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 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 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.
On January 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that mortgage foreclosures are debt collections under the FDCPA. Glazer v. Chase Home Finance LLC, No. 10-3416, 2013 WL 141699 (6th Cir. Jan. 14, 2013). The decision rejects the view held by a majority of district courts, including the district court in this case, that mortgage foreclosures are generally outside the scope of the FDCPA because they are enforcements of a security instrument, not attempts to collect money. In this case, the borrower brought suit alleging that the law firm that attempted to foreclose on his property violated the FDCPA, and the district court dismissed the claim, ruling that foreclosures are not debt collections. In reaching its conclusion, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that “whether an obligation is a ‘debt’ depends not on whether the obligation is secured, but rather upon the purpose for which it was incurred.” The court explained that collecting such a debt can occur through personal solicitation or legal proceedings. As such, the court held that “every mortgage foreclosure, judicial or otherwise, is undertaken for the very purpose of obtaining payment on the underlying debt,” and, therefore, every mortgage foreclosure is a debt collection. Further, the court held that lawyers who meet the general definition of “debt collector” must comply with the FDCPA when engaged in a mortgage foreclosure. The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On January 9, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held that an indirect auto finance company that took assignment of a retail installment sales contract from an automobile dealer is not a debt collector subject to the FDCPA. Tu v. Camino Real Chevrolet, No. 12-9456, 2013 WL 140278 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 9, 2013). As the court explained, FDCPA Section 1692a(6) defines a “debt collector” to include any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails for the principle purpose of enforcing security interests. In this case, a customer purchased and financed a car with a dealer who subsequently assigned the retail installment sales contract to an auto finance company. When the borrower fell behind on his payments and the finance company tried to collect the debt, the borrower sued the finance company, alleging violations of the FDCPA. The court held that the finance company was primarily in the business of accepting installment sales contracts with its debt collection activities ancillary to its financing activities. Therefore, the finance company is not a debt collector as defined by the FDCPA. The court dismissed the borrower’s claims.
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a management company collecting debts for a homeowners association was exempt from the FDCPA because collecting the unpaid assessments was incidental to the company’s bona fide fiduciary obligations. Harris v. Liberty Cmty. Mgmt., Inc., No. 11-14362, 2012 WL 6604518 (11th Cir. Dec. 19, 2012). In Harris, a homeowners association contracted with a management company to perform various tasks, including collecting past due assessments from homeowners. After warning the plaintiffs that their water service would be disconnected if they did not pay their outstanding association dues, the management company had their water service suspended. The plaintiffs asserted that the company was a debt collector under the FDCPA and violated the Act by terminating their water service. Under Section 1692a(6)(F)(i) of the FDCPA, an individual or entity is exempt from the Act when “collecting or attempting to collect any debt owed…another to the extent such activity is incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation.” The Eleventh Circuit held that the management company fell within this exemption. Because the company was the homeowners association’s agent, it owed a fiduciary duty to the association. The court also found that collecting the debts was “incidental” to the company’s fiduciary obligation, noting that the company did many other tasks for the association other than collect assessments, such as obtaining utilities, purchasing insurance, and assisting the association with its tax filings. In addition, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims under the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act. The court explained that the management company’s decision to stop the water service after providing the plaintiff notice was not unfair or deceptive.
California Appeals Court Enjoins Nonjudicial Foreclosure for Lenders’ Failure to Comply with HUD Servicing Requirements
On December 13, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District held that the HUD servicing requirements were incorporated by reference into the borrowers’ FHA deed of trust and served as conditions precedent to the acceleration of the debt or to foreclosure. Pfeifer v. Countrywide Home Loans, No. A133071, 2012 WL 6216039 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2012). In this case, after the lender declared the borrowers’ FHA-insured mortgage in default and commenced nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings, the borrowers filed suit against the lender seeking general and punitive damages, as well as to enjoin the foreclosure proceedings and to obtain declaratory relief, for failure prior to provide the 30-day advance debt validation notice required by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) or to conduct a face-to-face interview required by HUD’s servicing regulations prior to commencing foreclosure proceedings. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the borrowers did not have a claim for damages against the collection firm under the FDCPA, because that firm was not a debt collector under the statute. However, the court reversed the trial court’s judgment as to the borrowers’ request for injunctive relief based on their wrongful foreclosure claim and their request for declaratory relief. The court agreed with the borrowers that the deed of trust incorporates by reference the servicing requirements of HUD, including the face-to-face interview, and the lenders had to comply with the servicing terms prior to commencing a valid nonjudicial foreclosure. The court also held that tender was not required, because the borrowers were seeking to enjoin a pending foreclosure sale based on the lenders’ failure to comply with the HUD servicing requirements. Concurring with those courts that distinguish an offensive action from a defensive action, the court explained that the borrowers had no private right of action for failure to comply with the HUD regulations and could not seek damages based on their wrongful foreclosure action, but held that the HUD regulations may be used as an affirmative defense to a judicial foreclosure action instituted by the creditor.
