U.S. Supreme Court Holds Debt Collectors Are Not Liable under the FDCPA for Pursuing Time-Barred Claims in Bankruptcy Court

By: Jonathan Robbin and Sholom Wohlgelernter

In a 5-3 decision in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348, 2017 WL 2039159 (U.S. May 15, 2017), the United States Supreme Court held that a debt collector’s filing of a time-barred proof of claim in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding is not “false,” “deceptive,” “misleading,” “unfair,” or “unconscionable” within the meaning of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).

In overturning the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held that the protections and remedies afforded to consumers under the FDCPA with respect to time-barred claims, are unavailable in Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings. The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that debt collectors may pursue time-barred debts in a debtor’s bankruptcy proceeding.

Please click here for the full alert. 

Second Circuit Holds Payoff Letter Stating that “Total Amount Due” May Include Other Amounts that Are Not Yet Due Does Not Satisfy FDCPA Amount Due Requirement

By:      Jonathan Robbin and Thomas Brodowski

In Andrew Carlin, individually and on behalf of a class v. Davidson Fink LLP, Case No. 15-3105-cv (2d Cir. March 29, 2017),[1] the Second Circuit vacated an order and judgment of the District Court in favor of a debt collector, holding (1) that a mortgage foreclosure complaint is not an “initial communications” for purposes of § 1692g liability; and (2) that a Payoff Statement including the language “estimated fees, costs, additional payments, or escrow disbursements not yet due” does not state the “amount of the debt” as required by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”).

In June 2013, Davidson Fink filed a foreclosure complaint (the “Complaint”) against Carlin, seeking to foreclose on a 2005 mortgage given by Carlin that was allegedly in default. The Complaint included a “Notice Required by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act,” which referred Carlin to the Complaint for the “amount of the debt” and notified Carlin that he had thirty (30) days to dispute the validity of the debt. The Complaint, however, failed to state the amount of the debt.

Thereafter, Carlin sent Davidson Fink a letter on July 12, 2013 disputing the debt and requesting a verification of the exact amount purportedly owed. In response, Davidson Fink sent Carlin a letter dated August 9, 2013 which contained, among other things, a Payoff Statement. The Payoff Statement identified a “Total Amount Due” of $205,261.79. But, in small print below the amount due, the Payoff Statement included the following disclaimer:

“To provide you with the convenience of an extended “Statement Void After” date, the Total Amount Due may include estimated fees, costs, additional payments and/or escrow disbursements that will become due prior to the “Statement Void After” date, but which are not yet due as of the date this Payoff Statement is issued.”

Notably, the Payoff Statement did not include the amounts of the estimated fees, costs, or additional payments, nor did the Payoff Statement indicate how those amounts were calculated. Consequently, Carlin sued Davidson Fink for alleged violations of the FDCPA. Davidson Fink filed a motion to dismiss, which the District Court originally denied, but then reversed its ruling following Davidson Fink’s subsequent motion for reconsideration. Carlin appealed.

Under the FDCPA, a debt collector must, within five days after an initial communication with a consumer debtor in connection with the collection of any debt, send the consumer a written notice containing the amount of the debt. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a). The FDCPA does not define an “initial communication,” but states that “[a] communication in the form of a formal pleading in a civil action shall not be treated as an initial communication for purposes of subsection (a) of this section.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(d) (added by the Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-351, § 802(a), Stat. 1966, 2006-07 (2006)). As such, the Second Circuit also held that mortgage foreclosure complaints are not “initial communications” for purposes of § 1692g liability.

Despite the Complaint not being the initial communication, the Second Circuit held that Davidson Fink’s follow-up August 9, 2013 letter (“August Letter”) constituted the “initial communication” and was sent in connection with the collection of the debt.[2] Having determined that the August Letter was an initial communication sent to collect a debt, the Second Circuit also held that the amount of the debt stated in the August Letter was insufficient under § 1692g. Using the least sophisticated consumer standard, the Second Circuit held that because the Payoff Statement did not identify the “estimated fees, costs, [and] additional payments,” nor did it explain how those amounts are calculated, the Court was unable to determine if those amounts were properly part of the debt owed.[3] Thus, absent fuller disclosure, an unsophisticated consumer would not be able to do so either.

