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On May 3, plaintiffs, including members of the National Association of Residential Property Managers, sued the CFPB asserting the Bureau’s recently issued interim final rule (IFR) violates their First Amendment rights. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the IFR amended Regulation F to require debt collectors to provide tenants clear and conspicuous written notice alerting them of their rights under the CDC’s moratorium on evictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the IFR, failure to provide notice is considered a violation of the FDCPA. The plaintiffs argue that the moratorium, however, has been challenged and invalidated by several federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. As such, the plaintiffs contend that the IFR compels “false speech” and “requir[es p]laintiffs to lie about the lawfulness and availability” of consumers’ rights under the moratorium. The complaint asks the court to “enjoin this CFPB policy, declare it unlawful, and set it aside.”
District Court: Identity theft alone is not enough to remove allegedly fraudulent debt from credit report
On April 20, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted a defendant debt collector’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that claiming to be a victim of identity theft alone is not enough to have a collection item removed from a credit report, or to give rise to an FDCPA violation. In 2014, the plaintiff purportedly obtained a payday loan from a lender who ultimately assigned the loan to the defendant for collection. In 2019, the plaintiff called the defendant to verbally dispute the debt as fraudulent after seeing the loan on her credit report. The defendant continued to report the loan to the consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), but marked the account as disputed, and informed the plaintiff of measures she needed to take to have the item removed from her credit report, including instructions for filing an identity theft affidavit. After an attorney representing the plaintiff submitted a formal written dispute of the debt, the defendant responded with the required verification and continued reporting the debt until the account was recalled by the lender. At this point the loan record was deleted and the defendant stopped reporting the loan account to the CRAs. The plaintiff filed suit alleging the defendant violated FDCPA Sections 1692e and 1692f and various state laws by continuing to report the debt after it was notified of the potential fraud. The court disagreed, stating, “there was nothing about [the defendant’s] statements that would confuse or mislead even the least sophisticated debtor’s attempt to remove the fraudulent account from their credit report,” the court wrote, adding that none of the defendant’s communications were false, deceptive, or misleading, nor did they undermine the plaintiff’s “ability to intelligently choose her action concerning the loan account.”
On April 22, the CFPB and the New York attorney general filed a complaint against the owner of a now-defunct debt-collection firm 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 conducting an investigation into his debt-collection activities. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau and the AG reached settlements in 2019 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. The terms of the settlements imposed civil money penalties and consumer redress and permanently banned the defendants from acting as debt collectors. According to the complaint, the owner defendant has paid nothing toward satisfying the 2019 settlement, nor has he cooperated with the Bureau and the AG’s efforts to obtain relevant financial information. The complaint further claims that the transfer of the property was a fraudulent transfer under the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act and made with the intent to defraud (a violation of the New York Debtor and Creditor Law), and alleges that the owner defendant “removed and concealed assets in an effort to render the Judgment obtained by the Government Plaintiffs uncollectable.” Moreover, because the property was allegedly “transferred with intent to hinder, delay, or defraud a creditor,” the complaint contends that the owner defendant is “not entitled to claim any homestead exemption.” The complaint asks the court to void the property transfer and to allow seizure of the property. Additionally, the Bureau and the AG request that the house be sold with all proceeds going towards the owner defendant’s 2019 settlement, and seek a monetary judgment against the owner defendant’s wife and daughter for the value of the property as transferees of the fraudulent conveyance of the property.
On April 16, the CFPB updated its small entity compliance guide to incorporate amendments in the December 2020 debt collection rule (covered by InfoBytes here). Updates to the guide, originally issued in January (covered by InfoBytes here), include: (i) a new section discussing the prohibition against legal action and threats of legal action to collect time-barred debt; (ii) a new section discussing the prohibition on passive collection; (iii) the incorporation of requirements and guidance on providing validation information; (iv) an updated discussion of the prohibition against overshadowing consumer rights to incorporate reference to the safe harbor; (v) an updated discussion of requests for original-creditor information to include reference to applicable requirements if the current creditor and the original creditor are the same; and (vi) a new annotated version of the model validation notice in Appendix B of the December 2020 Rule. Miscellaneous administrative changes have been made throughout the guide as well.
On April 19, the CFPB issued an interim final rule (IFR) to amend Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA, that will require debt collectors to provide tenants written notice alerting them of their rights under the CDC’s moratorium on evictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Failure to provide notice will be considered a violation of the FDCPA, which may result in a private right of action as well as actual damages, statutory damages, and attorney’s fees. The Bureau noted in its press release that the IFR does not preempt more protective state laws. Additionally, debt collectors are prohibited from misrepresenting renters’ eligibility for temporary protection under the CDC’s moratorium. Sample disclosure language and a summary of the IFR have been provided by the Bureau as well.
