Messer & Stilp

MS Obtains Unanimous Jury Verdict in Favor of Clients in FDCPA Case

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On April 8, 2015, a jury of seven sitting in the Southern District of California determined that a law firm and its asset purchaser client did not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”) by including a request for 10% interest in the prayer for relief of a state court collection complaint.  In Hadsell v. Mandarich Law Group, LLP and CACH, LLC, a consumer filed an FDCPA claim against the two companies alleging a myriad of false claims, including that the companies had disclosed the debt to third parties and failed to abide by a request to cease and desist. After success on motions to dismiss and summary judgment, the case proceeded to a jury trial on one sole issue: whether a request for 10% statutory interest in the prayer for relief of a state court complaint violates the FDCPA where the credit card contract in question provided for an 8.9% interest rate. Like many consumer law claims against law firms, this complaint was spurred from a state court collection action on the debt. In late 2011, Mandarich Law Group, LLP filed a state court complaint on behalf of CACH, LLC to collect on a defaulted Bank of America account.  The state court complaint had two counts, breach of contract and account stated.  In the prayer for relief, the complaint requested that the court find that a 10% interest apply under the account stated theory.

Approximately 30 days after the state court suit was filed, the consumer filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, claiming that the collection action, among other activity, violated the FDCPA. Plaintiff was represented by the San Diego law firms of Hyde & Swigart and Kazerouni Law Group.

The Plaintiff’s focal point during the jury trial was that the defendants intentionally violated FDCPA § 1692(f) and (f)(1) by requesting 10% interest when they were aware of the 8.9% interest rate that was set by the initial contract between the consumer and creditor.  Defendants argued, in contrast, that there was a valid factual basis to pursue the account stated claim and for the Court to assess 10% interest--- the default rate under the California Code---- based on the final charge-off statement on the account.  Further, Defendants’ argued that asking the state court to decide the question of interest was not an attempt to collect an authorized amount as the court had the legal ability to award it under the facts.  The jury unanimously agreed and found that no violation of the FDCPA occurred.

Lead trial counsel for Defendants was Nicole M. Strickler of MS&S. For more information on this case or any other FDCPA related issues, contact her at nstrickler@messerstrickler.com or at 312-334-3442.

FOURTH CIRCUIT HOLDS DEFAULT STATUS HAS NO BEARING ON DEBT COLLECTOR SHOWING

The Fourth Circuit recently held that a debt’s default status does not automatically qualify a debt purchaser as a “debt collector” subject to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).  In Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., four consumers alleged that a purchaser of their defaulted automobile loans violated the FDCPA by engaging in prohibited collection practices.  The district court granted the purchaser’s motion to dismiss on the ground that the complaint did not allege facts showing that the defendant qualified as a “debt collector” under the FDCPA.  The court concluded that the complaint only demonstrated that the defendant was a consumer finance company that was collecting debts on its own behalf as a creditor and that the FDCPA generally does not regulate creditors collecting debts owed themselves.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed. In arguing that the defendant constituted a debt collector, plaintiffs relied heavily on § 1692a(6)(F)(iii) of the FDCPA which excludes from the definition of debt collector “any person collecting or attempting to collect any debt . . . owed or due another to the extent such activity . . . concerns a debt which was not in default at the time it was obtained.”  Plaintiffs maintained that because the provision excludes persons collecting debts not in default, the definition of debt collector must necessarily include persons collecting defaulted debt that they did not originate.  Essentially, plaintiffs argued that the default status of a debt determines whether a purchaser of debt, such as defendant, is a debt collector or a creditor.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed, concluding that the default status of a debt has no bearing on whether a person qualifies as a debt collector under the threshold definition set forth in § 1692a(6).  Such a determination is generally based on whether a person collects debt on behalf of others or for its own account, the main exception being when the “principal purpose” of the person’s business is to collect debt.  Section 1692a(6) defines a debt collector as (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.  Because the complaint did not allege that defendant’s principal business was to collect debt, instead alleging that defendant was a consumer finance company, nor allege that defendant was using a name other than its own in collecting the debts, defendant clearly did not fall within the first or third definitions of debt collector.  Moreover, because the debts that defendant was collecting were owed to it and not another, defendant was not a person collecting a debt on behalf of another so as to qualify as a debt collector under the second definition.

For more information on the Fourth Circuit decision or the FDCPA generally, contact Katherine Olson at (312) 334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com.

