Call Me by Your Name – Or Risk an FDCPA Claim, Says Third Circuit

By Stephen J Shapiro

What’s in a name? For debt collectors, the answer potentially is years of litigation according to the Third Circuit’s recent opinion in Levins v. Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group LLC.

In Levins, Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group LLC (HRRG), a debt collector, attempted to collect a debt from the plaintiff debtors. HRRG, which had registered to do business in New Jersey under the name “ARS Account Resolution Services,” identified itself as “ARS” in several voicemail messages that it left for plaintiffs. Plaintiffs brought a putative class action alleging that HRRG violated the “true name” provision of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from using “the name of any business, company or organization other than the true name of the debt collector’s business, company, or organization.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(14). The district court granted HRRG’s motion to dismiss the claim.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed the dismissal. The Court, adopting the Federal Trade Commission’s interpretation of the “true name” provision, held that the provision “permit[s] a debt collector to ‘use its full business name, the name under which it usually transacts business, or a commonly-used acronym[,]’ as long as ‘it consistently uses the same name when dealing with a particular consumer.’” The plaintiffs in the Levins case alleged that the acronym “ARS” is associated with hundreds of businesses, including an unrelated debt collector, and, therefore, was not an acronym commonly associated with HRRG. Given those allegations, the Court explained that “[n]othing in the information properly before us [on review of an appeal from an order granting a motion to dismiss] indicates that ‘ARS’ is HRRG’s full business name, the name under which it usually transacts business, or its commonly used acronym.” Therefore, the Court held that plaintiffs stated a plausible claim for violation of the FDCPA’s “true name” provision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court noted that HRRG’s challenge to plaintiffs’ allegation that “ARS” was not an acronym that HRRG commonly used would have to wait until summary judgment or trial.

The Third Circuit did, however, affirm the trial court’s rejection of two additional legal theories that plaintiffs asserted. First, the Court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that HRRG violated a provision of the FDCPA that prohibits debt collectors from failing to make a “meaningful disclosure of the caller’s identity” when they call debtors. 15 U.S.C. § 1692d(6). The Court held that “‘meaningful disclosure of the caller’s identity’ is not restricted to providing the name of the debt collector.” Rather, a debt collector that discloses during a call that it is a debt collector has made a “meaningful disclosure” of its identity under the FDCPA. Second, the Court held that, because HRRG’s messages adequately warned that it would use any information collected from the debtors to collect a debt, HRRG did not, as plaintiffs alleged, violate a section of the FDCPA that prohibits “the use of any false representation or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect any debt or to obtain information concerning a consumer.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692d(10).

In light of the Third Circuit’s holding in Levins, debt collectors should consider using a name registered with a government agency or bureau when they communicate with debtors. Doing so will enable debt collectors to provide the courts with a public record, which the courts may consider on a motion to dismiss, to establish that they used their full business name or “transacting as” name to contact the debtor. Using any name other than an “official” name evidenced by a government record carries risk because it opens the door for debtors to allege that the name the debt collector used was a not a “true name,” which allegation the courts will be required to accept as true on a motion to dismiss.

 

CA Supreme Court: Interest rates on consumer loans in excess of $2,500 can be challenged as unconscionable under California law

By Vikram Subramanian

In De La Torre et al. v. Cashcall, Inc. the California Supreme Court recently held that, although California’s Financial Code only imposes interest rate caps on consumer loans for less than $2,500, consumers who borrow more than $2,500 still may challenge as unconscionable the interest rate on those loans.    

The lender in the De La Torre case was a California lender that made consumer loans to high-risk borrowers “with low credit scores” who were living “under financial stress.” One of the lender’s signature products is an unsecured $2,600 loan, payable over a 42-month period, and carrying an interest rate of as much as 135 percent.  Borrowers who took out those loans brought a putative class action in federal court alleging that the loans violated, among other statutes, California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL).