On August 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a debt collector’s representation to a debtor that her student loans were “ineligible” for bankruptcy discharge is a “false, misleading, or deceptive” debt collection practice in violation of the FDCPA. Easterling v. Collecto, Inc., No. 11-3209, 2012 WL 3734389 (2nd Cir. Aug. 30, 2012). The debt collector sent a collection letter to the debtor with a notice that the account was ineligible for bankruptcy discharge. The debtor sued the collector on her own behalf and on behalf of nearly 200 borrowers who also received such notices. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the debt collector, concluding that because the debtor had previously filed for bankruptcy without seeking to discharge her student loan debt, and because student loan debt is presumptively non-dischargeable, her debt was, in fact, not eligible to be discharged. The appeals court disagreed and held that the district court erred in focusing on the borrower’s circumstances instead of applying the “least sophisticated consumer” standard. In applying that standard on appeal, the court reasoned that while the bar for bankruptcy discharge is high, it is not impossible and the “least sophisticated consumer” might not seek the advice of counsel for pursuing discharge through bankruptcy after receiving the debt collector’s inaccurate notice. The court held that the debt collector’s notice did violate the FDCPA and reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On August 2, the CFPB posted a request for email submissions recommending state or federal appellate-level “cases with one or more important legal questions about the interpretation or application of a federal consumer financial protection statute or regulation” in which the CFPB could file an amicus brief. The CFPB also announced that all of its amicus activity will be posted on its website. To date, the CFPB has filed six such briefs, four in cases involving TILA and two related to the FDCPA.
On July 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a mortgage servicer may be a debt collector subject to the FDCPA where it attempts to both enforce a security interest and collect a debt. Birster v. American Home Mortgage Servicing, Inc., No. 11-13574, 2012 WL 2913786 (11th Cir. July 18, 2012). The borrowers alleged that the servicer harassed them with phone calls and home inspections in connection with trying to collect mortgage payments. The district court granted summary judgment to the servicer, holding that the servicer’s actions constituted efforts to enforce a security interest, and not to collect a debt. As such, the borrower’s claims under the FDCPA could not survive. The appellate court reversed and remanded, relying on its decision in Reese v. Ellis, Painter, Rattertree & Adams, LLP, No. 10-14366, 2012 WL 1500108 (11th Cir. May 1, 2012), which came after the district court ruled in favor of the servicer, and which provides that an entity can both enforce a security interest and collect a debt. The court held that the borrowers sufficiently alleged facts to support a claim under the FDCPA, citing a letter the servicer sent in which it stated that it was attempting to collect a debt.
On June 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concluded that a misrepresentation of the creditor’s name in a foreclosure action may constitute a false representation actionable under Section 1692e of the FDCPA. Wallace v. Washington Mut. Bank, F.A., No. 10-3694, 2012 WL 2379664 (6th Cir. June 26, 2012). In Wallace, a law firm allegedly brought a foreclosure action before the firm’s bank client received an assignment of the mortgage and transfer of the promissory note. The borrower contended that the law firm violated the FDCPA in foreclosing on behalf of the bank before the transfer and assignment occurred. The district court dismissed the case, holding that the failure to record an assignment before filing a foreclosure action is not a deceptive practice under the FDCPA. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed, holding that the borrower’s allegations were sufficient to support a claim of material misrepresentation that would confuse or mislead an unsophisticated consumer.
Ninth Circuit Holds Debt Validation Notice That Implicitly Requires Debtor to Dispute Debt in Writing Does Not Violate FDCPA
On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a debt validation notice does not violate the FDCPA if it only implicitly, rather than expressly, requires a debtor to dispute his or her debt in writing. Riggs v. Prober & Raphael, No. 10-17220, 2012 WL 2054640 (9th Cir. June 8, 2012). In Riggs, a debt collection law firm, in seeking to collect a debt owed to one of its clients, sent a debt validation notice to a debtor which implied that if the debtor wanted to dispute the debt, she would need to do so in writing. The debtor failed to contact the firm and made no payment towards her debt. Instead, after settling an action brought against her by the firm in state court, the debtor filed suit against the firm in federal court, alleging that the firm violated the FDCPA and its California equivalent because it required her to dispute her debt in writing and therefore misrepresented her right to dispute the debt. In affirming the ruling of the district court, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that the “least sophisticated consumer” could interpret the firm’s debt validation notice to imply that any dispute of the debt must be in writing. Nevertheless, recognizing that the FDCPA itself can be read to imply that a debtor must dispute a debt in writing, the Ninth Circuit held that there is a violation of the FDCPA only where the debt validation notice expressly requires the dispute be in writing.
