under federal rules to award costs to a prevailing defendant creditor alleged to have violated the Act. Marx v. Gen. Revenue Corp., No. 11-1175, 2013 WL 673254 (Feb. 26, 2013). The Tenth Circuit had earlier held that the defendant creditor did not violate the FDCPA, and that the creditor could be awarded costs under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(1). On appeal, the debtor, supported by the United States as amicus, argued that any statute specifically providing for costs displaces Rule 54(d)(1), regardless of whether it is contrary to the Rule. The relevant FDCPA provision, §1692k(a)(3), provides that “[o]n a finding by the court that an action under this section was brought in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment, the court may award to the defendant attorney’s fees reasonable in relation to the work expended and costs.” The Court affirmed the Tenth Circuit and held that the language and context of §1692k(a)(3) indicate that Congress did not intend it to prohibit courts from awarding costs. The Court explained that (i) the statute is best read as codifying a court’s pre-existing authority to award both attorney’s fees and costs, (ii) by including “and costs” in the second sentence of the statute, Congress foreclosed the argument that defendants can only recover attorney’s fees when plaintiffs bring an action in bad faith and removed any doubt that defendants may also recover costs in such cases, and (iii) the statutory language sharply contrasts with that of other statutes in which Congress has placed conditions on awarding costs to prevailing defendants.
On February 1, the FTC sent a letter to the CFPB describing the FTC's debt collection-related activities over the past year. The responsibility to report to Congress each year on implementation and enforcement of the FDCPA shifted from the FTC to the CFPB last year, but given their shared authority with regard to the FDCPA, the CFPB relies on the FTC to provide information for inclusion in its annual report. The FTC letter recaps the agency's law enforcement efforts, including the filing or resolution of four actions against collectors alleged to have engaged in deceptive, unfair, or abusive conduct and the filing or resolution of three actions related to phantom debt collection. The letter also highlights outreach and policy activities, including the FTC's recent debt buyer study.
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Section 1071: Small business data collection & fair lending” at the American Bar Association Consumer Financial Services Winter Meeting 2022
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Getting your company ready: Managing fair lending for IMBs” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Independent Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Lauren R. Randell to discuss “Significant legal developments in the Northeast” at the 37th Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where it is heading?” at the Consumer Bankers Association Live program