Recently, the U.S. District Court for the District of Florida denied a major bank’s motions to vacate and modify a judgment that awarded a Florida couple a total of $1,051,000 – approximately $1,500 per unauthorized call. Coniglio v. Bank of America, N.A., No. 8:14-CV-01628-EAK-MAP (M.D. Fla. December 4, 2014). In a complaint filed in July, the couple claimed the bank violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act after they received over 700 calls in four years, including calls from an automated telephone dialing system, without their consent. The calls began as a result of the couple falling behind on their mortgage payments in 2009. In October, the Court agreed with the couple’s claims and ordered the bank to pay the awarded amount.
CFPB & State Attorneys General Fine Retailer and Debt Collectors for Alleged Illegal Debt Collection Practices Against Military Servicemembers
On December 18, the CFPB and the Attorneys General of North Carolina and Virginia announced an enforcement action against three affiliated companies offering credit and financing services to military servicemembers. The complaint filed in the Eastern District of Virginia alleges that the companies used illegal tactics to collect debts in violation of Dodd-Frank, including by (i) filing illegal lawsuits; (ii) debiting consumers’ accounts without authorization; and (iii) contacting servicemembers’ commanding officers. The complaint also charges that one of the companies violated the EFTA by failing to properly disclose the terms of preauthorized transfers, while another company violated TILA by failing to properly disclose terms and interest rates on the loans it offered to servicemembers. The CFPB and the Attorneys General filed a consent order in the district court to require the companies and their owners and chief officers to provide over $2.5 million in consumer redress, pay a $100,000 civil penalty, and undergo ongoing compliance monitoring for a period of five years.
CFPB Addresses Medical Debt Collection, Requires Consumer Reporting Agencies To Provide Accuracy Reports
On December 11, the CFPB held a field hearing on medical debt collection and how it affects consumer credit reports. In his prepared remarks, Director Cordray announced the release of a white paper focused on the specific issue of medical debt collection. According to Cordray, medical debt collection presents unique challenges as compared to other industries due to inconsistent debt collection practices by medical service providers, insurance companies, and collection agencies. More broadly, Cordray addressed issues within the consumer reporting system and announced that major consumer reporting agencies will now be required to submit “regular, standardized accuracy reports” as part of its ongoing examinations efforts. Specifically, consumer reporting agencies will have to (i) identify furnishers with the most disputes; (ii) identify industries with the most disputes, and (iii) provide peer group ranking of furnishers consumer disputes relative to their industry.
On December 3, the ABA sent a letter to HUD’s General Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Housing requesting guidance on the use of form HUD-92070 under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. HUD Form 92070 relates to the debt protections servicemembers receive under the SCRA. However, the most current version of the form expired on November 30, 2014. The letter seeks guidance regarding (i) compliance requirements now that the form has expired; and (ii) how to provide an accurate notice to servicemembers since the current form will be inaccurate effective January 1, 2015. Finally, the letter requests that HUD advise lenders as to how they should remain in compliance with the Congressional mandate until a new form is published.
On December 3, New York Governor Cuomo announced that the DFS finalized regulations to help end abusive debt collection practices. The new regulations will (i) require debt collectors and debt buyers to provide enhanced disclosures regarding the debt; (ii) protect consumers who may have debts where the statute of limitations has expired; (iii) require that the debt collector substantiate that the debt is actually owed; (iv) ensure that consumers receive written confirmation of settlement agreements; and (v) allow consumers to communicate with debt collectors via personal email. The new regulations will take effect on March 3, 2015, with the exception of Sections 1.2(b) and 1.4, which will take effect August 30, 2015. Section 1.2(b) refers to disclosure requirements and 1.4 refers to substantiation of debts.
On November 19, the DOJ issued a press release announcing charges against six employees of a Georgia-based debt collection company for allegedly running a $4.1 million dollar debt collection scam. According to the press release, from approximately 2009 to May 2014, the accused employees allegedly falsely represented themselves as affiliated with various law enforcement agencies, and made a variety of false statements to consumers in an attempt to coerce them into making payments to the debt collection company. The action appears to be the first case in which multiple federal agencies – U.S. Attorneys’ Office, CFPB, FBI, and the FTC – have taken a coordinated action against a debt collector. The complaint was filed in the Southern District of New York.
