Supreme Court Releases Consumer-Unfriendly Opinion in Santander – What Does It Mean?/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court released an opinion highly anticipated by consumer lawyers as well as the debt collection industry, in the case of Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc. This case dealt with the question of whether a purchaser of defaulted debts, which then attempts to collect those debts from consumers, counts as a “debt collector” that is subject to strict consumer protections provided in the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”).

To grasp the potential impact of this case, one needs to understand the structure of the consumer debt collection industry as it exists today:

The first step is origination, when the consumer first incurs a debt to a creditor such as a bank, credit card issuer, other lender, wireless provider, or cable company.

When the consumer defaults on a debt–usually by failing to pay–one of two things may happen: (1) the original creditor may hire a third-party debt collection company to attempt to collect the debt, generally through telephone calls and collection letters; or (2) the original creditor may attempt to collect the debt itself for some period of time.

Often, once the debt becomes sufficiently aged, the creditor sells, or assigns, the debt to a debt buyer. The debt buyer pays the creditor only a fraction of the face value of the debt, then attempts to recover as much of the debt as possible from the consumer by various means, often including telephone calls and collection letters.

The final stage in the process is a lawsuit filed by collection attorneys acting on behalf of the debt buyer. Most of these lawsuits are not contested, and result in default judgments that are slowly collected through wage, bank account, and tax refund garnishments.

It has long been settled law that, under the FDCPA, third-party debt collection companies and collection attorneys ARE “debt collectors.” Most federal courts found that debt buyers were “debt collectors” as well, including the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which establishes precedent for federal courts in Michigan. Generally, circuit precedent found that creditors collecting their own debts could NOT be “debt collectors” unless a rare exception applied.

All of this matters for one basic reason: the FDCPA restricts what “debt collectors” are allowed to do, and creates powerful remedies for consumers when they do not comply with the FDCPA. The FDCPA creates various protections for consumers; for example, it requires debt collectors to identify themselves as debt collectors in communications to consumers, disallows certain conduct in collection lawsuits, outlaws attempts to collect debts no longer owed, limits consumer harassment by telephone, and disallows unfair and fraudulent conduct in connection with debt collection. Consumers harmed by violations of the FDCPA are entitled to sue, and can recover a statutory penalty as well as their attorney fees.

In yesterday’s Santander decision, the Supreme Court unanimously held that debt buyers are not automatically “debt collectors” subject to the FDCPA. According to the opinion, penned by newest Justice Neil Gorsuch, this is so because debt buyers are attempting to collect a debt that is owed to them, and thus are creditors, even though they are not the original creditors.

Taken in isolation, the Santander holding might seem catastrophic for consumers besieged by collection attempts from debt buyers (including such large players as Midland Funding, LVNV Funding, Portfolio Recovery Associates, and others), because the protections of the FDCPA would be unavailable. This would enable debt buyers to use, with impunity, the same harassing and unfair collection methods that “debt collectors” are not allowed to use under the FDCPA.  It is true that the Santander decision is beneficial to some debt buyers at the expense of consumers; however, its impact is limited. Justice Gorsuch carefully points out in the opinion that the court’s decision does NOT mean that debt buyers are NEVER “debt collectors.” Indeed, the text of the FDCPA appears clear that debt buyers ARE “debt collectors” if their “principal purpose … is the collection of any debts.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). With respect to the largest buyers of defaulted credit card debt–i.e., Midland Funding, LVNV, and PRA–an experienced consumer lawyer should easily be able to prove that their “principal purpose” is debt collection; and they are therefore “debt collectors” subject to FDCPA restrictions.

While the Santander decision does not make the consumer advocate’s job easier, and is likely to spur pernicious innovations in the debt buying and debt collection industry, it is hardly the death knell for the FDCPA. Consumer advocates and watchdogs, including us at Westbrook Law PLLC, will continue to find ways to keep abuses in check.

TJW

Collectors Still Pursuing Debt after Bankruptcy Discharge? It’s Illegal./Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Each year, hundreds of thousands of individuals with overwhelming debts file for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy in order to regain their financial freedom.  The usual goal of bankruptcy is to have one’s debts “discharged,” or declared legally unenforceable and effectively nullified.  This is intended to allow the debtor a “fresh start” to their financial affairs.