The Second Circuit emphasized that debt collectors like Davidson Fink can take added measures to shield themselves from FDCPA liability by revising their standard payoff statements or by including the safe harbor language formulated in the Avila v. Riexinger & Assocs., LLC[4] case.

Thus, debt collectors should ensure that Payoff Statements are clear and ambiguous as to the date in which the amount stated in the payoff will be good through and that if the funds are not received by that date, payment will increase over time.

[1] Carlin v. Davidson Fink LLP, 2017 U.S. App. Lexis 5438 (2d Cir. March 29, 2017)

[2] Plaintiff Carlin argued his July 12, 2013 letter to Davidson Fink constituted the “initial communication” but, it is well-settled that communications initiated by debtors to debt collectors are not “initial communications” under the FDCPA. See, e.g. Derisme v. Hunt Leibert Jacobson P.C., 880 F. Supp. 2d 339, 367-68 (D. Conn. 2012); Lane v. Fein, Such & Crane, LLP, 767 F. Supp. 2d 382, 387 (E.D.N.Y. 2011); Gorham-Dimaggio v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., No. 1:05-cv-0583, 2005 WL 2098068, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 30, 2005).

[3] The FDCPA defines “debt” as “any obligation or alleged obligation of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction…, whether or not such obligation has been reduced to judgment.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(5).

[4] 817 F.3d 72 (2d Cir. 2016) (holding though not required by the text of the statute, a notice would also satisfy § 1692g if it used language such as: “As of today, [date], you owe $  . This amount consists of a principal of $   , accrued interest of $   , and fees of $   . This balance will continue to accrue interest after [date] at a rate of $   per [date/week/month/year].”).

Fifth Circuit Holds that a Request for Proof of Authority to Collect Does Not Constitute a “Qualified Written Request” Under RESPA

By:      Joshua A. Huber

On July 14, 2016, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Parker, holding that a qualified written request (“QWR”) pursuant to the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, 12 U.S.C. § 2605 (“RESPA”), does not encompass a borrower’s written request for proof of a lender’s status as the noteholder, or its authority to collect payments under a promissory note and deed of trust.[1]

The borrowers in In re Parker served their lender with correspondence titled “RESPA Qualified Written Request, Complaint, Dispute of Debt & Validation of Debt Letter,” which primarily questioned whether the lender was the owner of their promissory note with authority to collect payments.[2] The borrowers alleged in their subsequent lawsuit against the lender that this letter constituted a valid QWR and that the lender was liable under RESPA for its failure to respond and provide evidence of its authority.[3]

In rejecting the borrowers’ claim, the Fifth Circuit first noted that the borrowers were required to demonstrate, as a threshold matter, that the correspondence they sent to the lender was in fact a QWR within the meaning of RESPA.[4] The court observed that a valid QWR “must be related to the servicing of the loan,” which RESPA defines as “receiving any scheduled periodic payments from a borrower pursuant to the terms of any loan . . . and making the payments of principal and interest and such other payments with respect to the amounts received from the borrower as may be required pursuant to the terms of the loan.”[5] Because the borrowers’ purported “QWR” requested only proof of the lender’s authority to collect payments under the promissory note and deed of trust, which does not relate to “servicing of the loan” under RESPA, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the borrowers’ claim.[6]

This is a significant development in RESPA jurisprudence, as it clarifies the limited scope and purpose of a QWR. The decision also provides lenders in the Fifth Circuit with a strong defense to RESPA violation claims premised on failure to respond to “show-me-the-note” correspondence from borrowers, as opposed to legitimate servicing-related inquiries.

[1] In re Parker, No. 15-41477, 2016 WL 3771837, at *4 & n.26 (5th Cir. Jul. 14, 2016).

[2] Id. at *1.

[3] Id. at *1 & n.4.

[4] Id. at *4.

[5] Id. (quoting 12 U.S.C. §§ 2605(e)(1)(A) & (i)(3))(emphasis added).

[6] Id. at *4 & n.6 (emphasis added).

Fourth Circuit Holds that Defaulted Status of Debt Has No Bearing on Whether a Person Qualifies as a “Debt Collector” Under the FDCPA

By:      Joshua A. Huber

On March 23, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., holding that the default status of a debt has no bearing on whether an entity qualifies as a “debt collector” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 (“FDCPA”).[i] The Fourth Circuit’s reading of the plain language of the FDCPA’s “debt collector” and “creditor” definitions, found in 15 U.S.C. § 1692(a)(6) and (a)(4), respectively, rejects the argument routinely advanced by borrowers, and commonly by courts throughout the country, that an entity who acquires a debt that is already in default is automatically a “debt collector.”

