Most small firm lawyers and general practitioners get at least an occasional request from an individual client seeking help in dealing with creditors, whether it be the client who has just been sued on old credit card debt that he or she thought was long since resolved or forgotten, the client whose children have racked up significant debt for which the creditor now seeks to make the client responsible, the client who guaranteed someone else’s auto loan, the client who has been harassed by collectors for years, and wants your help in negotiating fair, enforceable settlements to put the matter behind him, etc.
Indeed, when I shifted from working on consumer-protection issues as a legal aid attorney to working on these issues in private practice, one of the big surprises was the large group of solvent, middle-class individuals with significant, consumer-debt related problems who were in need of counsel and assistance. Indeed, putting aside the many individuals who are out of work, and/or currently “underwater” with regard to credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, etc., our office frequently receives calls from sophisticated, educated and employed potential clients who are involved in disputes or actual litigation regarding alleged personal debts.
The purpose of this three-part series is to share with New York practitioners in brief outline, a few successful techniques and strategies for helping clients with these types of problems, focusing in particular on the client facing collection/litigation regarding old credit card debt where, for a variety of reasons, bankruptcy is not desirable or appropriate. The good news is that the consumer debt collection industry is, for the most part, a sloppy, volume-based industry that works on the assumption that the debtor will neither know her rights nor obtain counsel. This reality, combined with fairly vigorous, fee-shifting federal statutes regarding unfair collection practices means that a debtor represented by knowledgeable counsel is often in a much stronger position than might otherwise be presumed. The reader will note that although many of these techniques and strategies are litigation-oriented, many are at least as useful in the context of negotiating settlement.
In Part I of the series (which you are reading), I focus on potential affirmative claims a debtor may possess. These types of claims are crucial inasmuch as they can radically change the relative bargaining positions of the parties, putting the debtor in a position to settle the debt for a fraction of what would otherwise be possible or even, in certain cases, allow the debtor to dictate a settlement in which creditor not only waives the obligation but pays the debtor, as well. These claims are also critical because the fee shifting nature of many of the federal statutes can be the deciding factor in whether any form of extended representation is financially feasible for the client and the firm. In
Part II of the series, which will follow, I review potential defenses to state court collection actions. In
Part III, I will review issues relating to the vacating of default judgments, focusing on judgments obtained through the routinely deficient service of process that has sadly become the norm in collection actions.
The Best Defense Is A Good Offense
A. Assess The Case For Potential Fair Debt Collection Practice Act Claims
Recognizing a colorable Fair Debt Collection Practice Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (FDCPA) claim against the collector or the collection firm can radically improve the client’s bargaining position. It is not uncommon that the collector and/or its law firm, faced with defending a strong, fee shifting action in federal court to quickly conclude that even where the debtor’s case does not involve significant actual damages, it is in the debt collector’s best interest to agree to mutual releases, dismissal of the state court collection action, and an additional payment to the consumer including attorneys fees.
The FDCPA is a detailed, federal statute meant to prevent unfair and/or deceptive collection practices. It contains a multitude of extremely specific requirements—for example, dictating the types of disclosures that a collector’s first and subsequent written communication must contain, requiring that collector validate the debt upon request and cease contacting the consumer in the interim, requiring the collector to stop calling any consumer who requests to be contacted only in writing, prohibiting direct contact with represented consumer, prohibiting contact with third parties, such as the consumer’s employer or relatives, etc. The FDCPA also contains much more sweeping prohibitions against unfair and deceptive collection practices, e.g. making unlawful the “false representation of the character, amount, or legal status of any debt” (§1692e (2)(A)) and barring the “the collection of any amount (including interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law”. §1692f(1).
Although it doesn’t cover the original creditor, entities that buy debts after default (e.g. most “debt buyers”), or who undertake collection activity on behalf of another (e.g. debt collection law firms) are covered under the statute. Although the $1,000 statutory penalty per action (plus actual damages) is fairly modest, the prevailing consumer is entitled to mandatory attorneys fees. § 1692k(3). Moreover, with a limited exception for certain bonafide errors, the collector operates under a strict liability standard, i.e. the consumer need not show any bad intent on the part of the collector (although it certainly never hurts!). Russell v. Equifax A.R.S., 74 F.3d 30 (2nd Cir. 1996).
Although a full review of the FDCPA is beyond the scope of this article, it bears noting that failure to include required written disclosures, inaccurate descriptions of the law or the debtor’s rights, threats to take legal action where no action is realistically contemplated, telephone harassment, failure to acknowledge prior payment, filing of time-barred debt, and failure to maintain licensure required by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, are all fairly common place and may constitute grounds for a successful FDCPA claim.