Second Circuit Adopts FDCPA Least Sophisticated Consumer Safe Harbor Approach Established by the Seventh Circuit

In Avila, et al. v. Riexinger & Associates, LLC, et al., Case No. 15-1584(L), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals applied the least sophisticated consumer standard of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”) to conclude that a consumer cannot be expected to know that a total debt provided in a given statement continues to increase interest or other fees.  The Second Circuit held that when a debt collector issues a notice to a borrower that includes a statement of the complete amount of their debt, the debt collector must either accurately inform the consumer that the amount of the debt stated in the notice will increase over time based upon interest or other fees, or clearly state that the holder of the debt will accept payment of the amount set forth in full satisfaction of the debt if payment is made by a specified date. In Avila, a consumer brought a putative class action against a debt collector for violation of § 1692e of the FDCPA alleging that the practice of disclosing in a collection notice only the “current balance” of the amount owed amounts to “false, deceptive, or misleading” collection practices under the statute.  The consumer alleged that the notice led them to believe that the amount owed was not increasing.  The Second Circuit agreed and held that the least sophisticated consumer could believe that payment in full of the current balance provided in the notice would satisfy the entire debt owed, and that a failure to mention the ongoing accrual of interest and fees was misleading. Further, the Court held that “the FDCPA requires debt collectors, when they notify consumers of their account balance, to disclose that the balance may increase due to interest and fees.”

The Second Circuit also held that Section 1692e requires additional disclosures to ensure that consumers are not misled into thinking that simply paying the “current balance” as listed on the collection notice will always result in full satisfaction of the amount owed. Accordingly, the Second Circuit adopted the “safe harbor” approach established by the Seventh Circuit in Miller v. McCalla, Raymer, Padrick, Cobb, Nichols, & Clark, L.L.C., 214 F.3d 872 (7th Cir. 2000).  The “safe harbor” doctrine allows a debt collector to prevent liability under Section 1692e “if the collection notice either accurately informs the consumer that the amount of the debt stated in the letter will increase over time, or clearly states that the holder of the debt will accept payment of the amount set forth in full satisfaction of the debt if payment is made by a specified date.”

Although the Second Circuit declined to establish the exact language of any disclosure that a debt collector must use to sidestep a possible FDCPA violation, the Court expressed that the language proposed in Miller, 214 F.3d, at 876, would certainly qualify a debt collector for treatment under the newly-created safe-harbor.

Debt collection agencies, or those that act as debt collectors, should pay particular attention to the language of Miller that the Second Circuit suggests will satisfy the newly-recognized safe harbor provision. For information on revising statements to consumers to comply with the safe harbor language, or for other information regarding this topic, contact Stephanie Strickler at 312-334-3465 or at sstrickler@messerstrickler.com.

SEVENTH CIRCUIT GROWS WEARY OF EXCESSIVE TCPA LITIGATION PRIMARILY BENEFITING PLAINTIFF’S ATTORNEYS

The Seventh Circuit recently issued its decision in

Bridgeview Health Care Ctr., Ltd. v. Clark

, Case Nos. 14-3728 &15-1793 (March 21, 2016), holding that agency rules apply in determining whether a fax is sent “on behalf” of a principal in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”).  The appeal arose out of unsolicited fax advertisements which were blasted across multiple states in violation of the TCPA. While the parties agreed that the TCPA was violated, they disputed who was responsible for sending the faxes -- the company advertised in the faxes or the marketing company that actually sent the faxes.  The district court determined that the defendant was only liable for those faxes it authorized the marketing company to send.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

A fax sender is defined in federal regulations as either the person “on whose behalf” the unsolicited ad is sent or the person whose services are promoted in the ad.  The Seventh Circuit found the district court correctly rejected strict liability as applicable to junk faxes and held that “[i]n applying the regulatory definition of a fax sender . . . agency rules are properly applied to determine whether an action is done ‘on behalf’ of a principal.”  After analyzing each of the three types of agency (express actual authority, implied actual authority, and apparent authority) in the context of the case, the Court found that none of them applied to faxes sent outside a 20-mile radius of defendant’s business.

Notably the Court took the appeal as an opportunity to criticize the current state of TCPA litigation, noting:

[W]hat motivates TCPA suits is not simply the fact than an unrequested ad arrived on a fax machine.  Instead, there is evidence that the pervasive nature of junk-fax litigation is best explained this way: it “has blossomed into a national cash cow for plaintiff’s attorneys specializing in TCPA disputes.”. . . We doubt that Congress intended the TCPA, which it crafted as a consumer-protection law, to become the means of targeting small business.  Yet in practice, the TCPA is nailing the little guy, while plaintiffs’ attorneys take a big cut. . . . Nevertheless, we enforce the law as Congress enacted it.

The Bridgeview opinion is a clear indication of the Seventh Circuit’s displeasure with the TCPA plaintiffs’ bar.  Indeed, the Court even took a shot at plaintiff’s attorneys, noting the attorneys “currently have about 100 TCPA suits pending” and used the marketing company’s hard drive to find plaintiffs.