Henson involved a portfolio of defaulted auto loans purchased by Santander from CitiMortgage.[ii] When Santander sought to collect on the defaulted loans, the Henson plaintiffs filed suit under the FDCPA—which applies only to “debt collectors,” and not “creditors”—and maintained that the default status of debt determined whether a purchaser of debt, such as Santander, was a “debt collector” or a “creditor.”[iii]

The Henson plaintiffs’ argued, in part, because the FDCPA excludes from the definition of “creditor” any person that “receives an assignment or transfer of a debt in default solely for the purpose of facilitating collection of such debt for another,” such person must be a “debt collector.[iv]    The Court rejected this argument and observed that the exclusion on which the Henson plaintiffs relied did not depend only on the default status of the debt. Rather, “the exclusion applies only to a person who receives defaulted debt ‘solely for the purpose of facilitating collection . . . for another.’ ”[v]

The Court further stated that even if an entity falls within the enumerated statutory exclusion from the definition of “creditor,” an FDCPA plaintiff must still demonstrate that the defendant meets the substantive definition of a “debt collector” as set forth in the FDCPA’s main text.[vi]  The Court summarized that definition to include: “(1) a person whose principal purpose is to collect debts; (2) a person who regularly collects debts owed to another; or (3) a person who collects its own debts, using a name other than its own as if it were a debt collector.”[vii]

Thus, the material distinction between a “debt collector” and a “creditor,” the Court noted, is whether a person’s regular collection activity is only for itself (a creditor) or for others (a debt collector), with the primary exception being an entity whose principal purpose is the collection of debts—not, as the Henson plaintiffs urged, whether the debt was in default when the person acquired it.

This is a significant development in FDCPA jurisprudence and, by moving the focus away from the status of the debt at the time of assignment, will provide lenders who seek to collect their own debts with a strong defense to future FDCPA liability.

[i] Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., —F.3d—, 2016 WL 1128419, at *3 (4th Cir. Mar. 23, 2016).

[ii] Id. at *1.

[iii] Id. at *1-2.

[iv] Id. at *2 (citing 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(4)) (emphasis in original).

[v] Id. at *3 (emphasis in original).

[vi] Id. at *4.

[vii] Id. at *3 (emphases in original).

California Supreme Court issues narrow holding that, post-foreclosure, borrowers have standing to assert wrongful foreclosure based on allegations that an underlying assignment is void

By: Shawnda M. Grady

On February 18, 2016, the California Supreme Court resolved a split in the Courts of Appeal and unanimously held that a mortgage loan borrower has standing to sue for wrongful foreclosure based on an allegedly void assignment.  Tsvetana Yvanova v. New Century Mortgage Corp. et al., Case No. S218973 (Cal. Feb. 18, 2016).   The Court followed the reasoning in Glaski v. Bank of America, 218 Cal.App.4th 1079 (2013), which held that foreclosure itself is sufficient prejudice for standing purposes.  The Yvanova opinion did not extend to pre-foreclosure claims, did not address whether a borrower must allege tender to state a cause of action for wrongful foreclosure, did not address what facts render an assignment void, and explicitly limited its ruling to void – not voidable – mortgage assignments.  Three additional cases currently pending before the California Supreme Court, which have not yet been briefed, also address a homeowner’s standing to assert a claim for wrongful foreclosure and have the potential to expand the Yvanova ruling.

Background
Plaintiff-borrower Tsvetana Yvanova sued her mortgage lender, New Century Mortgage Corporation (“New Century”), and others for various foreclosure-related causes of action, with a single cause of action for quiet title remaining in her second amended complaint.  Yvanova alleged that in 2006, she obtained a $483,000 loan from New Century, for which she provided a deed of trust as security.  In 2007, New Century filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated in August 2008.  In December 2011, the servicer, on behalf of New Century, executed an assignment transferring the Deed of Trust to Deutsche Bank National Trust Company (“Deutsche Bank”) as trustee for a securitized trust.  The closing date for the securitized trust was in January 2007.  In August 2012, Western Progressive LLC recorded (1) a substitution of trustee, substituting itself for Deutsche Bank, and (2) a notice of trustee’s sale.  On September 14, 2012, the property was sold at public auction by Western Progressive LLC to a third party.