The IFR will take effect May 3. Comments are due 15 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On April 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of an FDCPA action, concluding that itemized breakdowns in collection letters that include zero balances for interest and other fees would not confuse or mislead the reasonable “unsophisticated consumer” to believe that future interest or other charges would be incurred if the debt is not settled. The defendant management company sent a letter to the plaintiff claiming he owed amount $1,088.34 and offered to “resolve this debt in full” with a payment of $761.84. The plaintiff filed a putative class action against the defendant alleging that by itemizing interest and collection fees for his “static debt,” and by assigning “$0.00” interest, the letter falsely implied—in violation of § 1692e and § 1692f of the FDCPA—that “interest and fees could accrue and thereby increase the amount of his debt over time.” The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, declining “to require assurances by debt collectors that itemized amounts ‘will not change in the future,’ reasoning that doing so would lead to ‘complex and verbose debt collection letters’ that would confuse consumers.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court. Specifically, the appellate court concluded that the “complaint fails to state a claim, whether our court’s ‘least sophisticated debtor’ standard is functionally the same as the ‘unsophisticated debtor’ standard applied by other Circuits or is instead an independent and less demanding framework.” Moreover, the appellate court noted even the least sophisticated debtor understands that “collection letters—as reflected by their fonts, formatting, content, and fields—often derive from templates and may contain information not relevant to his or her particular situation.” According to the 3rd Circuit, “FDCPA case law does not support attributing to the least sophisticated debtor simultaneous naïveté and heightened discernment. Were we for some reason constrained to consider only the law of Circuits that employ the word “least” in their FDCPA standards, we would still affirm.”
On April 6, the CFPB announced a consent order against a California-based debt collector and its former owner for allegedly harassing consumers and threatening to take legal action if they did not pay their debts. According to the CFPB, the respondents violated the FDCPA and the CFPA’s prohibition against deceptive acts or practices by mailing letters to consumers printed with “Litigation Notice” that threatened recipients with legal action if they did not repay their debts. However, the Bureau stated that the respondents did not file lawsuits against the consumers, nor did they hire law firms or lawyers to obtain any judgments or collect on any such judgments. Under the terms of the consent order, the respondents are permanently banned from the debt collection industry and are ordered to pay $860,000 in redress to its victims, which has been suspended due to an inability to pay, as well as a $2,200 civil money penalty. This is the CFPB’s latest action taken against debt collectors that have used false threats to collect debts. As previously covered in InfoBytes, in 2019 the CFPB and New York attorney general announced proposed settlements with a network of New York-based debt collectors to resolve allegations that the defendants engaged in improper debt collection tactics in violation of the CFPA, the FDCPA, and various New York laws. Also, in 2018, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Kansas-based company and its former CEO and part-owner that allegedly engaged in improper debt collection tactics in violation of the CFPB’s prohibitions on engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices (covered by InfoBytes here).
Court rules debt purchaser qualifies as a “debt collector” and “collector” under federal and state law
On April 2, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied a defendant debt purchaser’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the company qualifies as a “debt collector” and “collector” under the FDCPA, the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act (MCDCA), and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA). The plaintiff had filed suit against three entities, including the defendant, alleging the entities violated the FDCPA, MCDCA, and MCPA by (i) threatening to file criminal charges; (ii) falsely implying that she committed a crime for which charges could be filed; and (iii) revealing information about the debts to her daughter and on voice mails with her employer. The defendant, who relied on the two other entities to conduct the actual debt collection, argued that it does not qualify as a debt collector under the FDCPA, and that it is not a “collector” under the MCDCA, and therefore cannot be held liable under the MCPA. The defendant further argued that, “regardless of whether it meets one these statutory definitions,” it cannot be held vicariously liable for actions taken by the other two entities.
The district court disagreed, ruling that the defendant qualifies as a debt collector under the “principal purpose” prong of the FDCPA and cannot evade liability “simply by outsourcing the specific collection activities to third parties.” With respect to whether it qualifies as a “collector” under the MCDCA and MCPA, the court noted that while the defendant argued that “it [did] not itself, or through in-house debt collectors, undertake any actions to collect [the plaintiff’s] debts, the definition of ‘collector’ is not limited only to persons or entities that directly engage with consumers to collect the debt.” As such, because the defendant qualifies as a debt collector and collector under federal and state law, it could be held vicariously liable. Moreover, the court stated there is “genuine dispute of material fact” regarding whether the defendant had a “principal-agent relationship” with the other two entities that subjects it to vicarious liability. In particular, contracts entered between the three entities allowed the defendant to, among other things, “exercise a great degree of control over consumer complaints” regarding collection actions.