For more information on the Bridgeview opinion or the TCPA generally, contact Katherine Olson at kolson@messerstrickler.com  or (312) 334-3444.

Debt Collector Succeeds with FDCPA Bona Fide Error Defense

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama recently granted a Motion for Summary Judgment in favor of a defendant debt collection agency.  In Robert L. Arnold v. Bayview Loan Servicing, LLC, et al., the plaintiff filed suit against the collection agency for multiple FDCPA violations.  Arnold fell behind on his mortgage payments and declared bankruptcy in 2012, under which the judge granted a discharge for the mortgage.  In January 2013, Arnold received written notification that the mortgage loan servicing had been transferred to Bayview.  Bayview was well aware of the default and that the debt had been discharged in bankruptcy.  Upon receipt of the account, Bayview started the foreclosure process, and purchased the property for most of the amount of the outstanding principal on Arnold’s loan.  While the account was properly coded in Bayview’s system upon transfer, and no billing statements were produced, in December 2013, ten months after the transfer, two billing statements were sent to Arnold.  The statements reflected the outstanding balance; they did not reference the bankruptcy discharge, and they did not reference a credit for the foreclosure sale.

Bayview sought summary judgment based solely on the bona fide error defense.  To succeed on this defense, Bayview must show “a preponderance of the evidence that the violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid such an error.”  This defense is not available for mistakes of law or misinterpretations of the FDCPA, but instead “to protect against liability for errors like clerical or factual mistakes.”  See Edwards v. Niagara Credit Solutions, Inc.

The court found Bayview sufficiently demonstrated that the December 2013 mailings were unintentional based on the following:

  1. Arnold’s loan had been coded with a foreclosure man code when Bayview assumed servicing responsibilities, effectively suppressing all billing statements;
  2. Bayview sent no billing statements to Arnold between February 2013 and November 2013;
  3. The Bayview employee who performed a pre-foreclosure review of Arnold’s loan was bound to follow a Bayview checklist that did not call for changing the man code or issuing billing statements;
  4. Nothing in the checklist or employee comments suggested that this individual intended to change the man code or reactivate Arnold’s loan;
  5. The man code was changed anyway, even though Bayview had no reason to do so in its pre-foreclosure review;
  6. Bayview ceased communications to Arnold when it discovered the error; and
  7. Bayview provides extensive, ongoing training to employees in the area of FDCPA compliance.

The Court also concluded that Bayview’s violation was in good faith in that it properly relied on the foreclosure code to suppress monthly statements to Arnold, and that it had no reason to believe that the man code would be changed during the pre-foreclosure review process.  Furthermore, Bayview had provided appropriate training and checklists to its employees concerning pre-foreclosure review.

Finally, the Court also concluded that Bayview maintained policies and procedures to avoid readily discoverable errors.  Bayview had general training procedures and specific procedures for pre-foreclosure review.  It also had ongoing FDCPA compliance training for its employees.

This case demonstrates the importance for debt collection agencies to have clear policies and procedures for FDCPA compliance, as well as ongoing training to reinforce the implementation of these policies and procedures.

For more information on this topic or questions regarding your FDCPA policies and procedures, please contact Stephanie Strickler at sstrickler@messerstrickler.com or at 312-334-3465.

FTC to Help Consumers Report and Recover from Identity Theft

On January 28th, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) updated identitytheft.com with personalized information and tools for consumers to report and recover from identity theft. This change comes after consumers submitted 47% more identity fraud complaints to the FTC in 2015 than in 2014.  As a result, the FTC has made a form letter available for victims to better communicate with debt collectors about debts incurred due to theft. Additionally, the FTC has recommended victims contact credit bureaus to block information on their credit reports in regards to any fraudulent debts. For more information about the FTC’s new identity theft tools, please contact Joseph Messer at 312-334-3440 or at jmesser@messerstrickler.com.

When a Creditor is a “Debt Collector” Under the FDCPA

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The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently released a statement that the meaning of “debt collector” may be more expansive under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) than previously thought. A “debt collector” is defined under the FDCPA as “any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” §803(6). With this definition, it has long been assumed that creditors who collect their own debts are not covered by the FDCPA. However, Section 803(6) goes on to say “the term includes any creditor who, in the process of collecting his own debts, uses any name other than his own which would indicate that a third person is collecting or attempting to collect such debts.”

The FTC has asserted FDCPA claims against companies using other names to collect their own debts, characterizing them as “debt collectors” under the FDCPA. The FTC has issued a warning toremind creditors that the FDCPA can in fact apply to creditors who collect on their own behalf. Creditors should regularly review their policies to ensure their practices and procedures follow all applicable laws and regulations.

