Westbrook Law PLLC Notches Win in Wrongful Repossession Trial

After a trial in December of 2017, the Montcalm County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the defendant and counter-plaintiff, represented by Westbrook Law PLLC, in a case that began as a $5,000.00 deficiency claim by the plaintiff/counter-defendant car dealer, and ended with a judgment against the car dealer for more than $10,000.00.

The case, Powers v. Brown, resulted from the dealer’s claim that the buyer missed an installment payment on his auto loan, thus entitling the dealer to repossess the vehicle and collect a deficiency balance on the loan. However, the evidence introduced at trial showed that the dealer had no contractual right to repossess the vehicle. Relying on Michigan’s conversion statute, M.C.L. § 600.2919a, Westbrook Law PLLC argued on behalf of the buyer that the dealer was liable for damages. The court (J. Schafer) agreed, finding that the dealer was liable for double damages and attorney fees.

TJW

House Financial Services Committee Evaluates Bill to Exempt Collection Lawyers from Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

In December, House Bill H.R. 4550, entitled “Practice of Law Technical Clarification Act of 2017,” was introduced by sponsors Vincente Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and Alexander Mooney (R-W. Va.). If passed, the bill would dramatically limit the legal protections to consumers currently provided by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692-1692o (“FDCPA”), by completely exempting collection lawyers from liability. Under current law, collection lawyers are treated the same as other debt collectors, and prohibited from engaging in abusive, misleading, or unfair collection practices. See Jerman v. Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer & Ulrich LPA, 559 U.S. 573 (2010). Westbrook Law PLLC has filed several lawsuits against collection law firms that violated the FDCPA. Those claims would not exist under the law as amended by H.R. 4550, and there is little question that the amendment would enable new and intensified abuses by collection law firms to go unchecked.

H.R. 4550 is currently being evaluated by the House Financial Services Committee, which may approve or kill the bill. Westbrook Law PLLC is actively engaging with committee members to ensure they are aware of the anti-consumer nature of this bill and to request that they do their part to prevent it from becoming law.

TJW

Supreme Court Releases Consumer-Unfriendly Opinion in Santander – What Does It Mean?

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.

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

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.

Certification Granted in FDCPA Class Action Babbitt v. ClearSpring Loan Services, Inc.

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.

Spokeo v. Robins

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.