Don’t be a Verification Sucker – Request for Verification is NOT a Substitute for an Answer
Verification of your debt is an important right, but demanding it will NOT prevent a default judgment if you get sued.
People in debt trouble hear a lot about debt validation, and that is a good thing. Even though verification requires little from the debt collector, it’s still good to make the demand when you’re first contacted by a debt collector trying to harass you into paying. Requesting validation sends a signal to the debt collector that you will defend your rights.
If you get sued by a debt collector, however – even if that’s the first you’ve ever heard from them – you must do more. You must answer the lawsuit by filing your answer in court.
If you don’t answer, the debt collector usually gets a default judgment. That effectively ends your rights to fight the debt.
When a debt collector (or creditor) files suit against you, you will have to file an answer in court to avoid a default judgment. Many people think all they have to do is “dispute the debt and request verification.” The right to verification, however, applies only to collection efforts that are not part of a lawsuit. Don’t be a verification sucker – file an Answer and defend yourself.
Debtors often see bankruptcy as one refuge from debt collectors, but the Supreme Court has recently made things much worse. In Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17), the Court held that filing outdated claims in bankruptcy court does not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). If you are in bankruptcy or considering it, this is huge. It could mean having to pay more if you file for bankruptcy than if you don’t.
What Bankruptcy Does
In general, if your debts get too bad, you can file bankruptcy and force all your creditors to stop contacting you. They have to file claims in your bankruptcy action, and the court will either “allow” those claims or deny them. If the court allows a claim, you will have to pay some fraction of it (or all of it). The court then determines the amount of payments you must make, over what period of time, and you do your best to do that.
If you succeed, you will receive a “discharge” – this eliminates all the debts disallowed and the fraction of your debts that you don’t have to pay under the plan. This is this “fresh start” that lures most people into the bankruptcy process.
The dirty little secret of bankruptcy is that if claims are not disputed, the courts generally allow them. In bankruptcy cases of people without much money, the lawyers representing the bankrupts have little (personal) incentive to dispute wrongful claims. They get their pay out of the scanty resources of their clients.
The U.S. trustee who oversees the process should protect the bankrupt and legitimate creditors from bad claims, but guess what?They often don’t. Likewise, the court should winnow out bad claims, but given the number of bankruptcies and their complexity, they often do not.
Under current realities, poor people pay a lot of bad claims.
Junk Debt Buyers Seek to Exploit the System
Enter the junk debt buyers to make things much worse. They buy vast amounts of LONG overdue debt – debt far beyond the statute of limitations – and file claims in bankruptcy cases. This bogs the bankruptcy courts, the trustees, and bankruptcy lawyers down. The more bad claims they file, the more get through because of carelessness. They should NEVER get through, because an unenforceable claim should ALWAYS be denied under bankruptcy rules. But they often do.
The Trap of Res Judicata
Paying some part of bad claims in bankruptcy is bad, but what happens if your bankruptcy, like most, ends without discharge. What if, for some reason you fall short and don’t get your “fresh start?” What happens then?
Res judicata is the rule that if an issue has been, or could have been decided by a court, it can’t be relitigated. If a bankruptcy court has allowed a claim – even if it did so by mistake or simply because it was not disputed, you may not be able to dispute the claim in another court later. And even if a claim would have been illegal to bring in a state court originally, if you file bankruptcy and the claim is allowed, you will probably have to pay full value on the claim later.
Bad claims hurt the chances of the bankrupts to get their fresh start. They hurt the chances of the legitimate creditors to get paid. And they make the whole process stink to high heaven of injustice. Allowing a bunch of hoodlums in fancy suits to steal wholesale from the poor damages the legal system at its very core.
The FDCPA used to offer some protection against that, but the Supreme Court negated that protection with its holding in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17). In that case, the Court ruled that debt collectors could file claims in bankruptcy that would be illegal if filed in other courts.
Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson
The relevant facts in Midland Funding are very simple. Midland, a junk debt buyer, was buying extremely old debts for very small amounts of money. They were using these debts, which were far beyond the statutes of limitations, as the basis for many claims in bankruptcy. Johnson opposed and got the claim in that case disallowed, and then filed suit in district court under the FDCPA, alleging that the claim had been unfair or unconscionable. The essence of Johnson’s claim was that filing obviously time-barred claims in a bankruptcy proceeding was an unfair debt collection practice.
The Supreme Court ruled that it was not.
There is no need to review (here) the tortured logic that effectively immunizes from consequences the intentional doing of something that never, under any circumstances, should be allowed. The state of the law simply is this: debt collectors can file obviously unenforceable claims in bankruptcy without worrying about the FDCPA. That means there’s a big risk that you will pay them if you aren’t looking out for them.
Result Possibly Different if you Allege Deception
There is perhaps one glimmer of light in this very bad decision. The Supreme Court was addressing “obviously outdated” claims. What Midland was doing was buying obviously unenforceable claims and hoping they would be overlooked and erroneously allowed. While this obviousness is one main way a debt collector’s intention to file outdated claims would be known, the obviousness was also a reason the Court found that the claims were not “deceptive.” What if the claims were known to be outdated by the debt collector but were not obviously so? Facts like that, or similar facts tending to show some actual intent to deceive would present difficult evidentiary issues, but the case could arise and might tip the balance in the other direction.
What the Midland Funding case means is that even if you’re in bankruptcy you’re going to have to know and protect your own rights. Your lawyer has VERY LITTLE incentive to challenge bad claims. The U.S. Trustee and court probably won’t protect you either.
