Stilp & Strickler

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.

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.

Middle District of Florida Denies Class Certification in Time Barred Debt FDCPA Case Based on Ascertainability & Predominance

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The facts of the case were simple. Plaintiff received a collection letter offering to “settle” her time-bared debt for a reduction in the balance. She filed sued alleging 15 U.S.C. §1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”) violations as the letter did not disclose the debt’s time-barred nature. Plaintiff moved for class certification seeking to represent a class of similarly situated letter recipients. However, despite the simple nature of the alleged violation, complexities nevertheless prevented class certification.

The court first discussed the class action ascertainability prong that must be satisfied as part of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 23(a). The court noted that only letters seeking to collect “consumer” debts (i.e. those incurred for personal, family, or household purposes) could be included in a class seeking relief under the FDCPA.  As such, an initial question that must be answered is whether plaintiff could ascertain whether the debts at issue were “consumer debts.” The court explained that a plaintiff could not establish ascertainability, a necessary requirement for a class action, simply by asserting that class members could be identified using defendant’s records. Plaintiff must actually establish that the records are in fact useful for identification purposes and that identification would be administratively feasible.

The issue for plaintiff was that she relied on her bare assertion that certain records would reveal the nature of the proposed class members’ debts without actually explaining those records. In contrast, defendants provided actual evidence to controvert this conclusion in the form of declarations attesting to the fact that defendant’s records did not show the reasons for which each proposed class member’s debt was incurred. Moreover, Plaintiff introduced no evidence that demonstrated how the original creditor’s records showed the nature of the debt or even whether the original creditor still possessed transactional information for the accounts.

The second barrier to class certification was in establishing the predominance prong of FRCP 23(b)(3). The court agreed that the debts of persons meeting the proposed class definition were not necessarily time-barred and such a determination would require an individualized inquiry into the statute of limitations on each debt.  The court explained that many factors must be considered when determining the expiration of a limitations period, such as the char-off date, tolling issues, revival issues, and any actions between the debtor and creditor that may have modified their original agreement. In short, the court found these inquiries too individualized and detailed to meet the predominance prong.

Recently, time-barred debt has been a “hot topic” with not only the consumer bar but also with federal and state agencies tasked with consumer financial regulation. For more information on this topic, and other consumer financial issues, contact Nicole Strickler at nstrickler@messerstrickler.com or direct at 312-334-3442.

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

Employer Alert - To What Extent Do Employees Have the Right to be Accommodated with Respect to Their Religious Beliefs?

Employees refusing to do their job duties based upon religious beliefs have been a trending topic in the news recently.  For example, Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, gained national media attention when she refused to issue marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage is guaranteed to same-couples by the Fourteenth Amendment. In the midst of the news stories surrounding the Kim Davis controversy, another employee filed a federal lawsuit based upon her employer placing her on administrative leave due to her religious beliefs inhibiting her ability to perform her job duties.  Charee Stanley, a Muslim flight attendant for ExpressJet Airlines, was recently placed on administrative leave after she refused to serve alcohol for religious reasons.  Stanley began her employment prior to converting to the Muslim faith.

Stanley asked her supervisor for a religious accommodation, i.e., having one of her colleagues serve the alcohol while she did another job duty.  The supervisor agreed.  The accommodation worked for a while, until one of her colleagues filed an internal complaint against Stanley claiming she was not doing her job because she refused to serve alcohol.  Subsequently, the airline revoked the religious accommodation and placed her on administrative leave without pay for 12 months - “after which her employment would be administratively terminated.”

Stanley is now seeking redress from the EEOC.  Stanley claims she was disciplined for following the direction of her employer and that her employer had no justification to revoke her religious accommodation.  Stanley’s position is that ExpressJet acknowledged serving alcohol was “not an essential duty or function of flight attendant” by granting the religious accommodation and the fact that the revoked the accommodation is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While employers should be mindful and knowledgeable about their duties when it comes to accommodating employees based on religious beliefs, employers also need to be aware of their rights.  Title VII provides that an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “undue hardship” means that an employer need not incur more than minimal costs in order to accommodate an employee’s religious practices.  The EEOC has interpreted “undue hardship” to mean that an employer can show that a requested accommodation causes it an undue hardship if accommodating an employee’s religious practices requires anything more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation.

