Who is a Debt Collector after Santander Case

Debt collectors are governed by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). If you are able to make a counterclaim under that Act, you will improve your defense. Thus the questions are, who is a debt collector, and how do you show that the person suing you is one.

The Supreme Court  issued rulings in 2017 that will make it more difficult for debt defendants to obtain legal representation and will cause debt collectors to engage in more deceptive, dishonest and abusive behavior. Nevertheless, most people will still be able to sue debt collectors. We discuss how after our discussion of the Santander case.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

When Congress passed the FDCPA, debt collectors were such a problem that they were a threat to the American way of life. The FDCPA was therefore designed to prevent fraud, deception and unfairness in general in the collection of debts. Congress named numerous specific actions as “per se” violations of the Act and also included the more general description of “unfair” debt collection practices.

It wanted to prevent debt collectors from changing the forms their actions took without changing what they were basically doing.

The Supreme Court has just reduced that Congressional intent to a farce, applying just half of the statutory definition of “debt collector” to a case and finding that, under that half of the definition, junk debt buyers were not debt collectors.

Real-Life Debt Collection

In most debt cases, creditors sell charged-off debt to debt buyers who exist to collect that money by hook or crook. They used to hire debt collectors to collect on debts and paid them from the proceeds, Creditors now get their money first and let the debt collectors take theirs from the debtors. All that has happened is that nominal ownership of the debt has changed. In other words, debt collectors have assumed a different form to pursue the very same activities.

Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that it would not allow parties to elevate form over substance to evade the impact of laws . Santander does exactly that.

One could also characterize the Court’s ruling as dishonest. It only analyzed half of the definition of “debt collectors.” In looking at Section 1692a(6), the court examined the defining language as “any person… who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” The court’s decision then repeatedly referred to and emphasized the words “due another,” arguing that companies were only debt collectors if they fit that traditional form of collectors.

How the FDCPA Defines “Debt Collector”

Look at the part of the definition preceding the language in question to get a truer view of the statute’s clear intention.

The term “debt collector” means any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

Section 1692a(6) (underlined portion is the part ignored by the Supreme Court in Santander, italicized word “any” is for emphasis)

Doesn’t it seem reasonable to read “any debts” literally, so that if the principal purpose of a business is to collect debts, they’re a debt collector? Of course it does, and that would obviously include businesses that exist to purchase debts and collect on them.

Supreme Court is AGAINST Debt Defendants

The Court opinion glibly slides over that, saying that “the parties haven’t much litigated that alternative definition of debt collector and in granting certiorari we didn’t agree to consider it, either.” Santander, Slip Op. at 5. In other words, the Supreme Court agreed to hear only so much of the case as allowed them to shove a dagger into the apparent heart of the FDCPA – not enough of the case to show what the FDCPA actually intended or to do justice.

In theory, the decision in Santander leaves open the possibility that this “alternative” definition would extend the meaning of “debt collector” to junk debt buyers. On the other hand, the decision looks like a court in search of a justification for a desired outcome, and is a negative indication for the Court’s integrity. Particularly in the context of its decision in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17) (see my article, “Opening the Floodgates of Bad Claims”), it shows actual hostility to the laws that protect consumers from debt collectors and a willingness to engage in intellectually dishonest games to destroy them. As a practical matter, it will likely be several years before the Supreme Court revisits the definition of “debt collector.”

Pleading that a Junk Debt Buyer is a “Debt Collector”

The Supreme Court limited its decision to the “regularly collected” language. Why? Probably because debt defendants have normally found it easy to prove a company “regularly collected” debts. In the Eighth Circuit, law firms representing collectors in three to five cases per year are“regularly collecting” debts.

Under fact pleading rules, one must plead facts constituting a basis for your legal conclusion. So debt defendants routinely allege something like the following:

Heartless, Ruthless and Merciless, represent debt collectors in dozens of lawsuits attempting to collect debts per year. They are, therefore, debt collectors, and

Heartless Debt Collector, Inc., regularly sues persons for debts purchased after default…

Use of “Regularly Collects” Debts Language

Debt defendants have typically used “regularly collected” because it is easy to demonstrate as a matter of public record. Establishing a business’s “principal purpose” will now be much more difficult. My attempts to find an authoritative definition for “principal purpose” of a business turned up zero cases. No doubt there are some cases that address the issue, but certainly not many.

Many court decisions include the term “principal purpose.”  But they use it generically, as a synonym for “main” or “major.”

I found no cases quantifying the term in any way. So it isn’t clear how much of any other purpose would be enough.

Debt buyers who purchase billions of dollars of debt for no other purpose than to collect it. But they will argue that their “principal purpose” is to “service” that debt. In their lexicon that really means extort payment in as many ways, over as long a period, as possible. But they will claim all manner of beneficial purposes for their activities.

This will alter the nature of the proof required to establish that the company is a debt collector. Information regarding a business’s “principal purpose” will be in the possession of the debt collector. Thus parties attempting to obtain that information will encounter the usual tricks when they try to get it. Expect the same series of stone walls, delays and unethical and oppressive litigation strategies debt collectors usually use. (Fortunately, this can be a double-edged sword. We train our members at Your Legal Leg Up to use this to their advantage.)

Debt defendants must now allege and attempt to prove the debt collector’s main business is to collect debts.

What Debt Defendants Should Do

Debt defendants have all the same defenses to debt lawsuits they ever did – or almost all of them. Santander applies very little to the defense of debt suits.

To state claims under the FDCPA, you need to allege the company’s principle business is the collection of debts. You should probably allege they buy debts from others for the purposes of collection. And that they provide no significant service to the debtors.