Second Circuit Holds That Debt Collector’s Inquiry Regarding Nature of Consumer’s Verbal Dispute of Debt Did Not Violate the FDCPA

By: Diana M. Eng, Jonathan M. Robbin, and Andrea M. Roberts

In Levi Huebner v. Midland Credit Management, Inc., Nos. 16-2363-cv, 16-2367-cv (2d Cir. July 19, 2018), the Second Circuit affirmed the Eastern District of New York’s (“Lower Court”) order granting defendant Midland Credit Management, Inc.’s (“Midland”) summary judgment motion and dismissing the complaint on the grounds that plaintiff Levi Huebner (“Plaintiff”) failed to state a claim under Sections 1692e(5), (8), and (10) of the FDCPA. The Second Circuit held Midland’s follow-up questions about the nature of Plaintiff’s dispute cannot be interpreted as threatening, or conveying false information about the consumer’s debt. Rather, Midland’s questions were an endeavor to learn more about Plaintiff’s dispute, so Midland could properly resolve the dispute. The Second Circuit also affirmed the Lower Court’s imposition of sanctions against Plaintiff and his counsel on the grounds they intentionally misled the court and Midland as to Plaintiff’s theory of the case, breached the protective order entered into amongst the parties, acted in bad faith by “unreasonably and vexatiously” multiplying the proceedings in the action, and commencing a frivolous action and filing several frivolous motions in bad faith. As such, the Lower Court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Midland.

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Second Circuit Confirms Interest Disclaimer Not Required on Collection Notices Not Accruing Interest

By: Edward W. Chang, Jonathan M. Robbin, Scott E. Wortman, Diana M. Eng, Hilary F. Korman

In a win for the collection industry, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed an “interest disclaimer” is only necessary on collection notices if the debt is accruing interest. While this much-needed clarification may reduce the volume of “reverse-Avila” FDCPA litigation, questions still remain about the best method to accurately characterize balances in collection notices.

Background

In Taylor v. Fin. Recovery Servs., Inc., No. 17-1650-cv (“Taylor”), the Second Circuit confirmed that the appellants (and many other members of the consumer bar) were misapplying its decision in Avila v. Riexinger & Associates, LLC, 817 F.3d 72 (2d Cir. 2016) (“Avila”).1 In Avila, the Second Circuit ruled that a debt collector violates 15 U.S.C. § 1692e of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) if it identifies the “current balance” of a debt without disclosing that such balance could increase due to the accrual of interest or fees. In that case, interest was actually accruing on the subject debt. Continue reading

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

By: Jonathan M. RobbinEdward 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

Eastern District of New York Court Holds Debt Collection Letter Stating Settlement May Have Tax Consequences Does Not Violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

By: Jonathan M. Robbin, Diana M. Eng, and Andrea Roberts

In Ceban v. Capital Management Services, L.P., Case No. 17-cv-4554 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 17, 2018), the District Court held that the statement “[t]his settlement may have tax consequences” in a debt collection letter does not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).

On or about August 6, 2016, Plaintiff, Julian Ceban (“Plaintiff”) received a collection letter from defendant Capital Management Services, L.P. (“Defendant”) concerning his outstanding debt (the “Letter”). The letter stated, in relevant part, that Defendant was “authorized to accept less than the full balance due as settlement” and that Plaintiff could “contact [Defendant] to discuss a potential settlement.” Further, the letter indicated: “This settlement may have tax consequences. If you are uncertain of the tax consequences, consult a tax advisor.” Continue reading

Eleventh Circuit Holds that Voicemails Are “Communications” and Clarifies “Meaningful Disclosure” Under the FDCPA

By:  Diana M. Eng and Paul Messina, Jr.

In Stacey Hart v. Credit Control, LLC, No. 16-17126 (11th Cir. Sept. 22, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit clarified two significant definitions under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), one of which was a novel issue for the Court.  First, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the first voicemail that Credit Control LLC (“Credit Control”) left for Stacey Hart (“Hart”) qualified as a “communication” within the meaning of 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(2).  Because the voicemail was the initial communication between the parties, Credit Control had to provide the required disclosures under 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(11), commonly known as the “mini Miranda” warning.

Second, the Eleventh Circuit determined the novel issue of what constitutes a “meaningful disclosure” under the FDCPA by ruling that an individual caller is not required to disclose his/her identity as long the caller discloses that the call is being made on behalf of a debt collection company and the debtor collection company’s name.

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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).

 

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

By: Louise Bowes Marencik

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.