Accordingly, religion is not an automatic ticket employees can use to avoid certain job duties.  There are limitations and employers need to be aware of their rights under Title VII.

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

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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.

 

Independent Contractor Classification Narrowed by Department of Labor

On July 15, 2015, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued new guidance which would allow more workers to qualify for overtime pay.  In the Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1, the DOL is narrowing the definition of an independent contractor taking the position that most work should be performed by employees and independent contractors should be used sparingly. Under this new guidance, the department considers six factors when determining a worker’s status:

■ The extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business

■ The worker’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his or managerial skill

■ The extent of the relative investments of the employer and the worker

■ Whether the work performed requires special skills and initiative

■ The permanency of the relationship

■ The degree of control exercised or retained by the employer

These six factors will be examined in relation to one another and no single factor can determine into which category a worker falls. Additionally, hiring business entities and independent contractors will not consequently protect an employer from liability under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Finally, the DOL reinforces that the type and scope of work being performed should be reviewed before an independent contractor is hired. When it is appropriate to hire an independent contractor, ensure the correct indemnification provisions are in place to protect a company from any wage and hour claims that may arise. It is an employer’s duty to audit the status of all independent contractors in the event their duties or the work being performed becomes more akin to that of an employee as opposed to an independent contractor.

For more information on the new DOL guidance or any other employment law related matters, please contact Dana Perminas at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com for more information.

FCC CHAIRMAN PROPOSES DECLARATORY RULINGS TO ADDRESS PENDING TCPA PETITIONS

On May 27, 2015, Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated his proposed declaratory rulings to the five FCC Commissioners for consideration.  While the details of the proposal have not been made public, the Chairman released a fact sheet and issued a blog post which provides some insight as to declaratory rulings to be voted on.  The proposal is intended to address two dozen petitions from companies – including bankers, debt collectors, app developers, retail stores, and others – that sought clarity on how the FCC enforces the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). The proposal is described by the Chairman as an effort to close loopholes and strengthen consumer protections already on the books.  The Chairman’s fact sheet and blog post suggest the following declaratory rulings are being proposed:

■ Empowering consumers to say “No”: Consumers shall have to the right to revoke consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time. People cannot be required to fill out a form and mail it in to stop unwanted calls or texts.

■ Giving the green light for robocall-blocking technology: Carriers can and should offer robocall-blocking technology to consumers to stop unwanted robocalls.

■ Closing the “reassigned number” loophole: If a phone number has been reassigned, callers must stop calling the number after one phone call.

■ Clarifying the definition of “autodialers:” Autodialers shall include any technology with the potential to dial random or sequential numbers.

■ Very limited and specific exceptions for urgent circumstances: Exceptions shall not include practices like debt collection and marketing and consumers will have the right to opt-out of such calls.  Free calls or texts to consumers to alert them of possible fraud on their bank accounts or to remind them of important medication refills shall be allowed.

The proposed declaratory rulings are scheduled to be voted on as a single omnibus item by the full Commission on June 18, 2015 during the FCC’s June Open Commission Meeting.  As adjudications of the pending petitions before the FCC, if adopted, the declaratory rulings would be effective immediately upon release.  Unfortunately, however, the specifics of the declaratory rulings will not be known until the adoption and release of same.

For more information with respect to the TCPA, please contact Katherine Olson at (312) 334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com.

 

FLORIDA COURT HOLDS CONSENT ISSUE PRECLUDES CLASS CERTIFICATION IN TCPA CASE

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The Middle District of Florida recently denied class certification in a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) case where there was no “class-wide” proof as to whether proposed class members consented to automated calls to their cellular telephones. 

See

Shamblin v. Obama for Am.

, No 13-2428, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54849 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 27, 2015).  In doing so, the court confirmed that the burden of proving critical issues are susceptible to class-wide proof falls on class-action plaintiffs regardless of whether defendants bear the ultimate burden of proving or disproving certain issues at trial (in this case consent).

