Tag Archives: Santander

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.

Supreme Court Attacks FDCPA – Defending Pro Se in Debt Defense Cases

Defending pro se may have just become an even more important option for debt defendants.

The Supreme Court has recently damaged debt defendants’ rights with two very important decisions. These decisions attack the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). One allows debt collectors to bombard the bankruptcy courts with outdated claims. The other holds that junk debt buyers are not “debt collectors” under one important definition of the FDCPA.  Together, these rulings change the landscape of defense. One thing is clear: you need to know your rights more now than ever.  Defending pro se may be the only kind of debt defense you can get anymore.

Pro Se Defense

Let’s start with what “defending pro se” is.  Pro se means representing yourself in a lawsuit. This eliminates big legal fees, but it ALSO means taking on the burdens and risks of defending yourself. Hiring the right lawyer is the “gold standard” of defense, but hiring lawyers is expensive. Additionally, recent Supreme Court rulings will make it harder to get a debt lawyer at all. Still, in most debt cases people can handle their own defense. The law is not complicated, and debt cases are document, rather than witness, intensive. Defending pro se even has some significant advantages in the debt law context.

Who is a Debt Collector

In Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., No. 16349 (Slip Op. 6-12-17), the Supreme Court ruled that junk debt buyers are not“debt collectors” under one provision of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). I discuss that case, its impact, and what action people need to take regarding it, in my article and video, “Who Is a Debt Collector – Supreme Court Tries to Destroy the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and what to Do about that.” In general, the effect of Santander is to make it more difficult to establish that a junk debt buyer is a debt collector, and it may signify that the Supreme Court would not let you sue junk debt buyers under the FDCPA at all.

Harder to Get a Lawyer

Santander is going to make it more difficult for you to get a lawyer to defend you in a debt case – and more expensive if you can get one. That’s because the FDCPA applies only to debt collectors and gives you certain counterclaims, and certain defenses, that make defending you easier. The FDCPA also includes a “fee-shifting” provision which allows a consumer to make a debt collector pay for most of the time a lawyer spends on a case. These things – ease of defense and a rich company to pay fees – make FDCPA cases attractive to lawyers. Take away the FDCPA, and the lawyers are going to have to charge more – a LOT more. And they simply won’t take as many cases because they’re harder. This means that debt law defendants, already drastically underrepresented, are going to find it much more difficult to hire lawyers. Defending pro se has become a much more important option.

Debt Collectors Will Run Wild

The decision in Santander threatens to neutralize the FDCPA and let junk debt buyers – who now make up the vast majority of debt collectors – run completely wild. They will be much freer to abuse, deceive, harass – in short, all the tricks that brought about the FDCPA in the first place because the laws regulating them will have been predominantly removed. At the same time it makes getting a lawyer much more difficult, the decision in Santander will likely result in a large number of new and wrong lawsuits. HOWEVER, Santander does not negate any (or very few, anyway) of your defenses in a debt law case, and it does not reduce the burden of proof for debt collectors. You can still win, in other words, but you very well may have to do it yourself.

Bankrupts Beware

Bankruptcy is one refuge debtors have from debt collectors. In general, you can file bankruptcy and force all your creditors to stop contacting you and, instead, file their claims in your bankruptcy action. In theory, the court will then either grant those claims or deny them according to what is right. The dirty little secret of bankruptcy, though, is that if claims are not disputed, they are generally granted. In bankruptcy cases brought by poor people (you can bet Donald Trump never had this problem), the lawyers representing the bankrupts have little incentive to dispute wrongful claims. There’s a U.S. trustee who is supposed to oversee the process and protect the bankrupt and legitimate creditors from bad claims, but guess what?

They usually don’t.

So bad claims get allowed. In most bankruptcies, allowing a bad claim means that it’s going to get paid (eventually) by the person filing for bankruptcy.

Junk Debt Buyers Make Things Worse

Enter the junk debt buyers. They buy LONG overdue debt – debt far beyond the statute of limitations – and file claims in bankruptcy cases. This bogs the bankruptcy courts and everyone involved down. As a practical matter this results in people paying billions to debt collectors who have no right to collect. This crushes people who declared bankruptcy and rips off legitimate creditors whose debts get paid at a lower rate.

Some debtors were suing debt collectors under the FDCPA for filing outdated claims in bankruptcy.  The FDCPA has a “fee-shifting provision,” that means consumer lawyers who win make the debt collectors pay their fees. That gave debtors’ bankruptcy lawyers at least some financial incentive to bring these claims and dispute unenforceable claims. They were doing so as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, and the debtors were also bringing suit outside of the bankruptcy context as well.

FDCPA Does Not Apply In Bankruptcy

The Supreme Court negated the FDCPA’s 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 they know are unenforceable in an ordinary court (and would violate the FDCPA if filed there).  For a fuller discussion of that case, look at my article and video, “Bankrupts Beware, FDCPA No Longer Applies – Opening the Floodgates to Bad Claims.”

Midland Funding means, in practical effect, that even if you’re in bankruptcy you’re going to have to know and protect your own rights. Your lawyer has LITTLE (personal) incentive to challenge bad claims, and likewise the U.S. Trustee has VERY LITTLE time (or incentive) to do it. If the court allows the claims, you will probably have to pay them in all likelihood. That means that even if you file for bankruptcy you must prepare 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 despite having a bankruptcy lawyer.

