Supreme Court: Party That Buys Defaulted Debt Not A “Debt Collector” Under The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Debt collection (pd)In Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., Justice Gorsuch delivered his first opinion for the Supreme Court, and in doing so, provided an interesting opinion on a relatively boring issue, and subconsciously (I assume) invoked the movie Repo Man, a classic (?) mid-1980's movie starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, which the website, imdb.com, summarized as follows: "Young punk Otto [Estevez] becomes a repo man after helping to steal a car, and stumbles into a world of wackiness as a result."

Neither the facts nor the law in Henson were wacky. Plaintiffs took out loans from CitiFinancial Auto to buy cars, but later defaulted on those loans. Defendant purchased the defaulted loans and sought to collect the debt from plaintiffs in ways that plaintiffs claimed violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The Act, which was designed to curtail "[d]isruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit and more besides" authorizes private lawsuits and "weighty fines" for anyone who engages in "wayward collection practices." But, it only applies to "debt collectors," a term that is defined to include anyone who "regularly collects or attempts to collect . . . debts owed or due . . . another." The question in Henson was whether a party who purchases debts originated by someone else and then seeks to collect those debts for its own account qualifies as a debt collector." Justice Gorsuch framed the issue as follows:

Everyone agrees that the term ["debt collector"] embraces the repo man – someone hired by a creditor to collect an outstanding debt. What if you purchase a debt and then try to collect it for yourself – does that make you a "debt collector" too? That 's the nub of the dispute now before us.  

The district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sided with defendant, holding that a party that buys defaulted debt and collects it for its own account is not a "debt collector." In doing so, however, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that other circuit courts had come to the opposite conclusion. The U.S. Supreme Court took the case to clear up this split. 

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When Is Possession Not Really Possession? (And By “Possession” I Mean In The “Mortgagee In Possession” Sense Of The Word)

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Lenders are often faced with a dilemma when dealing with property that is in foreclosure and has been abandoned by the borrower. A lender must, under New Jersey law, maintain the property "to such standard or specification as may be required by state law or municipal ordinance." Also, the lender has an obvious interest in protecting the value of its collateral. But the lender does not want to take "possession" of the property and be deemed a "mortgagee in possession," because that would impose upon the lender the duty of a "provident owner," which includes the duty to manage and preserve the property, and which subjects the lender to liability for damages to the property and damages arising out of torts that occur on the property. Unfortunately, the point at which a lender takes "possession" of property is not entirely clear. I have written about this before, and the Appellate Division's recent opinion in Woodlands Community Association, Inc. v. Mitchell provides some additional guidance, which should be helpful to lenders.

In Woodlands, defendant was the assignee of a note and mortgage related to a unit in plaintiff's condominium development. The unit owner defaulted on the loan and vacated the unit. At the time, the unit owner was not only delinquent on his loan payments, but also owed "substantial sums" to the association for "unpaid monthly fees and other condominium assessments." After the unit owner vacated the unit, defendant changed the locks and winterized the property. (As the Appellate Division noted, "[w]interizing entails draining the  pipes, turning off the water and setting the thermostat for heat to protect the pipes.") After the unite owner vacated the unit, plaintiff sued him to recover the delinquent fees. It later amended its complaint to include the lender, "alleging that [[the lender] was responsible for the association fees as it was in possession of the property."

Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion, holding that defendant was a mortgagee in possession and therefore was liable for the maintenance fees. On the key of issue of what it meant to be in "possession" of the unit, the trial court held as follows: "[D]efendant held the keys, and no one else [could] gain possession of the property without [defendant's] consent. This constitutes exclusive control, which indicates the status of mortgagee in possession." Defendant appealed. 

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In Case You Ever Find Yourself Fighting With Your Wife Over Your Ferraris . . .

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Ferrari (pd)Right. I never do either. But if you do (or think you might in the future) then you might want to know about Durrani v. Wide World of Cars. In that case, plaintiff sued a car dealership and her ex-husband's former lawyers for delivering two Ferraris to her ex-husband, allegedly in violation of an order entered in their divorce action.

As the trial court described it, when plaintiff and her ex-husband were married, they lived an "extravagant lifestyle." Among other things,  they owned "twenty-five luxury cars worth approximately one million dollars, boats and properties." Of these assets, however, plaintiff was only on the title of two cars (and not the Ferraris). Nonetheless, during their divorce proceeding, plaintiff sought "exclusive possession" of the Ferraris, which were titled and registered to her ex-husband and stored at the defendant dealership's facilities. Consistent with this claim, plaintiff's counsel sent a letter to the dealership requesting that it not release or transfer the Ferraris to anyone, including plaintiff's ex-husband, and threatening to hold the dealership liable for damages if it did. At the end of the letter, counsel asked the dealership to agree to abide by the demand and indicated that if it did not agree, plaintiff would "immediately seek to serve [the dealership] with a court order." The dealership did not respond.

Around the same time plaintiff's counsel sent this letter, the family part entered an order in the divorce proceeding preventing either party from dissipating, selling, etc. any assets of the marriage, and specifically identified the Ferraris in a list of assets to which this restraint applied. Plaintiff's counsel sent a copy of the order to the dealership, purportedly placing it on notice of the terms.

 

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On Champerty, Barratry, And “Vexatious Litigants”

     by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

One of my favorite causes of action is "champerty." I know what you are thinking — who has a favorite cause of action? Fair point. Nonetheless, champerty has always been (along with its cousins, barratry and maintenance) one of my favorites because it is a fun word to say and because it sounds so darn legal! You just sound more like a real lawyer when you say someone's conduct was "champertous." Don't believe me? Try it out.

For the uninitiated: "maintenance is helping another prosecute a suit; champerty is maintaining a suit in return for a financial interest in the outcome; and barratry is a continuing practice of maintenance or champerty." In re Primus, 436 U.S. 412, 425 (1978). Alas, although it is one of my favorites, I don't get to use champerty very often because it is not a recognized cause of action in New Jersey. Polo by Shipley v. Gotchel, 225 N.J. Super. 429, 434 (Ch. Div. 1987) ("This Court need not address the doctrines of champerty and maintenance, as they do not presently exist in New Jersey."). In fact, it has never been a recognized cause of action in the Garden State. Terney v. Wilson, 45 N.J.L. 282, 285 (Sup. Ct. 1883) ("Sometimes it has been held that the principle should not be applied to agreements of the character just mentioned because they are champertous, but as the English law against champerty is repudiated in New Jersey . . . .").

 

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Unless You Have Won The Lottery You Don’t Need To Read This Post

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

The Appellate Division handed down a decision today that will never have any impact on my life. The case — In re. Petition of BofI Federal Bank to Assign Lottery Prize Payment Rights — was a consolidated appeal of four Law Division cases that denied BofI Federal Bank's request to assign certain lottery payments from four separate prize winners.

The appeal involved four winners of the Win for Life scratch off game. (As an aside, I have loyally played this game for years in both New York and New Jersey and never even come close to winning, unless scratching off two "LIFE" symbols seemingly every time means I am getting close.) Under the rules of the game, winners receive a guaranteed prize of $1 million payable in quarterly installments for 18 years and then quarterly payments for the rest of the winner's lifetime. For reasons not disclosed in the opinion, BofI (Bank of the Internet if you are curious) filed petitions seeking approval of the assignment of the last two years of the guaranteed quarterly payments.

 

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