But a discharge of debts in bankruptcy does not always stop debt collectors, who may continue to contact the debtor by phone or letter, or even file legal proceedings, after a debt has been discharged.  These post-discharge collection attempts rob the debtor of the “fresh start” he or she fought for in bankruptcy, and are often unlawful, violating various state and federal laws designed to protect consumers from abusive debt collection tactics.

If you are still being chased by debt collectors to pay a debt that was discharged in bankruptcy, Westbrook Law PLLC may be able to make the collection efforts stop, punish the debt collectors for violating the law, and get monetary compensation for you.  Contact us for more information or a free consultation.

If you have not filed for bankruptcy but wonder if it may be right for you, contact us for a referral to a qualified bankruptcy law firm.

TJW

Spam Text Messages and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Nearly every bulk text (SMS) message sent to a cellular phone in the United States violates federal law – specifically, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227.  Enacted in 1991 primarily to constrain the growing scourge of invasive telemarketing calls, the TCPA has more recently been applied to cases of mass marketing, or “spam,” SMS text messages.  In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that such unsolicited text messages fall within the TCPA’s prohibitions on automatic telephone dialer calls.  Yet bulk text messages remain a commonplace nuisance for most people who rely on cellular phones.

The TCPA provides serious remedies to consumers who receive bulk text messages without their consent: $500 per message, or $1,500 per message for willful violations of the TCPA. These penalties quickly add up given the often repetitive nature of spam text messages.

The TCPA and its penalty provisions were designed to encourage consumers and consumer lawyers to act as “private attorneys general,” effectively assisting the Federal Communications Commission to enforce limitations on telephone system abusers.  If you receive unsolicited bulk text messages, do not just delete them.  Westbrook Law PLLC can assist you to determine whether the law has been broken, enforce the law and, in the process, pursue a monetary recovery for you under the TCPA.

Contact us to arrange a free consultation.

Junk Faxes Violate Federal Law/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Most businesses and individuals who maintain dedicated telephone lines for fax machine use have experienced the common annoyance of the junk fax.  The machine beeps, picks up a call, and proceeds to print out an unwanted message from a solicitor that quickly finds its way into the recycling bin.  The practice of junk faxing not only ties up fax lines and wastes paper and supplies; it also violates the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(C).  Recognizing this pervasive problem and the fact that each junk fax does a measurable but very small amount of damage, to discourage this practice, the TCPA provides for “statutory damages” in the amount of $500 per junk fax, or $1,500 per junk fax for willful violations.  These amounts quickly add up when multiple faxes are received.

Our office has developed expertise in tracking down the elusive origins of junk faxes and in enforcing the TCPA.  If your business or personal fax machine receives junk faxes, DO NOT THROW THEM AWAY.  Keep them, and contact us for a free consultation.

Certification Granted in FDCPA Class Action Babbitt v. ClearSpring Loan Services, Inc./Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Today, the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan issued an order granting class certification in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) case against default mortgage servicer ClearSpring Loan Services, Inc.  Westbrook Law PLLC member Theodore J. Westbrook, along with veteran consumer lawyer Phillip C. Rogers, were appointed class counsel.

The case, filed by Mr. Westbrook in late 2015, alleges that ClearSpring engaged in a pattern and practice of violating the FDCPA through failing to disclose on its monthly loan statements that ClearSpring was a debt collector.  The FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. Section 1692e(11), specifically requires all debt collectors to make such a disclosure in each communication with a debtor, in an effort to minimize consumer confusion.  As a default mortgage servicer–a company that obtains the right to collect payments after the loan is delinquent or otherwise in default–ClearSpring is a debt collector that must comply with the FDCPA.

The specialized default servicing industry has been growing along with large lenders’ eagerness to offload non-performing loans.  With it, the likelihood of servicers failing to understand or comply with debt collection laws may also be on the rise.  As more class actions are certified, industry players will be forced to bring their practices in line with the strict requirements of the FDCPA.