If the claims are allowed, you will probably have to pay them. That means that even if you file for bankruptcy you must be prepared to defend yourself against the debt collectors. You will AT LEAST need to know your rights, and you will very probably have to defend them pro se. You’re probably not going to get much help from your lawyer on this one.
Suppose you get called on a debt that, theoretically, you owed, but didn’t pay, twenty years ago. Is there anything you should do? Is there anything you should NOT do? Should you make partial payments for any reason?
What You Should Do If You Get Called on an Old Debt
What you should do is find out who, exactly, is calling you. Find out the company and the individual. Then listen to what they say. If it is convenient, record the conversation. If not, take notes. Ask questions.
What You Should NOT Do
A 20 year old debt, not paid for 20 years, is beyond all statutes of limitations in all jurisdictions of which I am aware. However, you still “owe” the debt in some theoretical way. It remains a “debt,” and that turns out to be important. Know this, though: they can’t sue you for it, and they can’t hurt your credit report if you don’t pay it. And they can’t do anything good for you if you do pay it.
In my opinion, you should never pay such a debt.
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
Just listen to what the debt collector says.
Let’s say he threatens to sue or tells you anything contrary to what I just said above. That would violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). It is illegal for a debt collector to threaten you with action that he either does not intend to do or could not legally do.
Suppose, however, he tells you that they can’t sue you, but that you still owe the money, and wouldn’t it feel better to pay it? Some people might say they have no money, and so the debt collector tells them, “No problem, you can just make a partial payment. Then, if you ever get any more money, you can pay some more…”
That also violates the FDCPA in my opinion because it is deceiving you and trying to take advantage of something most people don’t know. If you give someone a gift and say you’ll give them more later, that creates no obligation to pay. If you make a partial payment on a “debt,” even one that is many years past the statute of limitations and beyond causing you any harm, you revive the debt and can be sued on it again.
Debt collectors are often trained to take advantage of people’s ignorance and to suggest partial payments on debts that are beyond the statute of limitations. If they try to get you to do that without telling you that you will revive the debt by doing so, they are misleading you. And that violates the FDCPA.
Partial Payments Revive Old Debts
By making the partial payment, you will revive the debt against you in its entirety, allowing the company to harass and sue you, and possibly even to damage your credit report again. Never, ever do it. Instead, take careful notes, and then go find an FDCPA lawyer to sue them.
If they get it all right and tell you that a partial payment would revive the right to sue you, tell them to go away and never call again. If they do, get a lawyer and sue them for that.
Other things to know
Partial payments will not just revive a statute of limitations after it has passed – it will extend it if it has not passed. Thus if the debt is five years old and getting close to the statute of limitations, your part payment will start the clock ticking again all over.
If you are being harassed or sued for a debt and need more information, be sure to check out our products and materials at Your Legal Leg Up. We have everything you need to protect your rights.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is the centerpiece of legal protections for debtors against debt collectors. The law was passed in its essential form in 1977, and its goal was to protect debtors against the abuses of debt collectors. This article discusses what makes this law great, and some of its limitations.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was enacted to put an end to some of the worst practices of the debt collection industry. It’s been a very good law, but the debt collectors are still doing many of the things the law was designed to present. You may be able to sue them or prevent them from suing you.
The Debt Collection Industry
Before the act, the debt collection industry was routinely engaging in the most abusive sorts of behavior imaginable, from calling debtors at all hours of the day or night and subjecting them to streams of cursing and name-calling, to discussing their debt with children, neighbors, and employers. Debt collectors frequently misrepresented themselves as attorneys and often threatened legal action which they were powerless to initiate. And they often attempted to, and did, collect debts that either never existed or were long unenforceable because of statutes of limitation or bankruptcy.
Whatever the staid spokespeople of the debt collection industry may say, this is the background of their industry. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 1692, et seq., was enacted to put a stop to these extreme behaviors in 1977. Because the people intended to be protected by the act are underrepresented by lawyers, and because of the explosion of debt litigation over the past decade, many of the old abuses still continue, and as people increasingly defend themselves from the debt collectors, they develop new tricks all the time.
The FDCPA: A Pretty Good Law
Nevertheless, the FDCPA is in many ways a model piece of legislation. What makes the law so powerful is that, in addition to making certain enumerated acts illegal, the Act also more generally makes acts that are “oppressive,” “false or misleading representations,” or “unfair practices” illegal. This means that, whereas in most laws, the would-be wrongdoer is free to craft his actions around the specific language of the law and find “loopholes,” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, at least, the consumer may argue that these actions are still unfair or oppressive. The Supreme Court has ruled that an “unfair” act can be shown by demonstrating that it is “at least within the penumbra” of some common law, statutory “or other established concept” of unfairness.
That’s pretty broad. The price for this flexibility, however, is that the remedies—what you get if you prove the case—are less powerful. And this may be why the practices are still occurring today.
As mentioned above, there are specific actions enumerated in the FDCPA, and these include most notably, suing on expired debts, filing suit in distant jurisdictions, publishing certain types of information regarding the debtor, calling outside of specified hours. And the list goes on. If the debt collector is acting in some highly offensive way, chances are he’s within the specific provisions of the Act. These can be found at 15 U.S.C. 1692c, d, e and f. You can find the specifics by Googling the Act or provision and determining whether the specific action you’re concerned about is within one of these provisions.