Yvanova alleged the December 2011 Assignment of the Deed of Trust from New Century to Deutsche Bank was void because:  (1) New Century lacked authority to transfer the Deed of Trust in 2011, because its assets were transferred to the bankruptcy trustee in 2008, and (2) the investment trust was closed in 2007, four years before the assignment.  The superior court sustained defendants’ demurrer without leave to amend.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment, concluding that Yvanova could not state a claim for quiet title, because Yvanova had not alleged tender of the amount due.  The Court of Appeal also determined that Yvanova could not, on the facts alleged, amend her complaint to state a claim for wrongful foreclosure.  The Court of Appeal reasoned that, as a third party unrelated to the assignment at issue, Yvanova was not affected by any alleged deficiencies in the assignment and, therefore, lacked standing to enforce the terms of the agreements allegedly violated.  In so ruling, the Court of Appeal declined to follow the holding of Glaski.  Yvanova petitioned for review before the California Supreme Court, which granted review on August 27, 2014.  Yvanova v. New Century Mortg. Corp., 331 P.3d 1275 (Cal. 2014).

California Supreme Court Decision
In Yvanova,  California Supreme Court limited its review to the following:  “In an action for wrongful foreclosure on a deed of trust securing a home loan, does the borrower have standing to challenge an assignment of the note and deed of trust on the basis of defects allegedly rendering the assignment void?”  Yvanova, 331 P.3d at 1275.  The Court found in the affirmative, following the reasoning in Glaski, supra,  and rejecting the holding in Jenkins v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., 216 Cal.App.4th 497 (2013), to the extent that those cases addressed a borrower’s standing to assert a post-foreclosure claim of wrongful foreclosure based on a void assignment.  Specifically, the Court found that an entity foreclosing following a void assignment of the deed of trust, as opposed to a merely voidable assignment, acts without legal authority to do so.  Under such circumstances, a borrower has standing to state a claim for wrongful foreclosure, because he or she has suffered the loss of ownership of the property.

The Court explicitly noted that its holding was limited to the issue of standing in post-foreclosure cases.  The Court did not determine whether the defects alleged by Yvanova would render an assignment void, and declined to address what facts must be alleged to demonstrate a void assignment.  The Court further declined to extend its analysis of prejudice beyond the standing context.

Additional Cases Pending Review
Three additional cases remain pending before the California Supreme Court that also address a borrower’s standing to challenge foreclosure based on allegations of a void assignment:  Boyce v. TD. Service Company, 352 P.3d 390 (Cal. 2015) (post-foreclosure action); Keshtgar v. U.S. Bank, 334 P.3d 686 (Cal. 2014) (pre-foreclosure action); Mendoza v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, 337 P.3d 493 (Cal. 2014) (post-foreclosure action).  In each of these cases, the plaintiff asserted a wrongful foreclosure claim, alleging the assignment of the subject deed of trust was void because it was reportedly transferred into a securitized trust after the trust’s closing date; in Keshtgar and Medoza, the plaintiffs also challenged the authority of the individual who executed the assignment to do so.  In each of the three cases, the Court of Appeal declined to follow Glaski v. Bank of America, 218 Cal.App.4th 1079 (2013) and instead followed the reasoning in Jenkins, supra, holding that the borrowers had no standing.  The Supreme Court deferred briefing in each of these three cases pending the Court’s disposition of Yvanova, and no further orders have been issued.

Although borrowers may attempt to rely on Yvanova to assert wrongful foreclosure claims based on allegedly void assignments, the limitations of the Court’s holding in Yvanova still permit defendants to challenge the borrower’s failure to tender, whether the underlying facts regarding the assignment render it void and whether the borrower has sufficiently alleged prejudice as an element of wrongful foreclosure.  It is not yet clear whether the Court’s anticipated disposition of Boyce, Keshtgar, and Mendoza will extend to these issues or clarify the Yvanova holding.