Because identification of a valid FDCPA claim can be a “game changer,” it is crucial that counsel to the debtor familiarize him or herself with the statute and get enough information from the client to recognize potential violations. Likewise, it is crucial that counsel be aware of the FDCPA’s One Year Statute Of Limitations.
B. Assess The Case For Potential Fair Credit Billing Act Claims
A full discussion of the federal Truth In Lending Act,15 U.S.C. § 1601 et seq. (TILA), an inordinately complex and heavily litigated statute is not appropriate here but, particularly in the credit card context, the practitioner should be aware of a subsection of the TILA entitled the Fair Credit Billing Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1666-1666j (FCBA), which provides significant rights to credit card holders and which can often provide valid grounds for counterclaims or third-party claims that will greatly increase the debtor’s bargaining position. The statute is particularly likely to be applicable where the debtor has previously disputed the charges with the credit card company or where the client is currently in the midst of such a dispute.
In general, the FCBA imposes concrete obligations upon credit card companies vis a vis disputes with the credit card holder, including the requirement that upon timely notice from the credit card holder, the creditor “make appropriate corrections in the account of the obligor, including the crediting of any finance charges on amounts erroneously billed . . .or send a written explanation or clarification to the obligor, after having conducted an investigation, setting forth to the extent applicable the reasons why the creditor believes the account of the obligor was correctly shown in the statement.” 15 U.S.C. 1666(a)(3)(B). The Act also limits the right of the creditor to report a disputed amount as delinquent, to close an account based upon a dispute, or to charge interest on the disputed amount. The statute has a two-year statute of limitations.
Like the FDCPA, the FCBA contains limited statutory damages, but also contains mandatory fee shifting provisions that are extremely useful in forcing resolution of disputes. Common violations include failure to conduct a credible investigation despite clear notice from the consumer, reporting of disputed balances to third parties (e.g. credit reporting agencies) and failure to segregate disputed portions of the bill from the portion upon which interest and fees can legitimately accrue.
C. Assess the Case for Potential Fair Credit Reporting Act Claims
The Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681-1681x (FCRA), regulates both the Credit Reporting Agencies (e.g. TransUnion, Experian, Equifax, etc.) and the entities that provide the agencies with information, i.e. many, many creditors and debt collection companies. The statute is detailed and heavily regulated and the following serves only to flag a few pertinent points in order that the interested practitioner can investigate further on his or her own.
A basic familiarity with the statute is necessary for several reasons. First, if your client disputes the accuracy of a credit report entry with the agency, the agency is obligated to ask the provider of that information to investigate. Not only can the credit reporting agency be liable for continued listing of inaccurate information but crucially for purposes of this discussion, the confirmation of inaccurate information by the provider (who may well be the plaintiff or potential plaintiff in the collection action that prompts the consumer to arrive in your office) is actionable under the FCRA which, like the FDCPA and the FCBA, contains mandatory fee shifting provisions.
There is also a second, practical consideration: now more than ever, bad credit can have tremendously negative impacts on a client’s financial well-being, making it difficult or impossible to borrow money and, in some cases threatening job eligibility. Thus, it behooves the attorney representing the debtor to provide the consumer basic information on how to correct inaccuracies on their credit report that often accompany debt-collection related problems.
D. NY General Business Law Section § 349 (Deceptive Trade Practices Act)
Virtually every state has an unfair and deceptive trade and practices (UDAP) statute, and New York is no exception. Unfortunately, New York’s UDAP law is not particularly strong, barring only deceptive conduct while leaving non-deceptive but nonetheless unfair acts and practices outside its purview. Rather NYGBL § 349(a) bars “deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in [New York]”. Furthermore, the act contains no statutory penalty for violation, and caps punitive damages at $1,000. §349(h). The statute also does not provide for mandatory fee shifting, stating that “the court may award reasonable attorney’s fees to a prevailing plaintiff.” § 349(h). Not surprisingly, Courts are most likely to exercise their discretion to award Plaintiff fees where the Court believes the victims of the deception to be vulnerable, the public interest to by highly implicated, and the defendant to have acted in bad faith. See, e.g. Independent Living Aids, Inc. v. Maxi-Aids, Inc., 25 F.Supp.2d 127 (E.D.N.Y. 1998).
