“I’m strong to the fin-ich. Cause I eats me spin-ach. I’m Popeye the . . . debt collector man?”

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

PopeyeFor lawyers, debt collection can be a trap for the unwary. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA") governs debt collection by both attorneys and non-attorneys. It generally prohibits debt collectors from using deceptive, abusive, or unfair practices to collect debts. While that sounds straightforward, it is often difficult to figure out whether you are even a debt collector governed by the FDCPA, much less whether what you are trying to collect is a debt under the FDCPA and whether what you are doing to collect that debt is deceptive. And the consequences for running afoul of the FDCPA — statutory damages and attorney's fees — can be significant.

A recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Tepper v. Amos Financial, LLC, offered a good primer on one of these tricky issues — whether a party that buys debt and seeks to collect that debt for its own account qualifies as a debt collector under the FDCPA — but the more interesting aspect of the opinion is the court's frequent references to Popeye (the sailor man, not the fast food restaurant).

The opinion began: "Many would gladly pay Tuesday for a hamburger today." This, of course, is a reference to Wimpy's famous tag-line in Popeye. The court then described the basic purpose of the FDCPA and introduced the issue in the case as follows:

The Act does not apply . . . to all entities who collect debts; only those whose principal purpose is the collection of any debts, and those who regularly collect debts owed another are subject to its proscriptions. Those entities whose principal place business is to collect the defaulted debts they purchase seek to avoid the Act's reach. We believe such an entity is what it is – a debt collector. [Emphasis added.] If so, the Act applies.

Understandably, the court was not willing to go so far as have the defendant declare "I yam what I yam, and that's all that i yam," but you get the point. Popeye references continued throughout the opinion, so keep reading. 

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Appellate Division Quotes Lucinda Williams, Orders Trial Court To Take Closer Look At Whether Debt Was Fully Satisfied

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

Lucinda WilliamsAdd this to the list of things you never want to hear a court say about your performance during a case: "defendants' presentation of evidence certainly gave voice to the song lyric, 'when nothing makes any sense, you have a reason to cry.'" (It is a lyric from a Lucinda Williams song if you were curious.) But this was the Appellate Division's conclusion in Brunswick Bank & Trust v. Heln Management, LLC, a case that was making its second appearance before the Appellate Division (after an earlier remand) and was sent back to the trial court for a third round.

The issue in Brunswick Bank was relatively straightforward. Plaintiff and defendants entered into five loans. The loans were secured by mortgages on several properties owned by defendants. After defendants defaulted on the loans, plaintiff sued and obtained a judgment against defendants. Plaintiff then filed foreclosure actions against defendants, seeking to foreclose on the mortgages it held against defendants' properties. It received final judgments of foreclosure in these cases as well. Some of these properties were then sold, which "provided rolling compensation for [plaintiff] against all defendants' obligations."

At some point during this "rolling" sale of mortgaged properties, defendants moved to stay all pending foreclosure proceedings, arguing that plaintiff was "over-capitalized" – i.e., it was going to collect more than it was entitled to collect under its judgment. Defendants then moved to have the judgment deemed satisfied, arguing that plaintiff had already recovered — through its collection efforts — the full amount of the judgment. The trial court granted the motion but held that two pending foreclosures could proceed. The trial court further acknowledged that it had the power to "prevent a windfall" to plaintiff, but that the record was "too muddled" to decide whether this was the case. 

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NJ Supreme Court: If Borrower Abides By Terms Of Settlement Agreement, Lender Must Modify Mortgage

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

Mortgage (pd)Lawsuits arising out of foreclosures and mortgage modifications are common. (Even more common than lawsuits about gyms or health clubs if you can believe that.) Nearly every day there is a decision from the Appellate Division arising out of a residential foreclosure. Most of these fall into the same category — borrower defaults and loses home through foreclosure then challenges lender's standing to foreclose after the fact — but some are more interesting. That was the case with GMAC Mortgage, LLC v. Willoughby, a decision released yesterday by the New Jersey Supreme Court involving a mortgage modification agreement entered into to settle a foreclosure lawsuit.

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about Arias v. Elite Mortgage, a lawsuit over the alleged breach of a mortgage modification agreements. In that case, borrowers entered into a mortgage modification agreement with their lenders that included a Trial Period Plan ("TPP"). As the name suggests, a TPP requires borrowers to make reduced monthly payments in a timely manner for a trial period, after which, if they make the payments, the lender agrees to modify their mortgage. In Arias, the Appellate Division held, as a matter of first impression, that if a borrower makes the trial payments under the TPP, the lender must modify the mortgage, and if it doesn't, the borrower can sue for breach. However, the holding was purely academic because the borrower in that case failed to make one of the trial payments in a timely manner so it could not sue. 

In GMAC Mortgage, the New Jersey Supreme Court faced a similar situation with a much less academic result. 

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Transfer Made On The Morning Of Sheriff’s Sale, For The Purpose Of Delaying The Sheriff’s Sale, Deemed Fraudulent

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

Auction (pd)Sometimes you read decisions and you don't understand how the court arrived at its conclusion based on the facts of the case. Then other times, the conclusion just makes sense. These are the decisions you read and think to yourself, "of course you can't do that." The Appellate Division's opinion in 5 Perry Street, LLC v. Southwind Properties, LLC, is one of these cases.

In Perry Street, defendants were a limited liability corporation and the sole member of that corporation. The corporate defendant owned property in Cape May that it operated as a bed and breakfast.Two "non-institutional lenders" held mortgages on the property. After they foreclosed and obtained a final judgment of foreclosure, a sheriff's sale was scheduled. The corporate defendant obtained four adjournments of the sheriff's sale and attempted to refinance the property, but was "unable to consummate a transaction" before the sheriff's sale. 

Instead, the day before the sheriff's sale, the individual defendant filed for bankruptcy. She then transferred the underlying property from the corporate defendant to herself. The consideration for the transfer was $1 and the "Balance of outstanding mortgages $80,000.00." The $1 consideration was typed into the deed, but the individual defendant hand wrote the part about the outstanding mortgages. She claimed that her intent was to "assume personal liability for the mortgages," but the Appellate Division noted that the balance of the mortgages at the time was almost $250,000, not $80,000, and that other documents she signed reflected that the only consideration was $1. She "filed the deed the next day, an hour and a half before the Sheriff's sale."  

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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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