View the FTC’s Original Post Here

To learn more about the FTC’s warning and how to avoid FDCPA violations please contact Joseph Messer at 312-334-3440 or jmesser@messerstrickler.com.

GEICO Insurance Investigators Not Exempt from FLSA

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On December 23, 2015, the 4th Circuit, in Calderon v. GEICO, ruled that GEICO insurance investigators are not subject to the administrative exemption of the FLSA and therefore, are entitled to overtime.   The plaintiff investigators follow company procedures and spend 90% of their time investigating potential fraudulent insurance claims.  GEICO has been classifying its investigators as exempt for a long time.

The administrative exemption applies to those who: (1) are paid, on a salary basis, in an amount not less than $455 per week; (2) “whose primary duty is the performance of office or non-manual work directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer or the employer’s customers;” and (3) whose primary duty involves the exercise of discretion and independent judgment. 29 C.F.R. §541.200(a).

The district court found that GEICO could not establish that the insurance investigators primary duties involved independent judgment and discretion, therefore, summary judgment was granted in favor of the plaintiffs.  The 4th Circuit upheld the decision for plaintiffs but relied upon the second element of the exemption – whether the work was directly related to the management or general business operations – find that their primary duty was “the investigation of suspected fraud, including reporting their findings.”  The court stated “[t]hus, in the end, the critical focus regarding this element remains whether an employee’s duties involve “‘the running of a business,’” Bratt v. County of Los Angeles, 912 F.2d 1066, 1070 (9th Cir. 1990), as opposed to the mere “‘day-to-day carrying out of [the business’s] affairs,’” Desmond I, 564 F.3d at 694 (citing Bratt,912 F.2d at 1070).

The court further stated that “[r]egardless of how [i]nvestigators’ work product is used or who the Investigators are assisting, whether their work is directly related to management policies or general business operations depends on what their primary duty consists of… the primary duty of the Investigators… is not analogous to the work in the “functional areas” that the regulations identify as exempt. 29 C.F.R. § 541.201(b).”  Conversely, the court found that the primary duties were directly analogous to the work the regulations identify as not satisfying the directly relatied element. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.3(b)(1), 541.203(j).   Admitting that the issue was very close, the court held GEICO could not establish that the plaintiffs’ primary duties were “plainly and unmistakably” directly related to the company’s management or general business operations.

This case is yet another reminder of the importance of properly classifying your employees pursuant to the FLSA.

For more information on the FLSA or any further employment related matters, please contact Dana Perminas, at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com for more information.

Time Barred Debt: Can We Even Collect?

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After the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in McMahon v. LVNV Funding, LLC, 744 F.3d 1010, 1020 (7th Cir. 2014), many collectors rightfully wondered whether time barred debt could ever be lawfully collected. In McMahon, the Seventh Circuit slammed a debt collector for a seemingly innocuous dunning letter that sought to “settle” a time barred debt as improperly implying that the debt was legally enforceable. The Circuit’s reasoning was questionable, to say the least. The Court explained that if a consumer received an “offer of settlement” and then “searched on Google to see what is meant by ‘settlement,’ she might find the Wikipedia entry for ‘settlement offer’” and learn that the term is often used in a civil lawsuit.”

This analysis seemed to depart from long-standing unsophisticated consumer standard used to assess debt collector communications. In the past, the Circuit has described the unsophisticated consumer as “not a dimwit”, Wahl v. Midland Credit Mgmt., Inc., 556 F.3d 642, 645 (7th Cir. 2009), and as objectively “reasonable”, Turner v. J.V.D.B & Assocs., Inc., 330 F.3d 991, 995 (7th Cir. 2003). After McMahon, the unsophisticated consumer is also apparently armed with google, Wikipedia, and a bank of common legal terms at her disposal.

Putting aside questionable analysis, however, the question remains: If the Seventh Circuit can take a seemingly innocuous “settlement offer” on a time barred debt and turn it into a potentially misleading communication, can we even collect on time barred debt anymore? The short answer is: Yes, but carefully.

The language in a letter concerning a time barred debt must be carefully scrutinized by client and counsel. Using the right terminology can be key in drafting a proper dunning letter on a time barred debt. Such a letter was recently examined by the Northern District of Illinois in the case of Sorenson v. Rozlin Financial Group. In Rozlin, a consumer filed an action claiming that a letter he received on a time barred debt violated the FDCPA. The collector filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the language in the letter would not lead the unsophisticated consumer to be misled by the communication. The court agreed.