Special Alert: CFPB Takes Enforcement Action Against “Buy-Here, Pay-Here” Auto Dealer for Alleged Unfair Collection and Credit Reporting Tactics
On November 19, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against a ‘buy-here, pay-here’ auto dealer alleging unfair debt collection practices and the furnishing of inaccurate information about customers to credit reporting agencies. ‘Buy-here, pay-here’ auto dealers typically do not assign their retail installment sale contracts (RISCs) to unaffiliated finance companies or banks, and therefore are subject to the CFPB’s enforcement authority. Consistent with the position it staked out in CFPB Bulletin 2013-07, in this enforcement action the CFPB appears to have applied specific requirements of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) to the dealer in its capacity as a creditor based on the CFPB’s broader authority over unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts practices.
The CFPB charges that the auto dealer violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531, 5536, which prohibits unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices, by (i) repeatedly calling customers at work, despite being asked to stop; (ii) repeatedly calling the references of customers, despite being asked to stop; and (iii) making excessive, repeated calls to wrong numbers in efforts to reach customers who fell behind on their auto loan payments. Specifically, the CFPB alleges that the auto dealer used a third-party database to “skip trace” for new phone numbers of its customers. As a result, numerous wrong parties were contacted who asked to stop receiving calls. Despite their requests, the auto dealer allegedly failed to prevent calls to these wrong parties or did not remove their contact information from its system.
In addition, the CFPB alleges that the auto dealer violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by (i) providing inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies; (ii) improperly handling consumer disputes regarding furnished information; and (iii) not establishing and implementing “reasonable written policies and procedures regarding the accuracy and integrity of the information relating to [customers] that it furnishes to a consumer reporting agency.” Specifically, the CFPB alleges that, since 2010, the auto dealer did not review or update its written furnishing policies, despite knowing that conversion to its third-party servicing platform had led to widespread inaccuracies in furnished information. Also, the consent order alleges that the auto dealer received more than 22,000 credit disputes per year, including disputes regarding the timing of repossessions and dates of first delinquency for charged-off accounts, but nevertheless furnished inaccurate information. Read more…
On November 5, the CFPB announced the release of a report highlighting debt collection issues among older Americans. The report analyzed nearly 8,700 complaints made by older consumers from July 2013 to September 2014. The most common debt collection complaints noted in the report relate to medical debt, debts of deceased family members, and threats to garnish older American’s federal benefits. Notably, of the complaints submitted, 17 percent were related to credit cards and 5 percent to payday loans.
Third Circuit Reverses Lower Court Decision, Rules Envelope Revealing Consumer’s Account Number Violates the FDCPA
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a lower court’s holding that the disclosure of a consumer’s account is not a “benign” disclosure and, therefore, violates the FDCPA. Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, No. 13-3588, 2014 WL 4235570 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2014). In this case, a debt collector sent a consumer a dunning letter in a window envelope, and the consumer’s account number was visible through the window. The consumer brought a claim under § 1692f(8) of the FDCPA, which bars debt collectors from using any language or symbol other than the collector’s address on any envelope sent to the consumer. The debt collector contended that the claim must fail because the account number was “benign language” that was not prohibited by § 1692f(8) of the FDCPA. The Third Circuit held that even if “benign language” was exempt from § 1692f(8)’s prohibition (a question that the court declined to decide), the consumer’s account number was not benign. In particular, the court noted that the disclosure of the account number threatened the consumer’s privacy because it was a “core piece of information pertaining to the status as a debtor and the debt collection effort.”
On October 23, the CFPB and the FTC will hold a roundtable to discuss the effects of debt collection and credit reporting in the Latino community. The event will focus on the customers with limited English proficiency, and is scheduled to take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Long Beach, CA.
