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On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that because ECOA does not preempt New Jersey’s common-law doctrine of necessaries (where a spouse is jointly liable for necessary expenses incurred by the other spouse) a defendant debt collector was permitted to send medical debt collection letters to a deceased individual’s spouse without violating the FDCPA. The defendant was retained to collect the deceased spouse’s medical debt and sent collection letters to the plaintiff who maintained she was not responsible for the debt and subsequently filed suit alleging violations of the FDCPA. The defendant moved for dismissal, arguing that the plaintiff owed the debt under New Jersey’s doctrine of necessaries because her deceased spouse incurred the debt for medical treatment. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed, arguing, among other things, that the doctrine of necessaries conflicts with the spousal-signature prohibition found in the ECOA.
In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that “ECOA does not preempt the doctrine of necessaries because the debt is ‘incidental credit’ exempt from the prohibition.” According to the 3rd Circuit, the Federal Reserve Board determined that incidental credit is exempt from the § 202.7(d) spousal-signature prohibition because it “refers to extensions of consumer credit. . .(i) [t]hat are not made pursuant to the terms of a credit card account; (ii) [t]hat are not subject to a finance charge. . .and (iii) [t]hat are not payable by agreement in more than four installments.” The 3rd Circuit determined that because the medical debt in question satisfied all three criteria, the spousal-signature prohibition did not apply, and therefore ECOA and its regulations did not conflict with the doctrine of necessaries. Further, the 3rd Circuit held that ECOA focuses “on ensuring the availability of credit rather than the allocation of liability between spouses.”
On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court order granting summary judgment in favor of a defendant debt collection agency after concluding that a letter inviting recipients to call to “eliminate further collection action” did not deceive debtors. The plaintiff brought the putative class action lawsuit under the FDCPA claiming the defendant’s letter deceived debtors by making them think a phone call is a “legally effective” way of ending collection activity. The plaintiff also argued that the letter raised uncertainty about a debtor’s right to dispute a debt in writing. According to the plaintiff, because the letter placed the invitation to call above an acknowledgment that recipients can also respond in writing, debtors were left uncertain about which format to use. The district court disagreed and granted summary judgment to the defendant.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit reasoned that the letter was not deceptive. According to the appellate court, the defendant never said “explicitly or implicitly that the phone call would, by law” end collection efforts. Further the letter did not create any confusion about whether a debtor should call or write to exercise their rights. Finally, the court rejected the argument that the order of paragraphs in the letter created confusion.
On March 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a consumer’s alleged “stress and confusion” did not constitute a concrete and particularized injury under the FDCPA. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant debt collector violated the FDCPA when it directly communicated with her by sending a dunning letter related to unpaid debt even though she had previously notified the original lender that she was represented by counsel and requested that all debt communications cease. The district court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion on the grounds that the debt collector could not have violated the FDCPA “without having actual knowledge of [the consumer’s] cease-communication request.”
On appeal, the 7th Circuit concluded that the complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because the plaintiff lacked standing. The 7th Circuit held that the consumer’s allegations—that the dunning letter caused her “stress and confusion” and “made her think that ‘her demand had been futile’”—did not amount to a concrete and particularized “injury in fact” necessary to establish Article III standing under the FDCPA. The court further noted that “the state of confusion is not itself an injury”—rather, for the alleged confusion to be concrete, “a plaintiff must have acted ‘to her detriment, on that confusion.’” Here, the consumer pointed only to a statutory violation and “failed to show that receiving [the debt collector’s] dunning letter led her to change her course of action or put her in harm’s way.” Additionally, the appellate court found the consumer’s argument that the dunning letter also “invaded her privacy,” raised for the first time on appeal, unpersuasive because she did not allege that injury in the complaint.
On March 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of an FDCPA lawsuit, holding that while “strict liability” under the statute applies when a debt collector threatens litigation or files a lawsuit seeking to collect time-barred debt, the debt collector can avoid liability by invoking the bona fide error defense. In the case that gave rise to the plaintiff’s FDCPA claim, the plaintiff contested the debt collector’s state court lawsuit, arguing that it was filed outside the four-year statute of limitations applicable to sale-of-goods contract claims. The debt collector countered that Oregon’s six-year statute of limitations for other contract claims applied. After the state court ruled for the plaintiff, the plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon against the defendants alleging violations of Sections 1692e and 1692f of the FDCPA. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss ruling that the plaintiff failed to state a claim because the state statute of limitations was unclear when the defendants attempted to collect the debt.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit disagreed with the district court, concluding that because the “FDCPA takes a strict liability approach to prohibiting misleading and unfair debt collection practices,  a plaintiff need not plead or prove that a debt collector knew or should have known that the lawsuit was time barred to demonstrate that the debt collector engaged in prohibited conduct.” However, the 9th Circuit held that the defendants may be able to avoid liability through the FDCPA’s affirmative defense for bona fide errors. The appellate court distinguished its holding from a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jerman v. Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer & Ulrich LPA, which held that mistakes about the FDCPA’s meaning are excluded from the bona fide error defense. Instead, the 9th Circuit found that “a mistake about the time-barred status of a debt under state law could qualify as a bona fide error within the meaning of the FDCPA” because it is a mistake of fact and not of law.