The court explained that the letter at issue did not use language of “settling” the debt but instead spoke of “clearing” and “payment” of a “financial burden”, which did not “carry the same common use in legal circles.” More importantly, the letter explicitly noted the issue of a time bar and stated that the recipient “will not be sued and the obligation will not be reported to credit agencies.” In sum, with proper phrasing and disclaimers, the letter could properly collect on a time barred debt.

For more information about time barred debts or collection letter language, contact the author, Nicole M. Strickler of Messer Strickler, Ltd., who represented the defendant in Rozlin, at (312) 334-3442 (direct) or nstrickler@messerstrickler.com

VIEW THE ORDER HERE

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Faced with a FDCPA Claim Based on a Failed State Court Collection Act? MS&S Provides a Road Map for Success Based on Its Most Recent Win

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In the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, collection law firms have faced a surge of litigation concerning failed state court collection actions.  Intent on finding a way to recover their attorneys’ fees from defending collection actions when they are unavailable under state law, consumer attorneys’ have turned to the fee-shifting provisions found in the FDCPA. According to the theory advanced by consumer attorneys, any time a collection plaintiff dismisses its suit prior to trial, or misses a procedural deadline, a FDCPA claim results, which entitled them to collect their defense fees from the action.

In Layton v. CACH, LLC, a consumer attorney filed just such a claim. Layton alleged that the asset purchaser filed a collection lawsuit against him without the intent or ability to prove that the debt was owed. Instead of filing a motion to dismiss, the asset purchaser filed an answer to the complaint, attaching the very documents that Layton claimed the asset purchaser could not obtain: the bill of sale and twenty-eight pages of credit card statements.  It then moved for judgment on the pleadings.

The court explained unlike with a motion to dismiss a motion for judgment on the pleadings allows the court to consider materials attached to the answer to the complaint that are “necessarily embraced by the pleadings.” Because the asset purchaser attached the very documentation that Layton alleged it could not produce, he could not state a plausible cause of action for relief.

Layton’s arguments concerning an affidavit used in the state court collection action were similarly flawed. While he argued that an affidavit from the asset purchaser in the collection action was misleading because it was intended to give the appearance to the consumer that the asset purchaser had “personal knowledge” regarding all aspects of the purchaser’s collection action, the court found otherwise. The court concluded that the language used by the asset purchaser in the affidavit was not misleading in any fashion.

While the court mentioned that cases based on improper conduct in a collection action must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the opinion in Layton provides a road map for consumer litigation defense attorneys to use in defeating such claims.

Nicole M. Strickler represented the defendant in the Layton case and has defended countless claims based on the same, or similar theories. Contact her at nstrickler@messerstrickler.com or (312) 334-3442 for more information.

View the Memorandum and Order Here.

PAID SICK LEAVE POLICIES SPREADING AROUND THE U.S.

As a follow up to prior blogs, I wanted to provide a list of those states and cities that have enacted legislation compelling employers to provide their employees with paid sick leave.   We had previously discussed the new laws in California and Philadelphia.  Now Pittsburgh is following suit, and so have other states and cities. Under the new Pittsburgh law, effective January 11, 2016, all full-time and part-time employees working in the city of Pittsburgh, excluding independent contractors, state and federal employees, any members of construction unions subject to collective bargaining agreements, and seasonal employees notified in writing when hired that they will not work more more than 16 weeks during the year, will accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours worked (including overtime hours).

Pittsburgh employers with 15 or more employees must permit employees to accrue 40 hours of paid sick leave per year while employers with less than 15 must permit employees to accrue 24 hours of paid sick leave per year.  Those employees must be allowed to carry over accrued sick leave from year to year but employers need not allow them to use more than 40 hours (or 24 for smaller employers) of that paid sick leave in a given year.  In lieu of the carryover, employers can choose to provide all of the required sick leave at the beginning of the year, to avoid that carryover of unused leave.   For those smaller employers, they are only required to provide unpaid sick leave (accrued at the same rate state above) for the first year after the law is enacted.  The Pittsburgh law also has stated terms and regulationsfor permitted use and increments of using the leave, notice, documentation and posting requirements, recordkeeping and prohibited conduct, to name a few.

As far as the rest of the country, California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are the only states that have enacted legislation to allow statewide paid sick leave.  It is expected that other states and cities will attempt to follow the trend– specifically Oregon, who recently adopted a paid sick leave and safe[1] leave law that will be effective next year.  Tacoma, WA and Montgomery County, MD (the first county to do so) also passed sick and safe leave laws also to be effective in 2016.  In some jurisdictions, such as San Diego, proposed laws such as these have been met with opposition.