On September 23, the Federal Trade Commission released a statement announcing the settlement of claims and a default judgment against a debt collection operation based out of Atlanta and Cleveland and its principals, barring them from debt collection activities and subjecting the defendants to a judgment of over $9.3 million. According to the release, the defendants violated FDCPA by threatening consumers with legal action unless they rendered payment on debts that the consumer, in many cases, did not actually owe. The defendants were alleged to use fictitious business names that implied affiliation with a law firm to harass consumers, through robocalls and voicemails, to make payments on these non-existent debts.
Fourth Circuit Holds That Debtors Are Not Required To Dispute Debt In Writing To State A Claim Under FDCPA
On August 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of a debt collector’s motion for judgment as a matter of law because, under the FDCPA, debtors are not required to dispute debts in writing pursuant to Section 1692g in order to seek relief under Section 1692e. Russell v. Absolute Collection Services, No. 12-2357, 2014 WL 3973729 (4th Cir. Aug. 15, 2014). Within thirty days of receiving the initial debt collection letter, the debtor paid the entire amount due directly to her husband’s medical provider. However, the debt collector continued to make calls and send collection letters thereafter. During the calls, the debtor told the collector that the debt had been paid, but she never advised the collector in writing that she was disputing the debt, nor did she send proof of payment. The debt collector argued that Section 1692g debt validation procedures required the debtor to dispute the debt in writing. The court disagreed, stating that such an interpretation “would thwart the statute’s objective of curtailing abusive and deceptive collection practices and would contravene the FDCPA’s express command that debt collectors be liable for violations of ‘any provision’ of the statute.”
Last month, the Massachusetts Division of Banks (DOB) issued an advisory opinion addressing whether an oral request by a debtor for certain records to validate a debt (pursuant to 209 CMR 18.18(3)) triggers a debt collector’s obligation to provide such documents within five business days. The DOB advised that a debt collector’s receipt of an oral request for such records from a consumer (or a consumer’s attorney) is sufficient to trigger the debt collector’s obligation and may serve to commence the five business day period in which the required response must be returned to the consumer.
On August 4, the OCC issued Bulletin 2014-37, which provides new guidance on the application of consumer protection requirements and safe and sound banking practices to consumer debt-sale arrangements with third parties—e.g. debt buyers—that intend to pursue collection of the underlying obligations. The guidance goes well beyond the set of “best practices” the OCC provided last summer as an attachment to written testimony submitted to a U.S. Senate committee. For example, the new guidance establishes requirements to: (i) notify the consumer that a debt has been sold, the dollar amount of the debt transferred, and the name and address of the debt buyer; (ii) perform due diligence on the debt buyer down to the consumer complaint level; and (iii) provide the debt buyer with the signed debt contract and a detailed payment history. The bulletin also requires sale contracts to include limitations on the debt buyer’s ability to litigate on an account and “minimum-service-level agreements” that apply whether or not debt buyers conduct the collection activities or employ other collection agents. The Bulletin specifies that certain types of debt are “not appropriate for sale,” such as: (i) debt of borrowers who have sought or are seeking bankruptcy protection; (ii) accounts eligible for Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protections; (iii) accounts in disaster areas; and (iv) accounts close to the statute of limitations.
Bankruptcy Court Refuses To Dismiss Class Suit Claiming Bank’s Credit Reporting Practices Violated Bankruptcy Code
On July 22, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York rejected a bank’s motion to dismiss a putative class action adversary proceeding alleging that certain of the bank’s credit reporting practices violated U.S. bankruptcy law. In re Haynes, No. 11-23212, 2014 WL 3608891 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 22, 2014). The named plaintiff-debtor alleged that the bank charged off and sold his debt, which was subsequently discharged in bankruptcy, but failed to correct his credit report that listed the debt, post-discharge, as being only “charged off,” rather than being “discharged in bankruptcy.” The bank moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that because it sold the debt pre-bankruptcy, it did not have an obligation under the FCRA or Sections 727 and 524(a) of the Bankruptcy Code to correct the debtor’s credit report. The court denied the bank’s motion on the grounds that (i) the bank continues to have an economic interest in the debt—notwithstanding its sale—because the bank continues to receive a percentage payment of the proceeds of each debt repaid to it and forwarded to the debt’s purchaser; and (ii) by failing to correct the credit reports, the bank is enhancing its purchasers’ ability to collect on the debt.