Experian’s “Suspicious Request” Letter Violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

One of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, Experian Information Solutions, has recently undertaken an apparent effort to stymie credit repair organizations and consumer lawyers by refusing to investigate consumer disputes regarding credit report inaccuracies.  Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), Experian and the other CRAs are given 30 days to investigate consumer disputes, and may only refuse to investigate if the dispute lodged by the consumer is “frivolous.”  However, Experian has recently begun rejecting consumer disputes based on the fact that they are “suspicious.”  Although Experian’s “suspicious request” letter does not define what is suspicious about the consumer’s dispute, consumer advocates believe Experian is engaged in a pattern of rejecting disputes in this matter when it appears that the consumer was assisted in drafting the dispute by a credit repair organization or an attorney.  This practice violates the FCRA, robs consumers of the protections the FCRA is intended to afford, and potentially has serious negative consequences to consumers’ credit histories.

If you have had a credit reporting dispute rejected by Experian or any other credit reporting agency, contact us for a free consultation.

An Unwelcome Pokemon Go Terms of Service Surprise, and How to Opt Out/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Most mobile app users do not take the time to read the terms of service that typically accompany opening and using the app for the first time.  Doubtless, most of the 7.5-plus million people who have downloaded the Pokemon Go! smartphone app are typical in this sense.  Getting into the fine print, however, reveals a problem for users who agree to the terms: a forced arbitration clause which (1) eliminates the user’s ability to sue the game’s developer publicly in court, instead requiring private arbitration of any dispute; and (2) eliminates the user’s ability to participate in any class action.  This is of concern for any consumer product, but particularly in the case of an app which presents potential privacy and data security risks.  In short, frequently the only efficient way to hold a corporation accountable for breaches of privacy or data security is through a class action lawsuit.  This is because: (1) the investigative costs involved in this type of litigation are immense; (2) the harm to each individual affected user may be very small; and (3) the overall harm to all affected users may be many millions of dollars.

Forced arbitration has been a growing phenomenon in large corporations’ terms of service for decades.  From the consumer advocate’s perspective, these clauses and procedures are pernicious.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau agrees, and after finding that such clauses in bank and financial institution contracts are unfair and unconscionable as a whole, has proposed a regulation outlawing forced arbitration clauses in consumer financial services contracts.  Of course, this regulation would not affect Niantic, the developer of Pokemon Go!, since its business is computer software and not financial services.

The silver lining is that the Pokemon Go! terms of service allows users to opt out of the forced arbitration clause, as long as they do so within 30 days of first agreeing to the terms of service.  All the user needs to do is email Niantic at termsofservice@nianticlabs.com and clearly state that the user is opting out of the arbitration clause in the terms of service.  Our recommendation is that all Pokemon Go! users preserve their legal rights in this way.

Debt Collection Lawsuits May Break the Law/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Huge numbers of lawsuits are filed by debt collectors and debt buyers in Michigan’s district courts every day.  Some of the larger debt buyers may file hundreds of lawsuits per year in a single district court.  These are relatively small-dollar cases, seeking anywhere from $100 up to $5,000 or more, typically on past due credit card accounts that have been written off and sold by the original creditor (in the case of a legitimate debt), to a debt buyer, and then possibly re-sold to a string of other debt buyers.

Many people who have been sued by debt collectors do not know what to do.  The debt may seem legitimate, or may even be legitimate.  Frequently these defendants simply do not contest the lawsuit, a default judgment is entered against them, and ultimately their bank accounts or wages are garnished to pay the debt collector.  The problem is that the plaintiff–the debt collector who filed the lawsuit–might have broken the law when it filed the lawsuit, or might not even have had the right to any payment at all.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq., prohibits debt collectors from making false or misleading statements or using unfair methods to collect consumer debts.  This includes statements made and methods used in lawsuits to collect debts.  If the plaintiff claims amounts are owed that are not actually owed, that is unlawful under 15 U.S.C. § 1692e.  If the plaintiff has filed a time-barred claim–which is typically the case if no payments have been made on the debt in six or more years–that is also a violation.  Debt collectors’ legal complaints frequently contain deceptive and misleading statements that could give rise to defenses to the debt, as well as counterclaims for monetary damages.

The following common practices among debt buyers are all grounds for relief under the FDCPA:

  • Misrepresenting the original creditor to whom the debt was owed;
  • Seeking more money than what is actually owed;
  • Including non-recoverable fees and costs in the amount sought in the lawsuit;
  • Improperly including certain fees and costs in garnishments;
  • Misrepresenting that the complaint was prepared by an attorney of law firm, when in fact it was prepared by a non-lawyer;
  • Providing false or misleading contact information;
  • Including false, misleading or fabricated documentary evidence as support for the complaint.