As far as cities go, Eugene, OR, Newark, Jersey City, Irvington, Passaic, East Orange, Paterson, Trenton, Montclair, Bloomfield, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh (discussed above, effective 1/1/16), Portland, OR, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., already have laws on the books that allow workers to earn paid sick leave, or in a few of those cities, also allows workers to earn paid safe days as well.

For more detailed information on the new Pittsburgh law, or any employer vacation/sick/PTO policies around the country, please contact Dana Perminas at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com for more information.

[1] Safe Day laws involve allowing an employee paid days off in the event care or treatment is needed for domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

 

Related Articles:

EFFECTIVE MAY 13, 2015: UPDATE TO PHILADELPHIA SICK LEAVE REQUIREMENTS

EFFECTIVE JULY 1, 2015: UPDATE TO CALIFORNIA SICK LEAVE REQUIREMENTS

“Ban the Box” Introduced to Congress

On September 10, 2015, a bill was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) marking the first time “ban the box” has been proposed at the federal level.  If passed, The Fair Chance Act would prevent federal agencies and contractors from inquiring about prospective employees’ criminal records before extending a formal job offer.  Once a job offer is presented, the employer may ask about an applicant’s criminal background and revoke the job offer based on the result of a criminal background check.  Law enforcement, national security agencies, and positions with access to classified information will be exempt from this proposed law. For more information about the proposed Fair Chance Act, contact Joseph Messer at jmesser@messerstrickler.com or (312) 334-3440.

 

Read More on “Ban the Box”

                Illinois Enacts “Ban the Box” Law Impacting Private Employers

                Private Employers May be Impacted by the “Ban the Box” Approach in 2014

                The “Ban the Box” Movement Continues                

               “Ban the Box” and Local Ordinances – What Employers Should Know

Second Employment related FCRA Claim filed against AMAZON.COM

A second class action has been filed against Amazon.com in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey alleging that Amazon violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by failing to warn an applicant a negative reports it received and in turn, failing to allow the applicant an opportunity to clarify or fix what he deemed were errors on the report.   Plaintiff also alleges Amazon failed to provide him with a copy of that report or a list of his rights under the FCRA as required.  According to Plaintiff’s Complaint, Amazon allegedly offered him a position but later withdrew the offer after receiving negative information in a background check from a third party background screener.

The New Jersey Plaintiff seeks to represent a class of those people (employees or job applicants) at Amazon who did not receive a copy of their reports or correspondence explaining that the report would not be provided within 2 to five years from the date of filing.  As a best practice, employers should be aware of the requirements imposed by the FCRA and provide all applicable notices to employees or prospective employees as required.

For more information on the FCRA and its application in the employment law field, please contact Dana Perminas at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com.

15 Million Consumers Impacted by Experian Reports Data Breach

From September 1, 2013 through September 16, 2015, consumers who applied for postpaid services or device financing through Experian’s client, T-Mobile USA, were notified of an unauthorized breach from which consumers’ names, dates of birth, addresses, Social Security numbers, and drivers’ license numbers were at risk.  Personal payment cards and bank accounts were not accessed during the breach.  The breach, which affected Experian North America’s business units – not its consumer credit bureau, impacted approximately 15 million consumers in the United States.  As a result, Experian is offering credit protection resources to those who were or may have been affected. It is critical for credit and collection agencies to be aware of the risks of data breaches and the practices that will prevent them.  Identity theft is the fastest growing consumer complaint as determined by the 2014 Consumer Complaint Survey Report by the Consumer Federation of America and North American Consumer Protection Investigators. Be sure to take preventative measures to protect both your company and the consumers you serve.

For more information regarding the Experian Reports data breach, contact Joseph Messer at jmesser@messerstrickler.com or (312) 334-3440.

33% Attorney’s Fee Award Reduced to Lodestar Calculation in FLSA Settlement

Marshall v. Deutsche Post DHL, decided September 21, 2015 involved a collective action against DHL and DHL Express (USA) Inc. The plaintiffs represented a class of DHL agents working at airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles who were “undercompensated through defendants’ alleged unlawful rounding of time, automatic deductions for meals, and requests that employees work off-the-clock.” Plaintiffs, through class counsel, obtained a settlement of $1,500,000 for the 242 class members involved. In approving the settlement, the district court stated that it had no issues with the settlement amount for the class members, but took issue with the calculation of class counsel’s attorney’s fees pursuant to that settlement. Although class counsel appeared to have billed a total of 1,325 hours on the case for a total lodestar figure of $591,571.25, class counsel requested $500,000 in fees, or one third of the settlement amount, and sought to be reimbursed for $33,371.39 for costs. The magistrate judge approved the proposed settlement and no class member or other interested party made any objection. Fast forward to the settlement approval by the district court – as stated above, the court took no issue with the settlement amount as to the class stating “the settlement is substantively fair and adequate and therefore is approved.” The court next evaluated class counsels’ request for an award equal to 1/3 of the total settlement amount. The court stated a “court may calculate a reasonable attorneys’ fee either by determining the so-called “lodestar” amount or by awarding a percentage of the settlement. “See McDaniel v. Cnty. Of Schenectady, 595 F.3d 411, 417 (2d Cir. 2010). The court also acknowledged that “the trend in this Circuit is toward the percentage method,” but either approach is appropriate. McDaniel, 595 F.3d at 417 (quoting Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Visa U.S.A., Inc., 396 F.3d 96, 121(2d Cir. 2005). Even so, the court, citing to McDaniel, 595 F.3d at 417, stated “the percentage-of-the fund method”…“create[s] perverse incentives of its own, potentially encouraging counsel to settle a case prematurely once their opportunity costs begin to rise.”