Nonetheless, the act can be extremely useful in certain situations. For example, in cases where the client has suffered actual damages as a result of collection–related deception, it provides a basis for relief that does not require the practitioner to prove the elements of fraud, such as reliance and bad intent. Rather, the consumer need only show (a) that the alleged act is “consumer-oriented”; (b) that Defendant made a material misrepresentation; and (c) that the misrepresentation caused the consumer harm Stutman v. Chemical Bank, 95 N.Y.2d 24, 29 (Ct. of Appeals 2000). Second, in absence of a counterclaim many New York Court’s, in practice, allow a plaintiff to discontinue an action without consent of the Defendant (the CPLR notwithstanding). This practice allows for unilateral dismissal without prejudice even after an answer has been put been it. Maintaining a counterclaim is thus useful to prevent unilateral dismissal without prejudice where counsel may be able to achieve dismissal with prejudice, monetary payment, credit report correction and/or other useful terms through negotiation. Third, § 349 covers entities such as original creditors who are not reachable under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
E. Don’t Forget Your Common Law Claims
Depending upon the situation, the debtor may have valid claims under breach of contract, negligence, fraud or other common law theories of liability. Libel claims may be appropriate and viable in contexts where an entity on the creditor’s “side of the fence” (the creditor, a collection company, a collection firm) has transmitted false information about an alleged debt to a third party such as a credit reporting agency, a neighbor or an employer) subject “to such an action’s rigorous limitations, which require not only that the statements be false but that the agency was motivated by express malice or actual ill will or that the information in its credit report demonstrates wanton and reckless negligence” Zampatori v. United Parcel Service, 125 Misc.2d 405 (Ct. of Appeals, 1984). Likewise, invasion of privacy may be viable where there has been, for example, persistent telephone harassment . (Note however, that the degree to which the FCRA pre-empts state law claims for libel and invasion of privacy is unsettled. See, Fashakin v. Nextel Communications, 2006 WL 1875341 (E.D.N.Y., 2006).
Of course, one benefit of many common law claims is the potential availability of punitive damages. Another advantage is that like NYGBL § 349, but unlike claims under the FDCPA, FCBA and FCRA, the common law claims typically avoid the complex statutory coverage issues that may sometimes arise under the federal statutes.
F. Consider Third Party Liability
Often times, the client’s strongest claim will lie not against the named plaintiff in the state court collection suit that prompts the consumer to seek legal representation, but against the debt collection law firm that represents the Plaintiff and, more to the point, that is often responsible for all or much of the pre-litigation collection activity on the account. In this regard, the practitioner should be aware that most of the major collection law firms in New York have entire staffs of “account specialists” who manage all of the functions regularly associated with debt collection, e.g. pre-litigation phone calls, dunning letters, negotiations, etc. In this author’s experience, the city and state courts (which process thousands upon thousands of default judgments every year) and the federal courts, as well, are aware of that the law firms involved provide an wide range of collection related services well beyond those traditionally associated with law firm. Perhaps for this reason, judges do not — in the author’s experience — have the traditional distaste for actions naming law firms as parties in the consumer protection context as they do in other settings.
Nor should practitioners assume that the party suing their debtor client is necessarily insulated from liability for a previous holder’s actions. Rather, as a general rule, “it is now beyond dispute than an assignee takes subject to all defenses or counterclaims which the mortgagor possessed against the assignor. . .”. Northern Properties, Inc. v. Kuf Realty Corp., 30 Misc. 2d 1, 3 (Westchester 1961)(emphasis added). In this regard, it is important to note that most plaintiffs other than the original creditor will have great difficulty meeting the requirements for establishing holder in due course status, because of the requirement that such a holder take “without notice that it is overdue or has been dishonored or of any defense or claim against it on the part of another.” U.C.C. § 3-302(1).
The statutes and considerations discussed above are not by any means exhaustive. Indeed, there are numerous other potentially applicable state and federal statutes. Rather, this article is meant merely to flag some of potential claims a typical debtor may have which may not otherwise be apparent to the attorney who does not practice in this area with any regularity. Awareness of these claims can lead to significantly improved outcomes for clients and can transform otherwise financially unfeasible representation to representation that is worthwhile both for the small firm lawyer and for the client.
Finally, a cautionary note: The practitioner should not be surprised by potential clients who know just enough about the statutes listed above to be dangerous. In particular, the author notes the phenomena of the client who based on “online research” becomes convinced that any perceived violation of these statutes, real or imagined, no matter how arguable, miniscule or hyper-technical should excuse the client from his or her liability for a genuinely incurred and otherwise valid debt. Although many of the debt collector or debt collection firm’s obligations are in the nature of strict liability, common sense, judgment and real-world sense of the “equities” are always necessary.
The author, Daniel Schlanger, Esq. is a partner at Schlanger & Schlanger, LLP in White Plains, New York, and practices primarily in the area of consumer law. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former clerk of the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson, III of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.