The California Financial Code imposes caps on the interest rates that lenders may charge on consumer loans for less than $2,500.  The lender in in the De La Torre argued that, because the California Legislature chose not to impose interest rates caps on loans in excess of $2,500, there was no limit on the interest rate it could charge on loans for more than $2,500, such as the $2,600 loans it made to the putative class.  Therefore, the lender moved for summary judgment on the Plaintiffs’ claim that making loans at “unconscionable interest rates” gave rise to a cause of action under the UCL.  The district court granted the motion and entered judgment in favor of the lender on the plaintiffs’ UCL claim.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit certified the following question to the California Supreme Court: “[C]an the interest rate on consumer loans of $2,500 or more render the loans unconscionable under section 22302 of the Financial Code?”

The California Supreme Court answered the question in the affirmative: “The answer is yes. An interest rate on a loan is the price of that loan, and ‘it is clear that the price term, like any other term in a contract, may be unconscionable.’” The Court explained: “We recognize how daunting it can be to pinpoint the precise threshold separating a merely burdensome interest rate from an unconscionable one. But that is no reason to ignore the clear statutory embrace here of a familiar principle—that courts have a responsibility to guard against consumer loan provisions with unduly oppressive terms. . . . As with any other price term in an agreement governed by California law, an interest rate may be deemed unconscionable.”

Although plaintiffs were not barred as matter of law from challenging their loans as unconscionable, the Court explained that, to prove their claim, they will have to meet an exacting standard.  In particular, plaintiffs will have to prove that the interest rates on their loans were both substantively and procedurally unconscionable.  Substantive unconscionability will require a showing, for instance, that the terms of the loans were overly harsh, unduly oppressive and so one-sided as to shock the conscience.  Procedural unconscionability will require a showing, for example, of inequality of bargaining power or surprise owing to concealment of the terms of the loan in a dense printed form or pressure on the borrower to sign quickly.

In light of De La Torre, lenders in California who make consumers loans in excess of $2,500 would be well advised to review and, if necessary, adjust their operations to minimize potential exposure to claims that interest rates are unconscionable.

 

Third Circuit: The CFPB may use a CID to obtain information about all aspects of a company’s business.

By Stephen J Shapiro

In order to pursue its Congressional mandate to enforce Federal consumer financial laws, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) may compel the production of documents or testimony by issuing a civil investigative demand (CID) to anyone the CFPB believes has information relevant to a violation of those laws.  A CID must identify “(1) the nature of the conduct constituting the alleged violation [of the law] and (2) the provision of law applicable to such violation.”  The Third Circuit recently held that the CFPB may use a CID to request information relating to the entirety of a company’s operations, and need not limit its request to information relating to any specific aspect of those operations.

In Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Heartland Campus Solutions, ECSI, the CFPB issued a CID to Heartland, a student loan servicer.  The CID explained that the CFPB was investigating “whether student-loan servicers . . . have engaged in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices . . . or have engaged in conduct that violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act . . . .”  The CID identified the following categories of conduct among those on which the CFPB was focusing:  “processing payments, charging fees, transferring loans, maintaining accounts, and credit reporting.”

Heartland conferred with the CFPB to address its concerns about the scope of the CID, but ultimately refused to comply with the CID.  The CFPB, following the procedure in the statute governing CIDs, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania a petition seeking enforcement of the CID.  The district court granted the petition.

On appeal, Heartland conceded that, had the CFPB requested information relating to any single one of the categories of conduct identified in the CID – “processing payments, charging fees, transferring loans, maintaining accounts, and credit reporting” – the CID would have been valid.  However, Heartland argued, because the CID requested information about “‘all component functions of any student loan servicing business, [the CID provided] no notice of what conduct’” the CFPB was investigating and, therefore, was unreasonably broad.  The Third Circuit, in a non-precedential opinion, rejected Heartland’s argument:  “[Heartland’s argument] rests on the flawed assumption that the CFPB could not investigate all of [Heartland’s] conduct.  Nothing prohibits the CFPB from investigating the totality of [a company’s] business activities . . . .”  Therefore, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of the CFPB’s petition to enforce the CID.