 

Texas Statute Provides Clarity for Unilateral Rescission of Acceleration

By: Joshua A. Huber

In Texas, lenders must foreclose a deed of trust lien within four (4) years of acceleration,[i] and there is little dispute regarding what actions are required to “accelerate” a loan for purposes of the statute of limitations.[ii] Whether, and how, a lender can unilaterally “decelerate” a loan – that is, rescind a prior acceleration – was far less clear and generated extensive litigation in Texas by borrowers who, as a result of a delay in the foreclosure process, claimed that their lenders were time-barred from enforcing their lien rights.[iii]

Recent legislation now provides clarity on this issue. Texas House Bill 2067, effective September 1, 2015 and codified as Section 16.038 in the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, makes clear that servicers may unilaterally rescind a prior valid acceleration, thereby avoiding the four (4) year statute of limitations. As recently noted by the Fifth Circuit, “[t]he new statute provides a specific mechanism by which a lender can waive its earlier acceleration.”[iv] Section 16.038 allows a lender or loan servicer to unilaterally rescind acceleration of the debt by serving each debtor at their last known address, by first class or certified mail, with notice that the accelerated maturity date is rescinded or waived. The service requirements for such notice tracks that of Tex. Prop. Code § 51.002(e) and is complete when mailed, not received.[v]

Despite the enactment of this Texas statute, borrowers have continued to rely on statute of limitations arguments to attempt to avoid foreclosure. However, the new law provides clear guideposts which, if followed, will afford servicers and lenders a strong defense and assurances that delays resulting from loss mitigation, litigation or other factors will not adversely affect their ability to enforce deeds of trust in Texas.

[i] See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.035(a).

[ii] Boren v. U.S. Nat. Bank Ass’n, 807 F.3d 99, 104 (5th Cir. 2015) (acceleration requires both a notice of intent to accelerate and a notice of acceleration).

[iii] See, e.g., Callan v. Deutsche Bank Truste Co. Ams., 93 F.Supp.2d 725, 734 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 21, 2015) (observing that “there is no Texas case law on the validity of unilateral notices of rescission of acceleration.”).

[iv] Boren, 807 F.3d at 106.

[v] See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.038(c).

THIRD CIRCUIT RULES THAT DEBT COLLECTION NOTICE DID NOT CONTAIN MISLEADING LANGUAGE

By: Louise Bowes

In Szczurek v. PMM, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently affirmed the United States District Court for Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s ruling that the Plaintiff Joseph Szczurek (“Plaintiff” or “Szczurek”) failed to establish that a debt collection notice he received from the Defendant was in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). No. 14-4775 (3d Cir. filed October 1, 2015).

In June 2014, Szczurek received a one-page notice from Professional Medical Management, Inc. (“PMM”) advising him that Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital had referred his past due account balance of $19.70 to PMM for collection. In addition to the language required by the FDCPA, the notice stated, “To avoid further contact from this office regarding your past due account, please send the balance due to our office and include the top portion of this letter with your payment.” Id. at 2.   Szczurek received four more similar letters from PMM over the next month, and filed a purported class action in the District Court, alleging that PMM had violated Sections 1692(e) and 1692(f) of the FDCPA by including deceptive and misleading language in the debt collection notice.   Specifically, Szczurek asserted that the correspondence created the false impression that the only way to stop PMM from further contact was to pay the debt. PMM moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because its notices complied with the FDCPA. The District Court granted the motion and dismissed the case, and the Plaintiff appealed to the Third Circuit.

On appeal, the Third Circuit applied the “least sophisticated debtor” standard, as set forth in Brown v. Card Serv. Ctr. 464 F. 3d 450 (3d Cir. 2006). The Brown court previously held that communications between debt collectors and debtors should be analyzed using this standard, which is a lower standard than the standard of a reasonable debtor. Szczurek argued that the least sophisticated debtor may interpret the language in the notice to mean that the only way to stop the debt collection notices was to pay the debt, when, in fact, debtors have other options under the FDCPA to halt debt collection communications. The Court disagreed with the Plaintiff, and ruled that the purpose of the language in question was to advise the debtor that PMM will continue its collection efforts until successful, and not to notify him of the available methods debtors may use to halt debt collection communications under the FDCPA. The Court further held that PMM was under no obligation under the FDCPA to inform a consumer that he may ask a debt collector to cease further contact pursuant to the statute.