Defending Pro Se

The Supreme Court’s decisions in Henson and Santander mean debt defendants will get much less help from lawyers. These cases are still possible to defend against and win – they’re as easy as any law gets, probably. Because so many fewer defendants will fight, you will probably have even better chances of winning YOURS. It’s less profitable for debt collectors to fight now because they will have so many more easy wins. But you are more likely to have to do it yourself now than ever.

Make it hard for them.

 

Henson v. Santander – Supreme Court Attacks the FDCPA

In Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., (“Santander”), the Supreme Court hurt the FDCPA and attacked the rights of consumers. Its ruling means that the FDCPA will no longer apply to most debt collectors. This decision will make it far more difficult for debt defendants to obtain legal representation. And it will cause debt collectors to engage in more deceptive, dishonest and abusive behavior.

If you are facing debt collectors, you should know your rights and may need to defend yourself pro se.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) became law In 1978. Debt collectors were so corrupt and destructive  Congress they were a “threat to the American way of life.”  Congress named numerous specific actions as “per se” violations of the Act. It also included the more general descriptions of “unfair,” “unconscionable,” and “deceptive” debt collection practices as illegal actions. Congress wanted to keep 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. Its ruling in Santander guarantees more dishonest, careless and abusive debt collection techniques. It means consumers and honest businesses will support the worst scavengers in the world.

Real-Life Debt Collection

Instead of holding it for collection, creditors usually sell charged-off debt to debt buyers these days. When debt buyers buy a debt, their only purpose is to collect that money by hook or by crook. Creditors used to hire debt collectors to collect on debts and pay them out of the proceeds. Now they get their money first. The debt collectors take their money 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 not allowed parties to change the form of their actions to evade the impact of laws. Santander cheerfully elevates form over substance, however. The same actors will perform the same abhorrent deeds that the FDCPA was designed to prevent.

One could consider the Court’s ruling dishonest in that 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 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. In the Supreme Court’s view, debts which had long belonged to another but were sold for purposes of collection, change their nature when sold. Junk debt buyers are collecting on their own debts, not debts due another.

How the FDCPA Defines “Debt Collector”

We should look at the whole definition of “debt collector” to get a truer view of the statute’s 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).

The Court ignored the underlined portion of the definition because the debt collector at issue in the case was a bank. The parties agreed that Santander’s principal purpose was not the “collection of debts.” But the Court should not have ignored that portion of the definition, as its broadness showed congressional intention to get all “functional” debt collectors. Taking note of that intent, the Court should have read “debts owed… to another” to keep their substance despite the debt’s sale. Doing so would have prevented debt collectors from changing the NATURE of the debt merely by selling it to another party. This would have honored congressional intent and protected consumers.

Why the Court Did What it Did

Why didn’t the Supreme Court look at the whole statutory definition of “debt collector?”

The surface reason was that Santander was a bank – and the parties agreed that its business was not principally collecting debts. But that’s really only the surface fact. It would not have stopped the Court from considering the entire definition to garner congressional intention. And it wouldn’t have prevented the Court from giving a reasoned decision on the whole statute anyway. The Supreme Court grants certiorari only in a very small percentage of cases, and it has had numerous opportunities to examine the whole reality of debt collection. It chose the issue it wanted to address deliberately.

Plaintiffs in FCPA cases have usually relied on the “regularly collecting” debts language because it is easier to show than “principal purpose.”

Establishing a business’s “principal purpose” will be much more difficult. Few case use the term “principal purpose” of a business. While there must be some cases that address the issue, there are not many. Courts often use the the term “principal purpose” in judicial decisions, but its use is primarily generic.  Opinions use the words  as a synonym for “main” or “major.” I found no cases quantifying the term in any way.

“Principal Purpose” Is Hard to Prove

Junk debt buyers, who purchase billions of dollars of debt for no other purpose than to collect it in any way they can, will argue they are not debt collectors. They will claim 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.

Or they will make up some other reason or claim.

This will alter the nature of the proof required to establish that the company is a debt collector. Rather than being a matter of public record, information regarding a business’s “principal purpose” will be in the possession of the debt collector. That means that parties attempting to obtain that information will have to use discovery to find it. Thus they will encounter the same stone walls, delays and unethical and oppressive litigation techniques they encounter in their other discovery attempts.

Considering the current ideology and integrity of the Supreme Court, of which debt collectors are very well aware, who knows what the courts will officially “believe?” As a debt defendant, you must now allege and prove that the debt collector’s main business is to collect debts. The judicial wind will be in your face.

Reading the Supreme Court

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. The decision shows a court in search of a justification for a desired outcome – you should view it as a negative indication for the Court’s integrity.

Santander and another recent case, Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17) (see my article, “Opening the Floodgates of Bad Claims”), show actual hostility to the laws that protect consumers. They also show 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” and applies the entire definition to the question of junk debt buyers.

What Debt Defendants Should Do

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

On the other hand, many and perhaps most lawyers are going to be scared away from taking debt cases. Many lawyers who do not understand Santander will simply regard the FDCPA as not applying to junk debt buyers. That is almost all the debt collectors in litigation these days. These lawyers won’t take debt defense cases or will charge much more for them. They will accomplish much less than they would have, too, because they will not counterclaim on your behalf. Lawyers who understand Santander will charge more and warn clients that winning is less likely than it used to be.

This means that far more debt defendants will be on their own.

Expect to see a motion to dismiss based on Santander if you currently have a counterclaim under the FDCPA. I believe you will want to amend your counterclaim to include the “principal purpose” language mentioned above. You will also need to conduct discovery designed to prove the company’s principal purpose.