The TCPA makes it illegal to call any telephone number assigned to a cellular telephone service using an automatic-telephone-dialing system or an artificial or pre-recorded voice, unless the consumer expressly consents to same.

 In

Shamblin

, plaintiff filed a putative class action against Obama for America after receiving two unsolicited auto-dialed calls to her cellular telephone.  In finding that the commonality, predominance and superiority requirements for class certification were not satisfied, the court reasoned that Plaintiff was “not entitled to a presumption that all class members failed to consent” despite a lack of documentary evidence of consent and “[d]efendants have a constitutional right to a jury determination as to whether any person consented to receiving calls to their cellular telephone.”   As there was no class-wide proof available to decide consent, individualized inquiries into consent (including where, how, and when) would predominate trial, precluding class certification.

The Shamblin decision indicates that class treatment may not be the appropriate mechanism for adjudicating TCPA disputes where individual determinations with respect to consent exist.  For more information on the Shamblin decision or the TCPA generally, contact Katherine Olson at 312-334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com.

Class Action Lawsuit Against Paramount Pictures Dismissed with Prejudice

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Soon after filing a class action lawsuit against Paramount Pictures Corporation, Michael Peikoff’s lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. In the complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Peikoff alleged that Paramount Pictures violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) when it ran credit report checks on potential employees. Peikoff claimed that, though Paramount had disclosed its intentions and received authorization from job applicants, the authorization form was included in the general job application in violation of the law.

Judge Vince Chhabria disagreed with Peikoff. The Court determined that Paramount did not act recklessly by including the authorization form within the job application nor did it violate the FCRA by using such language. Judge Chhabria found that although Paramount was not entirely upfront with its intentions to run credit checks, it did not violate federal law.

For more information about this case or the FCRA generally, contact Joseph Messer at

jmesser@messerstrickler.com

or (312) 334-3440.

The "Ban the Box" Movement Continues

The “Ban the Box” movement is reaching new heights. Currently there are 25 Ban the Box bills in 19 states.  Further, advocates of the policy are urging President Obama to issue an executive order which would prevent most government and federal contractors from inquiring about a candidate’s criminal history. For security reasons, certain agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, would likely be exempted should this order be put into effect. Advocates argue that criminal background checks can counter the justice system’s goal of rehabilitation.  An estimated 70 million Americans have criminal backgrounds.  Many of those with criminal backgrounds are minorities, leading organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of La Raza and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to support Ban the Box initiatives.

For more information about the “Ban the Box” ordinance, 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

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

Message Left for Payroll Department Not a “Communication”

In an Order entered on January 16, 2015, Judge Victoria A. Roberts of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan issued a favorable ruling for debt collectors. In the case of William Brown III v. Van Ru Credit Corporation, the Plaintiff alleged the Defendant violated the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) as well as two state laws by leaving a single telephone message at Brown’s place of business. The alleged violation occurred on April 14, 2014 when a representative at Van Ru called and left the following message in the general voicemail box at Brown’s business.

“Good morning, my name is Kay and I’m calling from Van Ru Credit

Corporation. If someone from the payroll department can please

return my phone call my phone number is (877) 419-**** and the

reference number is *****488; again my telephone number is

(877) 419-5627 and reference number is *****488.”

This message was heard by an employee, who was aware of Van Ru’s status as a debt collector. For this reason, Brown argued Van Ru violated 15 U.S.C. §1692c(b) declaring they communicated with an unauthorized third party about a debt owed by Brown.

However, this message does not constitute a communication. As defined by the FDCPA, a communication is “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.” Since Van Ru only sought to contact the business’s payroll department and did not directly reference a debt, they did not violate the FDCPA.  This decision is a great victory for the collection industry, especially those agencies collecting federal student loan debt.

Judge Roberts granted Defendant’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings while denying Plaintiff’s Motion to File his First Amended Complaint. As such, Plaintiff’s FDCPA claims were dismissed with prejudice and the Court declined to retain jurisdiction over the state claims.

For more information on the decision of this case or any other consumer law related matters, please contact Dana Perminas at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com.