The Heartland decision suggests that, when negotiating with the CFPB over the scope of a CID, focusing on the particularized burden that responding to the CID would impose may be a more effective strategy than objecting generally to the broad scope of the request.

 

 

The Third Circuit Holds that Highway Tolls are Not “Debts” Under the FDCPA

By Stephen J Shapiro

Drivers who use New Jersey’s toll roads can pat themselves on the back because the tolls they pay help fund a public benefit. But, as the Third Circuit recently held, that fact also means that tolls are not “debts” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) and, therefore, debt collectors seeking to collect unpaid tolls need not comply with the FDCPA’s regulations governing debt collection.

In St. Pierre v. Retrieval-Masters Creditors Bureau, Inc., the plaintiff signed up for an E-ZPass account, which he used to pay tolls he incurred while travelling on toll roads in New Jersey. When the plaintiff’s E-ZPass account fell into arrears, E-ZPass assigned the debt to a private debt collection agency. The agency sent the plaintiff a letter demanding payment of the debt. The plaintiff’s E-ZPass account number and a “quick response” code was visible through a window in the envelope containing the collection letter.

The plaintiff brought a putative class action against the agency, alleging that it violated a provision of the FDCPA that prohibits debt collectors from including on an envelope containing a collection letter “any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address . . . .” 15 U.S.C. § 1692f(8). However, the prohibitions in the FDCPA only apply to the collection of a “debt,” which the Act defines as an “obligation . . . of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction in which the money, property, insurance, or services which are the subject of the transaction are primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(5). The district court concluded that a highway toll is not a “debt” within the meaning of the FDCPA. Therefore, the district court held that the FDCPA’s prohibitions did not apply to the agency’s collection efforts and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint.

The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal. After reviewing previous decisions analyzing the issue, the Third Circuit announced a three-part test for determining whether an obligation is a “debt” under the FDCPA:

First, ascertain “whether the underlying obligation ‘aris[es] out of a transaction,’ – that is, a consensual exchange involving an affirmative ‘request,’ and ‘the rendition of a service or purchase of property or other item of value, such as a contract—or whether, instead, it arises by virtue of a legal status—that is, an involuntary obligation attendant to the fact of having a specific legal status . . . .”

Second, if the obligation arises out of a transaction, “identify what ‘money, property, insurance, or services . . . [] are the subject of the transaction, i.e., what it is that is being rendered in exchange for the monetary payment.”

Third, “consider the characteristics of that ‘money, property, insurance, or services’ to ascertain whether they are ‘primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.’”

Applying this test to the facts before it, the Court first held that the obligation to pay tolls does arise out of a “transaction” because a driver can voluntarily choose whether to incur the obligation: “[Plaintiff] would have no obligation to pay highway tolls had he chosen to use alternative routes or to keep his car parked . . . .” The Court next observed that the purpose of tolls is to “‘compensate the state for the cost, maintenance and repair of its highways,’” and that, in exchange for tolls, “all drivers benefit from ‘safer, faster, and more convenient travel in and through the State.’” As such, the Court explained that “what [plaintiff] receives in exchange for the payment of highway tolls is not the private benefit of a ‘personal, family, or household’ service or good but the very public benefit of highway maintenance and repair.”

Having concluded that tolls are not “primarily for personal, family, or household purposes,” the Court held that tolls are not “debts” within the meaning of the FDCPA: “[T]he FDCPA is not implicated where, as here, the bulk, if not all of the services rendered, are made ‘without reference to peculiar benefits to particular individuals or property.’”

In light of the Third Circuit’s decision, debt collectors may want to consider factoring into their operational practices and pricing models the reduced risk of facing FDCPA claims when collecting obligations that debtors did not voluntarily choose to incur or obligations that primarily benefit the public over individual debtors.

