What is a “false, misleading and deceptive” communication under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act?

November 10, 2012

The Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA) was enacted to “eliminate abusive debt collection practices.”   Among the abusive tactics that the FDCPA sought to eliminate was the proscription of “false, misleading and deceptive” communications from debt collectors to consumers.

Consumer, Paula Maple, took out a loan from Midland Funding, LLC successor in interest to Bank of America, N.A., for personal, family, or household services.  Sometime thereafter the debt was transferred to the law firm of Sprechman & Associates, P.A. for collection.

On March 6, 2012, Sprechman & Associates, P.A. sent a letter to Paula Maple which stated in part:.

“If your client fails to make payment or fails to make appropriate arrangements they will leave us with no choice but to subject all of their assets to actions to collect this Judgment.”

Paula Maple filed a lawsuit in United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, against Sprechman & Associates, P.A. alleging, among other things, that the statement in the letter were false given the numerous exemptions to executions on judgments.

Paula Maple also alleged in her lawsuit that the letter sent to her by Sprechman & Associates, P.A. violated the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act and the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Practices Act.

Whether a collection letter or other communication is false, deceptive, or misleading under the FDCPA is determined from the perspective of the objective least sophisticated consumer.  Under this standard, collection notices can be deceptive if they are open to more than one reasonable interpretation, at least one of which is inaccurate.   Debt collectors that violate the FDCPA are strictly liable, meaning that a consumer need not show intentional conduct by the debt collector to be entitled to damages.

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Claim for $50 in attorney’s fees violates FDCPA (in Ohio)

October 18, 2012

Consumer, Mary, Moxley, entered into a consumer loan agreement with Cash Stop in order to borrow $279.96. The loan Agreement contained an attorney fee shifting provision. The provision purported to allow Cash Stop to charge Plaintiff attorney fees incurred to collect under the contract in the event of Plaintiff’s default. When the consumer defaulted, Cash Stop hired attorney Pfundstein to collect the debt under the loan agreement. Pfundstein filed a complaint against consumer to collect the debt. The complaint requested judgment in the amount of $319.96, which included default charges and other fees. In addition, the complaint sought $50.00 for attorney fees. The complaint stated: “In addition, whereas the defendant(s) agreed in the contract to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees, the plaintiff requests $50.00.”

Consumer filed a complaint in federal court against Pfundstein claiming that was guilty of violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) by making a false, misleading and deceptive statement in the lawsuit that he filed on behalf of Cash Stop against her with regard to the claim for recovery of attorney’s fees. The consumer then moved for summary judgment on her claim.

The unique aspect of this case is that under Ohio law, creditors are not permitted to recover attorney fees incurred in connection with debt collection suits involving personal, family, or household debt.

Defendant/attorney claimed that the request for attorney’s fees was a good faith mistake of law.

The Court granted the consumer’s motion for summary judgment noting that because the FDCPA has been generally recognized as a strict-liability statute, even a good-faith error can give rise to liability. The Court found that attorney Pfunstein had violated the FDCPA by seeking to recover $50 in attorney’s fees in the underlying action, when such fees were not permitted by Ohio law.

Moxley v. Pfundstein, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146868 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 11, 2012)

Plaintiff Accused by Court of Intentionally Defaulting on Debts to Create FDCPA Claims

September 24, 2012

The Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA), enacted in 1977, aimed to “eliminate abusive debt collection practices.” Among many other reforms, the FDCPA prohibits harassing or oppressive conduct on the part of debt collectors, and it requires debt collectors to provide notice to debtors of their right to require verification of a debt. Both the text of the FDCPA and its legislative history emphasize the intent of Congress to address the previously common and severe problem of abusive debt collection practices and to protect unsophisticated consumers from unscrupulous debt collection tactics. The Act, as a U.S. District court recently stated, was not intended to enable plaintiffs to bring serial lawsuits against different debt collector defendants alleging various and often insignificant deviations from the Act’s provisions.

In Ehrich v. Credit Prot. Ass’n, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134142 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 19, 2012), accused the plaintiff in that case of abusing the FDCPA by, among other things, filing a total of nine complaints, including the present case, over the past seven years. The court stated that the record suggests that the plaintiff may be deliberately defaulting on his debts in order to provoke collection letters which are then combed by his lawyer for technical violations of the FDCPA.

The facts of this unique case are that Ehrich filed a complaint against Credit Protection Association, L.P., alleging violations of the FDCPA. Ehrich alleged that CPA sent him a collection note seeking to recover a debt owed to Time Warner Cable Company. Ehrich did not dispute the validity of the debt CPA sought to collect, nor did he claim that the primary text of the letter violates the FDCPA. Rather, Ehrich based his claim on two Spanish sentences at the top and bottom of the letter.