View the Order Here: Order in favor of Van Ru

 

Window to Apply for FCC’s Retroactive Solicited Fax Opt-Out Waiver Closing

On October 30, 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) released an Order requiring opt-out notices to be presented on all fax advertisements, conforming to the rules outlined in the FCC’s 2006 Junk Fax Order. To be in compliance with the Order, senders must satisfy all components listed within:

(1)       be clear and conspicuous and on the first page of the ad;

(2)       state that the recipient may make a request to the sender not to send any

           future ads and that failure to comply, within 30 days, with such request is

           unlawful; and

(3)       contain a domestic contact telephone number and fax number for the

           recipient to transmit an opt-out request. Fax ads sent pursuant to an

           established business relationship must also contain this opt-out information.

The opt-out notice must be included in all faxed ads, even those sent with prior express consent. However, the FCC is granting retroactive waivers for those who sent such solicited advertisements up until April 30th, 2015. These waivers are intended to provide temporary relief from past offenders and allow for more time for waiver recipients to come into full compliance with the Order.

Even if your company does not qualify for such a waiver, there are still numerous defenses that can be asserted in a lawsuit such as this. Contact Nicole Strickler at 312-334-3442 or nstrickler@messerstrickler.com for more information about applying for the FCC’s waiver and other consumer litigation compliance issues.

View the Order Here.

NEW YORK ISSUES NEW RULES ON DEBT COLLECTION

On December 3, 2014, New York financial regulators announced the adoption of final rules regulating debt collection practices in the state of New York.  The new regulations are intended to curb abuse by debt collectors, requiring them to, among other things, advise consumers when the statute of limitations has expired on debts and confirm settlements agreements in writing.  Interestingly, both such rules have long been in place in New York City pursuant to City Rules and Regulations.  See New York City, N.Y., Rules, Tit. 6, §§ 2-191, 2-192. The regulations are the result of more than a year of meetings and public comments stemming from two earlier published versions of the regulations.  The new statewide regulations are far from surprising, considering that more than 20,000 complaints about debt collection practices were filed by New Yorkers in 2014 alone.  In announcing the new regulations, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo stated that New York “will not tolerate debt collectors who wrongfully take advantage of consumers.”

To address the perceived abuses in the debt collection industry, the new regulations of third-party debt collectors and debt buyers include the following key reforms:

  •    Improved Disclosures and Debt Information: Enhanced initial disclosures will be required when a debt collector first contacts an alleged debtor. These disclosures go beyond current federal requirements, by requiring that collectors disclose key information about the charged-off debts they collect, including: the amount owed at charge-off, and the total post-charge-off interest, charges, and fees.

  •    Protection Against “Zombie Debts”: If a collector attempts to collect on a debt for which the statute of limitations has expired, prior to accepting payment, the collector must provide notice that the statute of limitations may be expired and that, if the consumer is sued on such debt, the consumer may be able to prevent a judgment by informing the court that the statute of limitations has expired.

  •    Substantiation of the Debt Allegedly Owed: These regulations establish groundbreaking protections that require a collector to “substantiate” a debt upon a consumer’s request for same, which may be made at any time during the collection process.  This will assist consumers who fail to exercise their right to verification under the 30-day window established by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

  •    Written Confirmation of Settlement Agreements: Collectors must provide consumers with written confirmation of any debt settlement agreement, and must also provide written confirmation upon satisfaction of the debt.

  •    Email Communications: Consumers may opt to communicate with collectors via their personal email.  This is intended to reduce harassing phone calls and allow consumers to maintain better records of their communications with the collector.

The new regulations will take effect on March 3, 2015, with the exception of Sections 1.2(b) (disclosure requirements) and 1.4 (substantiation requirements), which take effect on August 30, 2015.  The final regulations are available at: http://www.dfs.ny.gov/legal/regulations/adoptions/dfsf23t.pdf.  Debt collectors who collect in the state of New York should examine the new regulations and prepare compliance plans to meet the new requirements.

For more information on the new regulations and/or compliance recommendations, contact Katherine Olson at (312) 334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com