The Hunstein Effect—Examining the Eleventh Circuit’s Ruling and What’s Next for Debt Collectors and Their Third-Party Service Providers

Wayne Streibich, Nicole R. Topper, Scott E. Wortman, and Anthony Richard Yanez

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has delivered a novel and highly consequential interpretation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act that is potentially transformative for debt collectors and their third-party service providers.

On April 21, 2021, in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection and Management Services, Inc., — F.3d — (2021), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a decision on a case of first impression, finding that a debt collector’s transmittal of a consumer’s personal information to its letter vendor constituted a prohibited third-party communication “in connection with the collection of any debt” within the meaning of section 1692c(b) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). As discussed below, this ruling has broad ranging ramifications for the accounts receivable management industry and will likely foster a new wave of litigation under the FDCPA.

By way of background, this lawsuit originated from unpaid bills for medical treatment at a hospital. The hospital assigned the unpaid bills to a debt collector that had contracted with a third-party vendor for printing and mailing its collection letters. The collector electronically transmitted to its vendor certain information about the plaintiff/debtor such as: (1) his status as a debtor, (2) the exact balance of his debt, (3) the entity to which he owed the debt, (4) that the debt concerned his son’s medical treatment, and (5) his son’s name. The vendor then used that information to generate and send a dunning letter to the debtor. The debtor received the dunning letter and then filed a lawsuit in the Middle District of Florida alleging violations of both the FDCPA and the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act. The district court dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim by concluding that the debtor had not sufficiently alleged that the collector’s transmittal of information to the letter vendor was a communication “in connection with the collection of a debt.” The debtor then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Statute of Limitations for FDCPA Claim Runs One Year from Alleged Violation, Not Discovery

Wayne Streibich, Diana M. Eng, Jonathan M. Robbin, Scott E. Wortman, and William L. Purtell

The Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) recently affirmed the Third Circuit’s decision holding Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) claims are subject to a one-year statute of limitations from the date of an alleged violation and rejecting the Fourth and Ninth Circuit’s adoption of a broad “discovery rule.” However, debt collectors should take note that equitable tolling principles may still apply in certain circumstances. 

On December 10, 2019, in Rotkiske v. Klemm, — S. Ct. — (2019), the Supreme Court issued an opinion holding that the one-year statute of limitations under the FDCPA accrues when a violation of the FDCPA occurs, not when that violation is discovered by the consumer. The Justices ruled 8-1 in the case, with Justice Thomas writing the opinion and Justice Sotomayor concurring. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissent, which would have remanded the case back to the district court to re-review the consumer’s separate allegations of equitable tolling of the statute of limitations.

Summary of Facts

In 2009, respondent Klemm & Associates (“Klemm”) sued petitioner Kevin Rotkiske (“Rotkiske”) in state court to enforce a credit card debt, which was allegedly beyond Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for enforcement (“2009 Action”). Klemm issued service of process to an address where Rotkiske did not live, which Klemm allegedly had reason to know was inaccurate. An unknown individual accepted service on behalf of Rotkiske. Ultimately, Klemm obtained a default judgment against Rotkiske based on this return of service. Rotkiske was unaware of the default judgment against him until 2014, when his mortgage loan application was denied based on this default judgment.

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CFPB Proposes Regulations to Clarify, Modernize, and Implement the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

Wayne Streibich, Diana M. Eng, Jonathan M. Robbin, Nicole R. Topper, Scott E. Wortman, and Paul Messina Jr.

Financial institutions and debt collectors should take note of, and provide comments on, the CFPB’s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which attempts to provide consumers with “clear protections against harassment by debt collectors and straightforward options to address or dispute debts.”      

On May 7, 2019, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) released its long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”), aiming to clarify and modernize the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (“FDCPA”). The over 500-page NPRM marks the CFPB’s latest half-decade long effort to issue the first set of substantive rules interpreting the FDCPA since its passage in 1977.

