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

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.