 

The Third Circuit Holds that the FDCPA Applies to Debt Collectors that Are Collecting Debts They Own

By Stephen J Shapiro

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) regulates the conduct of debt collectors.  The Act defines a “debt collector” as (a) any entity whose “principal purpose . . . is the collection of any debts” (the “principal purpose” definition), or (b) any entity that “regularly collects or attempts to collect . . . debts owed or due . . . another” (the “regularly collects” definition).  15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6).  In a recent precedential opinion, the Third Circuit held that an entity whose principal purpose is the collection of debts is a debt collector even if it owns the debt it is collecting and, therefore, is not collecting a debt owed another.  In other words, an entity that meets the “principal purpose” definition is a debt collector even if it does not also meet the “regularly collects” definition.

In Tepper v. Amos Financial, LLC, a creditor sold a loan on which its borrower had defaulted to Amos Financial, whose sole business involved purchasing and attempting to collect debts originated by others.  The debtor sued Amos alleging that, during its efforts to collect the debt, Amos violated the FDCPA by making false representations about the debt in both its written and oral communications with the debtor.  After a bench trial, the district court held that Amos was a “debt collector” within the meaning of the FDCPA and that it actions violated the Act.

On appeal, Amos challenged the district court’s conclusion that it is a debt collector.  Amos argued that, because it owned the debt it was attempting to collect, it was not collecting a debt “owed or due . . . another” and, therefore, was not a debt collector.  The Third Circuit rejected this argument because in the “principal purpose” definition the phrase “‘[a]ny debts’ does not distinguish to whom the debt is owed” and the phrase “‘debts owed or due . . . another’ . . . limits only the ‘regularly collects’ definition.”  Because there was no dispute that Amos’ principal purpose was the collection of debts, the Court held that Amos was a debt collector under the “principal purpose” definition even if it would not also qualify as a debt collector under the “regularly collects” definition: “[A]n entity whose principal purpose of business is the collection of any debts is a debt collector regardless whether the entity owns the debts it collects.”

Amos also attempted to rely on the fact that the FDCPA does not apply to “creditors,” which the Act defines as entities “to whom [the] debt is owed.”  Amos argued that, because it owned the debt at issue, it was a “creditor” and not subject to the Act.  The Third Circuit rejected this argument as well, holding that “an entity that satisfies both [the definition of debt collector and creditor] is within the Act’s reach.”

The Court also noted that the Supreme Court recently rejected the test the Third Circuit previously applied when analyzing whether an entity that purchased a debt was a debt collector.  Specifically, in Pollice v. National Tax Funding, L.P., the Third Circuit, adopting what is referred to as the “default test,” held that “an assignee of an obligation is not a ‘debt collector’ if the obligation is not in default at the time of the assignment; conversely, an assignee may be deemed a ‘debt collector’ if the obligation is already in default when it is assigned.”  The Third Circuit explained that in 2017 the Supreme Court repealed the “default test” in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc.

In light of the Third Circuit’s ruling, debt collectors should remain vigilant about complying with the FDCPA, whether they are attempting to collect debts that they own or debts owned by others.

 

2nd Cir: Debtor’s Failure to Contest Debt Does Not Insulate Debt Collector from Liability under FDCPA

By Stephen J Shapiro

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) requires that a debt collector attempting to collect a debt notify a consumer that (1) “unless the consumer . . . disputes the validity of the debt . . . the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector,” and (2) if the consumer disputes the debt, “the debt collector will obtain [and send to the consumer] verification of the debt . . . .”  15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(3) and (4).  The Second Circuit recently held that compliance with these provisions does not insulate debt collectors from claims alleging that they violated the FDCPA by making false representations about debts.

