“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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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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(I Swear This Is Not A Boring Post About) Foreclosures And Statutes Of Limitations

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

Mortgage (pd)Although foreclosures have not been in the news as much lately as they were several months ago, New Jersey courts still issue at least one or two decisions per week involving residential foreclosures. While I have written about some of the more interesting ones in the past (here, here, and here), most now follow a familiar pattern – final judgment is entered against a borrower, the borrower moves to vacate the judgment arguing that the lender lacks standing, and (almost always) the court finds that the lender had standing and denies the motion. Every now and again, however, a court addresses an interesting issue worth writing about. The Law Division's decision in Deutsche Bank National Trust Company v. Hochmeyer is one of these cases.

In Hochmeyer, defendant entered into a mortgage with a maturity date of June 1, 2036 that was recorded on October 25, 2007. Defendant defaulted on December 1, 2006. Remember these dates. They will be important later on.

Under New Jersey law, a lawsuit to foreclose on a residential mortgage must be brought before the later of (1) six years from the date when the last payment is made or "the maturity date set forth in the mortgage," OR (2) thirty six years from the date the mortgage was recorded, OR (3) twenty years from the date of default. In other words, every foreclosure lawsuit has three potential end dates for the statute of limitations, but only the earliest one counts. 

In Hochmeyer, the parties agreed that calculating the limitations period using the second or third options would yield dates many years in the future — thirty six years from the date the mortgage was recorded would be October 25, 2043, and twenty years from the date of default would be December 1, 2026. They disagreed, however, over the calculation under the first option. The difference was important because, under defendant's approach, the date not only would have been the earliest one, and thus the operative one, but it would have expired before the complaint was filed rendering the complaint untimely. Plaintiff obviously disagreed with defendant's approach. For the reasons set forth below, the court sided with plaintiff.

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