On April 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling in favor of defendant credit repair organizations (including a law firm), holding that plaintiff data furnishers failed to provide sufficient evidence supporting their claims of fraud and fraud by nondisclosure. The plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that the defendants were sending dispute letters that appeared to have come directly from the defendants’ debtor clients. Under the FCRA and the FDCPA, the plaintiffs are obligated to investigate disputed debts that come directly from debtors. Letters from law firms, the plaintiffs argued, do not trigger such requirements. According to the plaintiffs, the disputes they were receiving were costing them money to investigate, which they would not have spent if had they known the letters were coming from a law firm. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on their claims of fraud and fraud by non-disclosure and awarded them roughly $2.5 million. The district court ultimately vacated the jury’s verdict, however, explaining that the evidence failed to show that the defendants made any false misrepresentations, material or otherwise, when they signed their clients’ names on letters mailed to the plaintiffs. The law firm defendant “had the legal right to sign its clients’ names on the correspondence it sent on their behalf to data furnishers who reported inaccurate information about the clients’ credit,” the district court wrote.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit determined, among other things, that the plaintiffs did “not provide any precedential support or explanation for their assertion that these facts demonstrate Defendants committed fraud and fraud by non-disclosure beyond the observation that the jury found for them on those claims.” Moreover, the appellate court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the engagement agreements that clients signed with the defendant law firm, which allowed it to send dispute letters on a client’s behalf, were fraudulent because the defendant law firm did not discuss the letters with the consumers first. According to the appellate court, the existence of any such discussion was immaterial because the engagement agreements allowed the defendant law firm to send letters on a client’s behalf. However, the appellate court noted that “[w]hile we do not hold today that there are no situations in which a third party may act fraudulently when it mails dispute letters (and leave for another day what those situations may be), we can safely say that this is not one of them.”
On March 22, the CFPB and the FTC released their 2020 annual report to Congress on the administration of the FDCPA. Under a memorandum of understanding, the agencies are provided joint FDCPA enforcement responsibility and may share supervisory and consumer complaint information, as well as collaborate on education efforts. Among other things, the report provides a broad overview of the debt collection industry during the Covid-19 pandemic and highlights enforcement actions, education efforts, policy initiatives, and supervisory findings. The report also notes that the Bureau handled roughly 82,700 complaints filed by consumers about first- and third-party debt collectors in 2020, up from the 75,000 complaints it received in 2019, and engaged in four public enforcement actions arising from alleged FDCPA violations. Judgments resulting from these actions yielded nearly $15.2 million in consumer redress and $80,000 in civil money penalties. Additionally, the report discusses the Bureau’s FDCPA-rulemaking actions taken last year, including the issuance of two final rules amending Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA (covered by InfoBytes here and here). The report notes that both final rules are scheduled to take effect on November 30, but also refers to a February statement released by acting Director Dave Uejio, in which he “directed staff to ‘explore options for preserving the status quo’” with respect to the debt collection rules.
Earlier in the week, the FTC announced it provided the CFPB last month with its annual summary of debt collection-related activities taken in 2020. While the FTC’s debt collection program primarily focuses on enforcement investigations and litigation with respect to violations of the FDCPA and the FTC Act, the summary also highlights Commission efforts to engage in public outreach, as well as partnerships with the Bureau and other government agencies to combat unlawful debt collection practices. Highlights of the summary include:
- The creation of Operation Corrupt Collector, a nationwide enforcement and outreach effort led by the FTC in coordination with the CFPB and more than 50 federal and state law enforcement partners to target illegal debt collection practices (covered by InfoBytes here).
- The FTC filed or resolved seven cases against 39 defendants, obtaining $26 million in judgments.
- The FTC accused a company and three of its officers of allegedly engaging in passive debt collection—a practice known as “debt parking”—in which the defendants placed debts that consumers did not owe or the defendants were not authorized to collect on consumers’ credit reports without first attempting to communicate with the consumers about the debts (covered by InfoBytes here).
- The FTC and the New York attorney general permanently banned an individual defendant accused of engaging in “serious and repeated violations of law” from participating in debt collection activities (covered by InfoBytes here).
- The FTC produced educational materials for both consumers and debt collectors covering rights and responsibilities under the FDCPA and FTC Act, including resources specifically for Spanish speakers.
- 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