Many consumers sued by buyers of old defaulted debt feel they cannot afford an attorney to defend their case.  This is not necessarily true, particularly when a consumer lawyer finds that there is a viable counterclaim against the debt collector under the FDCPA.  This is because, as a remedial consumer protection statute, the FDCPA provides for the payment of attorney fees by the debt collector if a violation is proven.

If you have been sued by a debt collector, contact us for a consultation free of charge.

John Oliver, Consumer Advocate/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

As an attorney representing individuals in disputes with large corporations for nearly a decade, it has frequently occurred to me that most consumers are unaware of substantial legal rights they have, including laws that exist for the express purpose of protecting consumers from specific unfair business practices.  I have been surprised to find a kindred spirit in comedian John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, whose concern with consumer affairs on the show has included major problems with credit reporting as well as debt collection and debt buying scams (caution: strong language).  I am pleased to see these troubling issues discussed in a popular forum, by a public figure with a genuine passion for consumer rights.

What Mr. Oliver does not explore in these entertaining and informative pieces are the legal frameworks available under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), which encourage aggrieved consumers and their attorneys to act as “private attorneys general” to regulate the industries that abuse credit reports and those that resort to unfair and deceptive means of collecting seriously delinquent debts–some of which may even be time-barred, or not owed in the first place.  While these statutes and the numerous precedents that interpret them are not the stuff of late night television, they are major tools in the arsenal of consumer advocates such as myself, and can form the basis for significant recoveries for consumers themselves.

Spokeo v. Robins/Westbrook Law of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Many laws designed to protect individuals from corporate abuses rely in part on the imposition of “statutory damages.”  This typically means that if the plaintiff can show a violation of the law, there is some minimum amount of money that must be awarded.  These are exceptions to the general rule that a plaintiff’s recovery is limited to the amount of actual damages proven.

Statutory damages are an important part of the enforcement mechanisms in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”), Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) and many other consumer protection laws.  This is because the availability of statutory damages acts as a deterrent to violations of the law that are destructive, but whose economic impact on any individual may be difficult to prove or speculative.  For example, where a statute such as the FCRA or FDCPA gives a consumer the right to receive certain information, a company’s failure to comply might not give rise to any provable “actual” damages.  Enforcement of those rights then depends upon statutory damages.

The United States Supreme Court was presented with a  far-reaching challenge to statutory damages in the recent case Spokeo v. Robins.  In that case, the plaintiffs in a class action had alleged that a web site used for personal investigations and background checks had violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by failing to maintain procedures to ensure accuracy of its reports.  The plaintiff class sought statutory damages under the FCRA.  The defendant argued that because the plaintiff had not shown any “actual damages,” he lacked “standing” to bring the lawsuit under Article III of the Constitution–even though the FCRA itself provides for a cause of action that seeks only statutory damages.  Without standing, the plaintiff’s case could not be maintained.

The Spokeo case was on appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had held that violation of the FCRA itself was enough of an “injury” to satisfy the Article III standing requirements.  The United States Supreme Court disagreed in part, finding that the Ninth Circuit had failed to correctly analyze whether a “concrete” injury had been adequately alleged by the plaintiff.  The Court remanded the case for a new determination of this issue.

On its face, the Spokeo decision might appear harmful to the interests of consumers, given that many important protections in the FCRA, FDCPA, RESPA and TILA are only effectively enforceable through statutory–not actual–damages.  However, within the Court’s opinion are indications that those protections remain viable.  For example, the opinion acknowledges that a consumer’s injury need not be “tangible” in order to provide a basis for Article III standing.  It also notes that “risk of real harm” can satisfy the injury requirement for standing.  This is an especially important note in the context of statutes giving consumers the right to accurate information, where the failure to provide that information creates a real risk of harm.

In the coming months and years, it is expected that many corporations will rely on and attempt to expand on Spokeo to constrain consumer rights.  Vigilant consumer advocates should be cognizant of this and work to ensure that the courthouse doors are not closed to their clients.