5th Circuit: Conveying information about a debt collector is different from conveying information about a debt
On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a consumer’s FDCPA claims against a collection agency, concluding that “conveying information about a debt collector is not the same as conveying information about a debt.” According to the opinion, the collection agency (defendant) attempted to contact the plaintiff via telephone concerning an unpaid debt. When the plaintiff failed to answer the call, the defendant contacted the plaintiff’s sister and asked to speak to the plaintiff. During the call, a representative working for the defendant provided her own name and that of the collection agency, and provided her number so the plaintiff could return the call. The plaintiff filed suit, alleging the defendant violated FDCPA § 1692c(b) when the representative left a message with the plaintiff’s sister and asked her to have the plaintiff contact the defendant. Under § 1692c(b), a debt collector “‘may not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer’ or certain other prescribed parties to the debt ‘without the prior consent of the consumer.’” An exception is provided under § 1692b for a debt collector who communicates with a third party to acquire location information about the consumer. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, which the plaintiff appealed, arguing that the defendant’s conduct “went beyond the scope of a permissible call for the purposes of obtaining location information.”
On appeal, the 5th Circuit first reviewed whether the call violated Section 1692c(b). The appellate court noted that it was first called to address the “threshold issue” as to “whether the alleged conversation qualifies as a ‘communication’” as defined by the FDCPA. Under § 1692a(2), a “communication” refers to “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.” In this instance, the appellate court wrote, there was nothing in the call between the defendant and the plaintiff’s sister that conveyed information regarding the existence of a debt. “[T]o indirectly convey information regarding a debt, a conversation or message would need to, at the very least, imply that a debt existed. Knowing the name of a debt collector does not imply the existence of a debt.” The 5th Circuit further concluded, among other things, that “[e]ven if the average consumer recognized the company’s name and identified it as a debt collector, receiving a phone call from a debt collector does not suggest any information about an underlying debt.” As such, the 5th Circuit determined the plaintiff failed to adequately plead facts suggesting a plausible violation of the FDCPA.
On January 29, a coalition of state attorneys general from 32 states and the District of Columbia, led by the New York AG, filed an amicus brief in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida opposing a proposed settlement in a class-action FDCPA suit against a mortgage servicer that allegedly charged “processing fees” or “convenience fees” for mortgage payments made over the phone or online. The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit last March claiming the defendant did not charge processing fees if borrowers made payments by check or signed up for automatic monthly debits from their bank accounts. They further argued that the processing fees were “illegal and improper because neither the mortgages themselves nor applicable statutes authorize such fees.” The parties agreed to mediation in April, and a motion for preliminary approval of a settlement was filed in August.
In their brief, the AGs outlined concerns with the proposed settlement, including that (i) the relief provided to class members violates various state laws, and that the defendant seeks to ratify fees in an “unwritten, mass amendment” that violates state laws and regulations; (ii) the class members only receive an “inadequate” one-time payment, while the defendant may continue to charge excessive fees for the life of the loan; and (iii) low- and moderate-income borrowers are not treated equitably under the proposed settlement. Additionally, the AGs emphasized concerns “about the speed with which this case was settled,” arguing that entering into the proposed settlement quickly during the Covid-19 pandemic has deprived the court and the AGs “of the ability to determine the adequacy, fairness and reasonableness of the settlement.”
On January 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a debt owner (defendant) cannot be held liable under the FDCPA or Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (FCCPA) for the allegedly false representations made by another entity acting on its behalf. According to the opinion, after a consumer defaulted on three credit cards, the debts were sold to the defendant, and its affiliate began collection efforts in Florida state court against the consumer. The lawsuits were filed under the defendant’s name, “but [the affiliate] was ‘responsible for reviewing, processing, and entering all hearing results.’” The parties agreed to a settlement agreement and the consumer made his first payment. However, on each subsequent occasion the consumer visited the affiliates’ website, the website displayed a balance over three times as high as the settlement amount. The consumer filed suit against the defendant, alleging multiple violations of the FDCPA and FCCPA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, concluding that the defendant could not be liable under the FDCPA or the FCCPA, notwithstanding the fact that it qualifies as a debt collector.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed with the district court, affirming summary judgment in favor of the defendant. Specifically, the appellate court rejected the consumer’s arguments that the defendant should be held indirectly liable for the affiliate’s representations made on their website. The appellate court noted that if the defendant qualified as a debt collector under the “principle purposes” clause of the FDCPA, “it cannot be held liable based on the use of ‘indirectly’ in the separate and inapplicable ‘regularly collects’ definition.” Moreover, the appellate court rejected the consumer’s argument that the definition of “communication” under the FDCPA supports indirect liability, concluding it is similarly “irrelevant to [the consumer]’s false representation claims under Section 1692e.” Lastly, because the district court properly granted summary judgment on the consumer’s FDCPA claim, “it correctly granted summary judgment on his FCCPA claim as well.”