Printed at the top of the letter is the phrase “aviso importante de cobro,” which Ehrich, relying on a Google translation, translated as “important collection notice.” At the bottom of the collection notice were three Spanish phrases: “Opciones de pago,” “Llame” followed by a phone number, and “Envíe MoneyGram,” which Ehrich translated as “Payment options,” “Call” and “Send MoneyGram.” Ehrich, who does not speak Spanish, claimed that the notice’s inclusion of these Spanish phrases without a Spanish translation of the FDCPA-mandated disclosures and notices provided in English could mislead Spanish-speaking consumers and cause them to inadvertently waive their rights under the FDCPA.

CPA moved for summary judgment which was granted by the court based on lack of standing. The basis for the Court’s ruling was that the collection notice contained all disclosures required by the FDCPA and that Ehrich fully understood it. Therefore, he suffered no injury sufficient to support standing.

Plaintiff sues surety and law firm over bond forfeiture that was set aside

June 1, 2012

Plaintiff paid a bail bondsman a premium for a bond to bail her son out of jail. At the time she obtained the bond, she signed papers which had the legal effect of holding her responsible for the full amount of the bond, $3,500, if her son failed to appear. Plaintiff’s son failed to appear for his arraignment and he bond was revoked. Thereafter, the Court executed a judgment against plaintiff’s son as principal and National Casualty Corporation as surety for $3,500. However, plaintiff’s son eventually appeared in court and the bond forfeiture judgment was set aside.

A law firm and two collection agencies sent correspondence and made telephone calls to the plaintiff claiming that she owed National Casualty Corp. $3,500.00. The law firm later sued the plaintiff on this alleged debt.

Plaintiff filed suit against National Casualty, the law firm and the debt collectors  for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act principally because they were trying to collect a debt that, as she alleged, did not exist.   The Defendants moved to dismiss on various grounds.

The Court, in denying the motions to dismiss the FDCPA claims  stated that it was bound to accept as true all of the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint and that if true, would constitute violations of the FDCPA. In its ruling, the Court stated:

“An amount misstated by the debt collector need not be deliberate, reckless, or even negligent to trigger liability – it need only be false. Id. In other words, the FDCPA recognizes a strict liability approach.”

Barlow v. Safety Nat’l Cas. Corp., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75585 (decided May 30, 2012)

Can you sue for mistakes in collection letters?

May 30, 2012

The plaintiff debtor in Jerman sued a law firm and an attorney for FDCPA violations, committed while they were acting as debt collectors. The FDCPA has a notice provision that requires debt collectors to send written notice to the debtor that the debt will be assumed valid unless the debtor disputes it. 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a). The collection attorney’s notice letter in Jerman stated that the mortgage debt at issue would be assumed valid unless the debtor disputed that debt in writing.
The Jerman plaintiff debtor contended that the collection attorney violated the FDCPA by imposing a requirement that the debtor dispute the debt in writing, when the FDCPA required only that the debtor dispute the debt and did not specify that it be in writing. Observing that authority was split on the issue, the district court ultimately agreed with the plaintiff debtor that this writing requirement in the collection attorney’s notice letter constituted an FDCPA violation. ). In a later proceeding, however, the district court held that the collection attorney was entitled to the bona fide error defense.

The Supreme Court ruled that the FDCPA’s bona fide error defense does not encompass mistakes of law or misinterpretations of the requirements of the Act itself. Instead, the seven-member majority concluded that § 1692k(c)’s requirement that debt collectors maintain procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any bona fide errors referred only to measures designed to avoid errors like clerical or factual mistakes.

Jerman v. Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer & Ulrich LPA, 559 U.S. , 130 S. Ct. 1605, 176 L. Ed. 2d 519 (2010).

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Post-Discharge Debt Collection Activities

May 30, 2012

Many debtors who file for bankruptcy and obtain a discharge still receive collection letters or calls from creditors.  This is a clear violation of the FDCPA.  It is anticipated that most debt collectors will claim as a defense to a FDCPA that the collection activities were a result of a bona fide error in that they had no actual knowledge of the bankruptcy.

Hyman v. Tate,  362 F.3d 965, 968 (7th Cir. 2004) holds that (a) an understanding with creditor-clients that they will not knowingly refer accounts subject to a bankruptcy filing and will notify the debt collector if they afterwards discover the fact together with (b) prompt cessation of collection efforts upon notification of a bankruptcy filing are procedures reasonably adapted to avoid errors of this kind.

In Bacelli v. MFB, Inc., 729 F. Supp. 2d 1328 (M.D. Fla. 2010), the debt collector claimed that it had no actual knowledge of the debtor’s bankruptcy which fact was undisputed.   However, the Court denied summary judgment on the bona fide error defense because the debt collector/defendant presented no evidence of an agreement or understanding with the original creditor that it would not to refer accounts in bankruptcy and no evidence that its reliance on the original creditor had proved effective in avoiding errors in the past.   Lastly, the Court stated that the debt collector/defendant presented no evidence whatsoever to show that its reliance on the original creditor about knowledge of the plaintiff’s bankruptcy discharge was reasonable.