Background

Seeking to curb abuses in the debt collection industry, Congress enacted the FDCPA in 1977. However, with the passage of time and the creation of new technologies, ambiguities and uncertainties in the industry developed. Without any federal agency delegated authority to write substantive rules interpreting the FDCPA, the courts were left with the sole burden of doing so. That changed in 2010, when Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”) delegating authority to the CFPB.

Citing the ongoing and abundance of consumer complaints, as well as the need to adapt the FDCPA for modern technologies, the CFPB called for public input on potential new regulations in 2013, and again in 2016, releasing an outline of proposals under consideration. This week’s NPRM incorporates many of those ideas with some adjustments. The NPRM will be open for 90 days for public comment following its publication in the Federal Register.

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Second Circuit Holds No Need to Identify Components of Debt Where Collection Letter Provides Exact Amount Owed and Reaffirms Use of Safe Harbor in Holding Debt Collector’s Letter Did Not Violate the FDCPA

Jonathan M. Robbin, Diana M. Eng, and Namrata Loomba

In Kolbasyuk v. Capital Management Services, LP, No. 18-1260 (2d Cir. 2019), the Second Circuit recently held that a debt collector’s letters informing a consumer of the total present amount of debt owed satisfies Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) requirements. The Second Circuit’s decision clarified that, under the FDCPA, collection letters are not required to inform consumers of the debt’s constituent components, or the rates by which the debt may later increase.

Summary of Facts and Background

In July 27, 2017, Capital Management Services, LP (“CMS”) sent Plaintiff a collection letter stating “[a]s of the date of this letter, you owe $5918.69.” The letter further stated, “[b]ecause of interest, late charges, and other charges that may vary from day to day, the amount due on the day you pay may be greater.” Continue reading

Third Circuit Broadens Definition of “Debt Collector” under FDCPA to Include Entities That Acquire Debt but Outsource Collection of That Debt

By: Jonathan M. Robbin, Diana M. Eng, and Maria K. Vigilante

In Barbato v. Greystone Alliance, LLC et al., a recent precedential decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held an entity whose business is the purchasing of defaulted debts for the purpose of collecting on them falls squarely within the “principal purpose” definition of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1692(a), even where the entity does not collect the debt and a third party is retained to do so. No. 18-1042, __ F.3d __ (3d Cir. 2019).

Specifically, Barbato expanded the Supreme Court’s holding in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, 137 S. Ct. 1718 (2017) and rejected the defendant’s argument that Henson renders it a creditor rather than a debt collector because “its principal purpose is the acquisition—not the collection” of debt. Thus, the Barbato court held that where an entity meets the “principal purpose” definition, it cannot avoid the FDCPA’s requirements by retaining a third party to collect the debt.

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Third Circuit Holds “Settlement Language” in Collection Letter Can Be Misleading

By: Jonathan M. Robbin, Edward W. Chang, and Scott E. Wortman

Action Item: In a change of course from its prior holding in Huertas v. Galaxy Asset Mgmt., 641 F.3d 28 (3d Cir. 2011), the Third Circuit rules that the terms “settlement” and “settlement offer,” in connection with collecting of a time barred debt, may connote litigation and thus mislead a consumer. However, the Court continues to hold that settlement terms alone do not necessarily constitute deceptive or misleading practices under the FDCPA.

In a unanimous published decision in Tatis v. Allied Interstate LLC, No. 16-4022 (3d Cir.) the Third Circuit reversed the District of New Jersey’s granting of a motion to dismiss. The lower court had held that a debt collector’s attempt to collect the time-barred debt did not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) because the collection letter was not accompanied by a threat of legal action. In its order overruling the lower court, the Third Circuit deviated from its prior holding in Huertas v. Galaxy Asset Mgmt., 641 F.3d 28 (3d Cir. 2011) and instead looked to the more recent decisions from its sister circuits—the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh—which all held that the term “settle” could mislead a consumer. Continue reading

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).