On January 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh 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 when it sent her a collection letter including the following statement: “If you dispute this balance or the validity of this debt, please let us know in writing. If you do not dispute this debt in writing within 30 days after you receive this letter, we will assume this debt is valid.” The plaintiff argued that section 1692g(a)(3) of FDCPA does not specify how a consumer may dispute the validity of a debt, claiming that consumers should be allowed to dispute debts in whatever manner they choose. Instead of determining whether the debt collector violated section 1692g(a)(3) by requiring consumers to dispute debts in writing, the 7th Circuit determined that the plaintiff lacked standing to sue in the first place. The appellate court referenced an observation made by the district court that the plaintiff “‘did not allege she had any doubt that she owed the creditor the stated amount of money,” and that “she failed to allege any injury that flowed from her failure to dispute the debt.” Noting, however, that not all alleged section 1692g(a)(3) violations lack standing, the appellate court stated that in this case, the plaintiff “did not allege injury, because she did not try to show what good a dispute would have done her. She is no worse off than if the letter had told her that she could dispute the debt orally.”
On January 15, the CFPB issued a small entity compliance guide summarizing the Bureau’s debt collection rule. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued a final rule last October amending Regulation F, which implements the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), to address debt collection communications and prohibitions on harassment or abuse, false or misleading representations, and unfair practices. The guide provides a detailed summary of the October final rule’s substantive prohibitions and requirements, as well as a summary of key interpretations and clarifications of the FDCPA. The Bureau noted, however, that the current small entity compliance guide does not discuss (unless specifically noted otherwise) the CFPB’s final rule issued in December (covered by InfoBytes here), which clarified consumer disclosure requirements, provided a model validation notice, and addressed required actions prior to furnishing and prohibitions concerning the collection of time-barred debt. Updates will be made to the small entity compliance guide at a later date to include provisions related to the December final rule.
On December 18, the CFPB issued a final rule amending Regulation F, which implements the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, clarifying the information debt collectors must provide to consumers at the outset of collection communications and providing a model validation notice containing such information. (See also the Bureau’s Executive Summary.) The final rule also prohibits debt collectors from bringing or threatening to bring legal action against a consumer to collect time-barred debt, and requires debt collectors to take certain actions before furnishing information about a consumer’s debt to a consumer reporting agencies (CRA). Among other things, the final rule addresses the following:
- Validation notice. The final rule clarifies that debt collectors may provide “clear and conspicuous” debt validation notices in writing or electronically when commencing debt collection communications. Validation notices must include a statement indicating that the communication is from a debt collector, along with additional information such as itemization-related information, the current amount of debt, consumer protection information, and information for consumers who may choose to dispute the debt or take other actions. The final rule also outlines optional content that debt collectors may choose to include while retaining the safe harbor for using the model notice, provided that “the optional content is no more prominent than the required content.” The final rule also revises the definition of “consumer” used in a separate final rule issued by the Bureau at the end of October (covered by InfoBytes here). The December final rule’s definition now includes both living and deceased consumers.
- Safe harbor for model validation notices. Debt collectors who choose to use the model validation notice are in compliance with the final rule’s content requirements. Additionally, the use of a model validation notice would not be considered a violation of the prohibition on conduct that “overshadows” a consumer’s rights during the validation period. The final rule outlines additional safe harbors, and provides examples where a safe harbor generally will not apply. Notably, the safe harbor does not cover validation notice delivery methods and timing requirements.
- Translations. Debt collectors who choose to provide validation notices in other languages must also include an English-language notice in the same communication.
- Credit reporting. The final rule requires debt collectors to either speak to a consumer in person, send an email or letter, or try to speak with a consumer by telephone before furnishing any information to a CRA. Communications sent via email or letter will require a 14 day waiting period to allow for a “reasonable period of time” to receive a notice of undeliverability.
- Time-barred debt. The final rule prohibits debt collectors from suing or threatening to sue consumers when attempting to collect time-barred debt. Proofs of claim filed in connection with a bankruptcy proceeding are not included in this prohibition.
The final rule takes effect November 30, 2021.
More information from Buckley on the details of the newest debt collection final rule will be available soon.
- 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
- Marshall T. Bell and John R. Coleman to speak at 2021 AFSA Annual Meeting
- 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)
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss internal investigations at the Institute of Internal Auditors of Argentina Spanish-language webinar
- 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