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Finds that “Dunning” Notice Enforcing a Security Interest May Give Rise to FDCPA Claim
On May 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded a lower court’s dismissal of an FDCPA claim, finding that the contents of a “dunning” notice from the lender’s foreclosing law firm constitutes an attempt to collect a debt under the FDCPA. Reese v. Ellis, Painter, Rattertree & Adams, LLP, No. 10-14366, 2012 WL 1500108 (11th Cir. May 1, 2012). The borrowers received a letter and documents from the lender’s law firm demanding payment of the debt on the borrowers’ defaulted mortgage loan and threatening to foreclose on their home if they did not pay the outstanding debt. The borrowers filed a class action lawsuit against the law firm alleging that the communication violated the FDCPA. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim under the FDCPA. On appeal, the court held that the borrowers’ obligation to pay off the promissory note, which the court distinguished from a security interest, represents a debt under the FDCPA. The court then rejected the law firm’s argument that the purpose of the letter and accompanying documents was not to collect a debt, but rather to inform the borrowers of the lender’s intent to enforce its security interest through possible foreclosure. The court determined that the documents at issue, which contained disclaimers such as “This law firm is acting as a debt collector attempting to collect a debt,” had a dual purpose of providing notice of foreclosure and collecting a debt. In so holding, the court noted that following the law firm’s reasoning would create a giant loophole in the FDCPA wherein the law only would apply to efforts to collect on unsecured debt and would permit collectors to “harass or mislead [secured] debtors without violating the FDCPA.”
Federal Appeals Court Finds Plaintiff States FDCPA Claim Against Servicer, Creditor When Acquiring Debt Purportedly in Default
On April 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a mortgage servicer and a creditor can be sued as a debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) when acquiring a debt in default at the time of acquisition. The plaintiffs, a borrower and her non-borrower husband, alleged that the servicer and creditor violated the FDCPA in attempting to collect from the borrower and her husband, notwithstanding that the mortgage was not in default and despite plaintiffs’ repeated requests the servicer cease further communication. The servicer argued that it could not be liable under the FDCPA based upon its status as a mortgage loan servicer and because the debt was not actually in default. Similarly, the creditor argued that as the purchaser of the debt it could not be a debt collector and that it was neither a debt collector nor a creditor under the circumstances of the case. The district court, assuming plaintiff’s allegations that the servicer was not a servicer and that the creditor was not a creditor for purposes of the motion to dismiss, granted the motion on the basis that neither the servicer nor owner was a debt collector under the FDCPA. On appeal, the court, relying on congressional intent and previous decisions from the Third and Seventh Circuits, held that an entity that acquires a debt it seeks to collect must be either a creditor or a debt collector, depending on the status of the debt at the time it was acquired. Similarly, the court held the servicer may be either a servicer or debt collector when acting on behalf of the debt-acquiring entity. To hold otherwise, the court reasoned, would frustrate the purpose of the FDCPA’s broad consumer protections. Further, the court held that after years of attempting to collect on the debt and acting as a debt collector, the servicer could not now attempt to defeat the broad protections of the FDCPA by relying on the borrower’s assertion that the loan was not actually in default. Finally, the court rejected the defendants’ claims that the plaintiff-husband failed to state a claim since he was not actually obligated on the debt in light of the FDCPA’s application to debt collectors when attempting to collect a debt “owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” The appellate court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On March 30, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a FDCPA claim stemming from a communication to the plaintiff that erroneously identified MERS Corp. as the plaintiff’s creditor. Shoup v. McCurdy & Candler LLC, No. 10-14619, 2012 WL 1071196 (11th Cir. Mar. 30, 2012). The plaintiff obtained a mortgage from America Wholesale Lender. MERS was the grantee acting as the lender’s nominee under the mortgage contract. After the plaintiff defaulted, MERS’s law firm sent an initial communication letter described as an attempt to collect a debt and identifying MERS as the “creditor on the above referenced loan.” The mortgagee filed suit under the FDCPA, alleging that MERS is not a creditor and that by falsely stating so, the law firm committed a FDCPA violation. The district court granted the defendant law firm’s 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, concluding that MERS was a creditor and that even if it was not, the purported violation was harmless. In its reversal, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned that the FDCPA makes clear that (i) “any false representation” in the collection of a debt is a violation of the statute, (ii) a “creditor” under the statute would not include MERS in this instance, because MERS was not owed a debt, and (iii) any failure to comply with the law subjects the violator to actual and statutory damages.