The district court ultimately disagreed with the magistrate’s finding that the 1/3 award was reasonable stating that “there is reason to be wary of much of the case law awarding attorney’s fees in FLSA cases in this circuit” citing to Fujiwara v. Sushi Yasuda Ltd., 58 F.Supp. 3d 424, 436 (S.D.N.Y. 2014). Therefore, the district court followed several other New York federal district judges partial to Fujiwara and applied the lodestar method but refused to apply a multiplier. In doing so, the court reduced the award to $370,236.50, approximately 25 percent of the total settlement, stating “[w]hile counsel urge the use of a lodestar multiplier, the various considerations that might justify a multiplier have already been factored into the determination of counsel’s reasonable hourly rate. I decline to add a multiplier to the fee award.” See Goldberger v. Integrated Res., Inc., 209 F.3d 43, 51-57 (2d Cir. 2000).

The Marshall decision could present a concern for mid-size or larger firms, who generally bill at much higher rates, who are considering taking on the risk of employment common fund class or collective actions.

For more information on the FLSA, class or collective actions or any other employment law issue, please contact Dana Perminas at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com.

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Employment related FCRA Claim against AMAZON

A class action filed against Amazon.com in a circuit court in Tampa, Florida alleges that Amazon wrongfully used consumer credit reports in hiring, firing and even for shift assignments for employees and prospective employees in the state of Florida.

The lead Plaintiff alleged that Amazon obtained his credit report without his permission and did not give him the ability to refute or clarify information in the report before it turned him down for a job in one of Amazon’s Florida warehouses.  According to the Plaintiff, by doing so, Amazon violated his rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“the FCRA”) and manifests a pattern of systematic violations of other employees’ and job applicants’ rights under the FCRA.  Plaintiff also alleged that Amazon’s background check disclosure form, which contains a liability release, also violates the FCRA.

Plaintiff alleged that he was “given no pre-adverse notice whatsoever of the information contained in the consumer report upon which defendant based its decision" and that Amazon.com "did not provide plaintiff with a copy of the consumer report that it relied upon prior to defendant's adverse employment action.  As a result, in violation of the FCRA, plaintiff was deprived of any opportunity to review the information in the report and discuss it with defendant before he was denied employment."

As a best practice, employers should be aware of the requirements imposed by the FCRA and provide all applicable notices to employees or prospective employees as required.

For more information on the FCRA and its application in the employment law field, please contact Dana Perminas at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com for more information.

CLASS ACTION STATUS GRANTED AGAINST UBER TECHNOLOGIES

Judge Edward Chen of the Northern District Court of California recently certified a class action suit against Uber Technologies, Inc. which claims the service treated its drivers like employees rather than independent contractors. The plaintiffs in this case believe that since Uber controls much of the drivers’ experiences (i.e. setting fares, deciding when and why they can be terminated, etc.), drivers should be classified as employees and therefore be eligible for expense reimbursements for car repairs, tips, and insurance. The class action will not apply to drivers that waived their right to litigate, certain drivers who work for independent transportation companies and drivers outside the state of California.  If a ruling limiting the class to those employed in the state of California is successfully appealed, however, the class action could be applicable to drivers around the country.

For more information regarding the class action against Uber or employment law generally, contact Joseph Messer at jmesser@messerstrickler.com or (312) 334-3440.

