If someone is trying to take away your house for nonpayment of some debt, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) may – or may not – be useful to you. The law differs according to jurisdiction, and you will want to choose the one that gives you your best chance.
This article is a very basic primer on the interaction of state and federal jurisdiction when it comes to debt collection generally, and foreclosure more specifically. Wherever you live, you will want to consider both federal and state cases on applying the FDCPA to foreclosure if you want to sue a debt collector for its acts in taking, or trying to take, away your house.
Most Debtor-Creditor and Property Law is “State” Law
In theory, federal law only applies to areas of the law designated by the constitution, whereas everything else is controlled by state law. That can lead to confusing results where those interests overlap. In general, the laws creating and enforcing property rights (e.g., contract rights, debt, or property ownership rights) are state law. If you get sued for a debt, the action will almost certainly occur in a state (as opposed to federal) court. Foreclosure rights are also determined by state law.
Debt Collection Is a Special Situation
Claims under the FDCPA can be brought in either state or federal court. While property rights are creatures of state law, debt collection was considered so extensive a problem that it was a national (i.e., federal) problem. Thus Congress carved out a piece of debtor-creditor law for itself when it enacted the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which makes certain actions taken by debt collectors (primarily) illegal. The FDCPA is federal law, in other words, but as it happens it provides that it can be enforced in either federal or state courts.
Because of the way the federal and state law systems mesh, you could conceivably defend a collection action or foreclosure in state court by filing a counterclaim and seeking an injunction, by filing a separate action in state court under the FDCPA, or by filing a federal claim under the FDCPA and seeking an injunction in federal court. Likewise you could defend or settle a state collection action and then bring suit under the FDCPA in federal court (although remember that the FDCPA has a one-year statute of limitations). All of these variations occur quite often.
States are Independent of Each Other
The state law of the court in which the suit is brought will always determine some the procedures in the case and usually the actual “substantive” rights. Under certain circumstances other state laws might also apply (this comes up most frequently where there is a contract that specifies the state’s law that will apply). State laws and procedures can be different from state to state. If you live in Tennessee, you will be subject to the state laws of Tennessee, and these may (or may not) be very different in some important way than the laws of Pennsylvania, for example, or any other state.
If you are pro se (representing yourself), therefore, your first action must be to determine which state laws (and of which states) apply to which parts of your case at the basic debtor-creditor level. In other words, if you are being sued on a credit card debt, is the company suing you under the law of your home state? Or is it suing you under the laws of some other state? In foreclosure law, it will almost always be suing you (or foreclosing without suit) under the law of your own state.
The courts of one state are not bound in any way by the courts of any other state when they are dealing with their own laws, but they are subject to state courts of appeals and the state supreme courts (and sometimes in certain areas of the law, the U.S. Supreme Court).
State Courts are Independent of Federal Courts, too
Things get a little more complicated when it comes to state courts applying other states’ laws or federal law. In a general sense, they “should” determine what the appropriate court applying its own law would do. In reality, there is usually no appeal to those courts, and so the decisions can vary widely.
The Federal Law
The federal system is similar to the state system, except that eventually they all answer to the Supreme Court. That is, when the Supreme Court has spoken, all the federal courts are supposed to make decisions which are consistent with what the Supreme Court says. Because cases are always decided on the narrowest set of facts possible, and because there are so many laws and cases, however, the Supreme Court often will take many years before deciding a given issue. That leaves the lower courts to guess what the Supreme Court would say. One area where that is happening right now regards whether the FDCPA applies to foreclosure. Eventually the Supreme Court will decide one way or another, but until that time, the lower courts apply the law as they see fit. Sort of.
Each Federal Circuit Controls the District Courts below it
The federal (civil) judicial system is divided into three levels: district courts (where lawsuits are filed and tried); courts of appeal (“circuit courts of appeal”) and the Supreme Court. As described above, all courts answer to the Supreme Court. Below that, the federal circuit courts of appeal control all the district courts below them. Appeals are expensive, specially to the Supreme Court, and they are hard to win. Therefore it is vitally important to win, if at all possible, at the trial court level.
How the Different Jurisdictions Interact
Because the federal circuits are independent of one another, and the states are independent of one another and the federal courts, different places develop different rules arising out of the same law. A perfect example of that would be the way the 3rd, 4th and 9th federal circuits (and all the district courts below them) allow FDCPA claims against foreclosers, whereas the 7th and 11th federal circuits limit those rights. The states also vary from each other and the federal circuits.
What all those different decisions mean is that if you are being foreclosed on and think the FDCPA applies to your case, you need to “forum shop.” That is, after determining the state laws that apply to the foreclosure itself, your second task is to determine whether or not your state applies the FDCPA to foreclosure. If not, then does your federal circuit? You will need to look at the law for each and decide where to bring your claim. You can bring it in either federal or state law – you should bring it in the jurisdiction that seems most likely to apply the FDCPA to your foreclosure. Although this isn’t necessarily easy to tell, it can make or break your case, and you need to consider the question as a part of your initial strategy.
About Your Legal Leg Up
Your Legal Leg Up is a business dedicated to helping people fight debt collectors without having to hire expensive lawyers to do it. We offer you everything you need to defend your rights – with special help through our membership services to help make the process smoother, easier, and less worrisome. YourLegalLegUp.com has been in operation since 2007. Before that, Ken Gibert practiced law representing people being sued for debt among other types of consumer law.
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