Eleventh Circuit Rules that Consumers Have the Right to Partially Revoke Consent to Automated Calls under the TCPA

By: Michael Esposito

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued its opinion in Emily Schweitzer v. Comenity Bank, holding that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. sec. 227 et seq. (“TCPA”), allows consumers to partially revoke their consent to be called by an automated telephone dialing system. No. 16-10498 (Eleventh Cir. August 10, 2017).

In Schweitzer, Plaintiff was issued a credit card by Comenity Bank (“Comenity” or the “Bank”) in 2012 and, during the application process, provided a cellular phone number to the Bank. In 2013, Plaintiff failed to tender the required monthly credit card payments and, as a result, Comenity used an automated telephone dialing system to make hundreds of calls to Plaintiff on her cellular phone regarding the delinquency. During a call with a Comenity representative on October 13, 2014, Plaintiff informed the representative that Comenity could not call her in the morning and during the work day, because she was working and could not discuss the delinquency while at work. Subsequently, Plaintiff twice told a representative of Comenity to please stop calling her. Thereafter, Comenity did not call Plaintiff’s cellular phone using an automated telephone dialing system.

Ultimately, Plaintiff commenced a suit against Comenity for alleged violations of the TCPA. Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that during the October 13th conversation, she revoked her consent for Comenity to call her cellular phone using an automated telephone dialing system and asserted that Comenity violated the TCPA by placing over 200 calls using an automated system from October 2014 through March 2015. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Comenity and reasoned that the bank “did not know and should not have had reason to know that [Plaintiff] wanted no further calls.” In addition, the district court stated that Plaintiff did not “define or specify the parameters of the times she did not want to be called” and, therefore, a reasonable jury could not find that Plaintiff revoked her consent to call her cellular phone. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, Comenity argued that the district court correctly granted summary judgment in its favor because the TCPA does not allow partial revocations of consent and, even if possible, a reasonable jury could not find that Plaintiff had expressly done so during the October 13th conversation. The Eleventh Circuit Court rejected Comenity’s arguments, finding that “[a]lthough the TCPA is silent on the issues of revocation, [its] decision in Osorio holds that a consumer may orally revoke her consent to receive automated phone calls.” See Osorio v. State Farm Bank, F.S.B., 746 F. 3d 1242, 1255 (11th Cir. 2014).

Further, the Eleventh Circuit explained that since the TCPA is silent as to partial revocations of consent, the analysis of the matter is governed by common law principles, which support its holding that the TCPA “allows a consumer to provide limited, i.e., restricted, consent for the receipt of automated calls.” Moreover, “[i]t follows that unlimited consent, once given, can also be partially revoked as to future automated calls under the TCPA.” In support of its conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned that it is “logical that a consumer’s power under the TCPA to completely withdraw consent and thereby stop all future automated calls . . . encompasses the power to partially withdraw consent and stop calls during certain times.” Although the Eleventh Circuit noted the district court’s concern that partial revocations may create challenges for both callers and parties attempting to present evidence in support of TCPA claims, it held that any such complications do not warrant limiting a consumer’s rights under the TCPA.

Second, with regard to Comenity’s argument that a reasonable jury could not find that Plaintiff’s statements made during the October 13th conversation constituted a partial revocation of consent under the TCPA, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the “issue is close” and concluded that the matter of partial revocation was for the jury to evaluate. In reaching its conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit found that summary judgment was not warranted since reasonable minds might differ on the inferences arising from Plaintiff’s request not to be called “in the morning and during the work day.”

This decision is significant because the Eleventh Circuit has expanded the consumer’s right to revoke consent under the TCPA to include partial revocations. Based on this decision, debt collectors conducting business within the Eleventh Circuit will need to update their automated dialing systems to incorporate such partial revocations.

District Court of New Jersey Holds No Duty Under FDCPA to Warn of Tax Consequences for Debt Settlement

By: Jonathan M. Robbin and Kyle E. Vellutato

In a case of first impression in the Third Circuit, Vincent Carieri v. Midland Credit Management, Inc., No. 17-0009 (D.N.J. June 26, 2017), the District Court of New Jersey held that that a debt collector does not have a duty to notify a debtor of potential tax consequences for settling a debt at a discount under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”).

As satisfaction for a debt in the amount of $4,491.47, Midland Credit Management, Inc. (“MCMI”) sent a notice to Carieri offering various debt settlement payment options resulting in savings from continued payments under the terms of the loan (the “Notice”).  Specifically, the Notice offered to extinguish the debt if a discounted total payoff was received by a certain date, resulting in savings of 40 percent (or $1,796.58). Carieri’s complaint alleged that the Notice violated the FDCPA by failing to inform the debtor of the potential tax consequences posed by the savings from the discounted payoff of the debt.[1]

In considering MCMI’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court turned to other federal courts including the Second Circuit for guidance on whether the FDCPA expands a debt collector’s duties with regard to notifying a debtor of tax consequences of debt settlement. Specifically, the Court held that as in Altman v. J.C. Christensen & Assocs., Inc., 786 F.3d 191 (2d Cir. 2015), the Notice did not violate the FDCPA, even though the letter did not warn of potential tax consequences.

The Court granted MCMI’s dispositive motion, and confirmed that a debt collector’s failure to advise a debtor of the tax consequences for a discounted payoff does not serve as a basis for a claim under the FDCPA.[2]

[1] Although Carieri attempted to raise a second FDCPA violation purportedly posed by the Notice in his opposition to the dispositive motion under review, Chief Judge Jose Linares denied Carieri’s attempt to expand his claims, offering a stern reminder to plaintiffs that untimely efforts to amend pleadings—to survive disposition or otherwise—will be barred. Nonetheless, in dicta, the Court roundly rejected Carieri’s last-ditch effort to amend finding that the Notice was misleading to the least sophisticated consumer.

[2] The Court also relied upon the following cases in reaching his decision: Smith v. Nat’l Enter. Sys., Inc., No. 15-541, 2017 WL 1194494 (W.D. Okla. Mar. 30, 2017); Rigerman v. Forster & Garbus LLP, No. 14-1805, 2015 WL 1223760 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 16, 2015); Landes v. Cavalry Portfolio Servs., LLC, 774 F. Supp. 2d 800 (E.D. Va. 2011); Schaefer v. ARM Receivable Mgmt., Inc., No. 09-11666, 2011 WL 2847768 (D. Mass. July 19, 2011), and rejected the holding in Ellis v. Cohen & Slarnowitz, LLP, 701 F. Supp. 2d 215, 219-20 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2010).

 

U.S. Supreme Court Excludes Banks Collecting Purchased Delinquent Debt from Definition of “Debt Collector” under the FDCPA

By: Diana M. Eng and Louise Marencik

Banks and other consumer finance firms that purchase delinquent debt and then collect on their own behalf are not “debt collectors” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, this limitation still does not apply to those institutions that collect on behalf of another.

In a unanimous decision in Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., the United States Supreme Court held that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) does not apply to banks and other consumer finance firms that purchase and then collect on defaulted debt that they own. No. 16-349, ____ U.S. ____ (2017).

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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.

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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).