Illinois Amends and Renews ICAA

On August 3, 2015, the Illinois governor approved and signed House Bill 3332  amending the Regulatory Sunset Act and Illinois Collection Agency Act (ICAA).  The Bill is effective immediately, and amends the Regulatory Sunset Act, to extend the repeal of the ICAA from January 1, 2016 to January 1, 2026 and makes several amendments to the ICAA.  Perhaps the most important amendment to the ICAA is the revised definition of “debtor” to include persons from whom a consumer or commercial debt is sought.  The amended ICAA also now requires collection agencies to state the name and address of the original creditor, if different than the current creditor in the validation notice, and refers only to collection agencies rather than debt collectors to clarify commercial collection agencies must be licensed in Illinois.  Additionally, the amended ICAA adds electronic mail and any other Internet communication to the types of interstate communications that are exempt from the licensing requirements, provided such communications are made by a foreign collection agency whose state not only requires a license but extends reciprocity to agencies licensed and located in Illinois. The civil penalty for acting as a collection agency without a license was also increased from a maximum of $5,000 to a maximum of $10,000.  The ICAA, as amended, also includes new provisions regarding the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation’s ability to issue cease and desists and to suspend the license of a licensed collection agency without a hearing if the continuance of the agency’s practice “would constitute an imminent danger to the public.”

For more information regarding the Illinois Collection Agency Act and/or collection agencies’ obligations under the Act, contact Joseph Messer at jmesser@messerstrickler.com or (312) 334-3440.

Sixth Circuit Expands the Definition of “Person” Under the FDCPA

The Sixth Circuit recently made a ruling which expanded the definition of “person” under the FDCPA to include artificial entities such as corporations or limited liability companies for purposes of 15 U.S.C. § 1692k.  In Anarion Investments LLC v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC et al., the district court dismissed the complaint on the basis that plaintiff, a limited liability company, was not a “person” under the FDCPA and could not recover under the statute’s civil liability provision.  This provision states that a debt collector who fails to comply with the FDCPA “with respect to any person is liable to such person.”  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit decided that under this provision, the term “person” includes artificial entities and natural persons.  The Sixth Circuit relied on the federal dictionary for the definition of “person” which includes artificial entities unless the context indicates otherwise.  The Sixth Circuit clearly ignored the FDCPA’s statutory purpose as the FDCPA’s legislative history and purpose to protect natural persons from abusive debt collection practices clearly “indicates otherwise” so as to not include artificial entities. Despite expanding the definition of “person” under Section 1692k, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion is unlikely to make a large impact because the FDCPA only applies to consumer debts - those incurred for personal, family, or household purposes.  Nonetheless, this type of ruling is troublesome as it demonstrates the unpredictability of court’s interpretations of even those terms that are defined within the statute.

For more information on this topic, contact Stephanie A. Strickler at 312-334-3465 or at sstrickler@messerstrickler.com.

 

 

TEXAS COURT RULES CELL PHONE AREA CODE INSUFFICIENT TO ESTABLISH PERSONAL JURISDICTION IN TCPA CASE

In a recent Southern District of Texas decision, the court held that contacting a cell phone number with an area code assigned to a particular state, by itself, is insufficient to establish personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant when the call gives rise to an alleged claim under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).  See Cantu v. Platinum Mktg. Grp., LLC, Case No. 1:14-cv-71, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90824 (S.D. Tex. July 13, 2015).  In Cantu, plaintiff alleged that defendant placed automated calls to his cellular telephone without his permission in violation of the TCPA.  On plaintiff’s motion for default judgment, the court considered its jurisdiction over defendant, a Florida corporation.  Plaintiff argued that the court had specific personal jurisdiction over defendant because “the phone number at which it reached Plaintiff has a Texas area code of 956.”  Essentially, plaintiff analogized calling a cell phone number with a Texas area code to directing a letter to a Texas resident.  Recognizing that we live in a very mobile society such that people keep their cellphone numbers as they move state to state, the Court determine[d] that showing that a TCPA defendant called a phone number in an area code associated with the plaintiff’s alleged state of residence does not, by itself, establish minimum contacts with that state” to allow the court to exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The Cantu decision is in line with case law in the Northern District of Illinois.  See e.g., Sojka v. Loyalty Media, LLC, Case. No. 14-CV-770, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 666045 at *7 (N.D. Ill. May 15, 2015) (holding that text messages directed at cell phone numbers in Illinois area code did not demonstrate purposeful availment).  Some district courts, however, have ruled to the contrary.  See e.g., Luna v. Shac, LLC, Case No. C14-00607 HRL (N.D. Cal. July 14, 2014) (holding that “where [defendant] intentionally sent text messages directly to cell phones with California based area codes, which conduct allegedly violated the TCPA and gave rise to this action, [defendant] expressly aimed its conduct at California”).  Nonetheless, the Cantu and Sojka decisions should be of use to TCPA defendants wishing to challenge jurisdiction, specifically where the plaintiff has failed to suggest any evidence, aside from the phone’s area code, that defendant knew the plaintiff was a resident of that particular state.

For more information on personal jurisdiction and/or the TCPA generally, contact Katherine Olson at (312) 334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com.