In Vangorden v. Second Round, Limited Partnership, a creditor agreed to settle a debtor’s credit card debt for less than the amount the debtor owed.  Five years later, a debt collector purchased the debtor’s settled debt and sent the debtor a letter requesting that she pay the “current outstanding balance” on her credit card of about $1,300.  In compliance with § 1692g(a), the letter notified the debtor that she had the right to dispute the validity of the debt and that the debt collector would verify the debt if she did so.  The debtor did not dispute the debt.  Instead, she sued the debt collector alleging that it violated several provisions of the FDCPA by falsely representing the existence, amount and legal status of the debt.  The debt collector moved to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the debtor did not exercise her right to dispute the debt, and the trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed.  Joining the Third Circuit and Fourth Circuit, the Second Circuit held that “nothing in the text of the FDCPA suggests that a debtor’s ability to state a [claim under the Act] ‘is dependent upon the debtor first disputing the validity of the debt in accordance with § 1692g.’”

In reaching its decision, the Second Circuit relied in part on the FDCPA’s “bona fide error” defense.  Section 1692k(c) of the FDCPA provides that a debt collector “may not be held liable . . . if the debt collector shows by a preponderance of the evidence that [a] violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error.”  The Court held that, where debt collectors make honest mistakes, “the protection the FDCPA affords debt collectors . . . is the affirmative defense stated in § 1692k(c), not an immunity from suit inferred from the dispute notice provision of § 1692g.”

Practitioners can draw a number of lessons from Vangorden:  1) At least in the Second, Third and Fourth Circuits, debt collectors are unlikely to prevail on requests to dismiss FDCPA claims on the ground that the debtor did not contest the debt at issue.  2) Where the facts so warrant, debt collectors should plead § 1692k(c) as an affirmative defense to avoid potential waiver arguments.  3) Where a debt collector intends to invoke the “bona fide error” defense, it should make efforts to develop record facts to support the defense, since the burden of proof will fall on the debt collector at both the summary judgment stage and at trial.

 

PA Supreme Court Addresses Recovery of Costs and Fees Under Act 6

By Stephen J. Shapiro

Under a Pennsylvania statute commonly referred to as “Act 6,” a lender must give a residential borrower at least thirty days’ notice before it may commence foreclosure proceedings.  If a lender violates Act 6 and the borrower brings and “prevails in an action arising under” Act 6, the borrower may recover his costs, expenses and attorneys’ fees.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that a borrower who prevails on an affirmative defense alleging a violation of Act 6 is not entitled to recover costs and attorneys’ fees because such an affirmative defense is not an “action arising under” Act 6.  The Court’s ruling likely will encourage borrowers to pursue alleged violations of Act 6 in separate lawsuits and/or as counterclaims in foreclosure actions.

In Bayview Loan Servicing, LLC v. Lindsay, a borrower defaulted on his mortgage and his lender commenced a mortgage foreclosure action.  The borrower alleged, as an affirmative defense, that the lender violated Act 6 by failing to provide him with thirty days’ advance notice of its intent to commence the foreclosure action.  After the trial court denied the lender’s motion for summary judgment, the lender discontinued the foreclosure action without prejudice.  Alleging that he had prevailed on his affirmative defense under Act 6, the borrower requested that the trial court award him costs and attorneys’ fees.   The trial court denied the request and the Superior Court affirmed.

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also affirmed the trial court’s refusal to award the borrower costs and attorneys’ fees.   The Court first noted that the lender’s “foreclosure action did not ‘arise under [Act 6].’”  The Court then explained that “[t]he term ‘action’ in [Act 6] clearly refers to the filing of a civil action in a court of competent jurisdiction seeking one or more of the designated forms of relief.”  As such, the Court concluded, “the assertion of an affirmative defense . . . in a residential foreclosure action does not constitute ‘an action arising under [Act 6].’”

The Court stated that a “counterclaim would undoubtedly qualify as an action arising under Act 6,” but noted that existing case law may have left it “unclear as to whether an Act 6 violation may be raised as a counterclaim in a mortgage foreclosure action.”  Because the borrower in Bayview did not pursue a counterclaim, the Court was “not presented with the opportunity to determine the propriety of such a counterclaim.”  It is likely that the Bayview decision will lead borrowers to initiate separate actions and/or plead counterclaims in foreclosure actions to pursue alleged violations of Act 6.

 

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