“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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Game Over! Video Game Legend’s Lawsuit Against Cartoon Network Dismissed

Donkey kong (pd)
When I was a kid, cartoons and video games were far simpler than they are now. We watched Tom and Jerry and played Donkey Kong. The cartoons my kids watch today are often bizarre and the video games they play are way too complicated. A recent lawsuit in federal court, Mitchell v. The Cartoon Network, brought the old and new together, however, as a man who once held world records in Pac Man and Donkey Kong sued because his likeness was allegedly misappropriated in one of those new cartoons my kids like, "The Regular Show." (Incidentally, before you think I am just turning into a curmudgeonly old man, check out "The Regular Show" some time. It is hardly "regular".)

Plaintiff in Mitchell was a "well-known figure in the video gaming community." In addition to holding world records in both Pac Man and Donkey Kong at various times, he also competed in international gaming competitions, and even had his own trading card. But, he is perhaps most famous for his role in a documentary called "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," which "chronicles another gamer's attempt to surpass Plaintiff's world record for the game Donkey Kong." The district court described plaintiff's appearance in that film as follows:

In the film, Plaintiff is portrayed as succesful but arrogant, beloved by fans, and at times, willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his world record. In particular, the film shows Plaintiff attempting to maintain his world record by questioning his opponent's equipment and the authenticity of his opponent's submission of a filmed high score.

Plaintiff claims that defendants misappropriated his image for use in several episodes of "The Regular Show," which the district court noted is a show that "revolves around the adventures of two anthropomorphic animals, a blue jay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby." One episode in the series included a villain named Garrett Bobby Ferguson, who appeared as a "giant floating head from outer space, with long black hair and a black beard, but no body." In the episode, Mordecai and Rigby are trying to break Ferguson's world record in a game called Broken Bonez that they play at their local coffee shop. (Yes, kids, we used to have to leave the house to play our favorite video games.) After they break the world record, the disembodied Ferguson appears to brag that he still holds the "universe record." Mordecai and Rigby then challenge Ferguson to play for that record. They almost beat his record, but then "throw the match when [Ferguson] begs them to let him win, claiming that he [ ] devoted his entire life to the game, that he played so much his wife left him, and that the universe record is all he has." After Mordecai and Rigby lose, however, Ferguson reveals that he was lying about it all. Mordecai and Rigby then go back and beat Ferguson's "universe record," at which point, the "enraged [Ferguson] explodes into goo." (When asked at breakfast if they ever saw this episode, two of my kids said they had, and they loved it.)

 

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A Rare Narrowing Of The Consumer Fraud Act’s Scope: Medical Malpractice Insurance Not Covered

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

It is not every day that a New Jersey court limits the scope of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), so when one does, it is worth writing about. Anyone who litigates in New Jersey knows about the CFA and, depending on whether you are on the plaintiff’s side or the defendant’s side, either loves it or hates it. (I am mostly on the defendant’s side, but occasionally find myself representing a plaintiff, so my relationship with the CFA is “complicated.”) Because it is remedial legislation, the CFA is liberally construed to afford the greatest protection to consumers. This philosophy has led courts to apply the CFA (and its treble damages and prevailing party’s attorney fees) to a seemingly ever growing, and very rarely contracting, variety of disputes. In fact, many years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court observed that: “The history of the Act is one of constant expansion of consumer protection.”

With this in mind, we turn to the Law Division’s published decision in Khan v. Conventus Inter-Insurance Exchange. That case was a putative class action in which plaintiff, a doctor, alleged that defendant violated the CFA in connection with the sale of medical malpractice insurance and the administration of the policy after it was purchased. Plaintiff purchased a policy from defendant and, as part of her initial membership, was required to make a one-time contribution, equal to the first year’s premium, to defendant’s surplus fund. (Defendant is not a traditional insurance carrier, but is instead a “non-profit physician member-owned risk sharing exchange.”) Plaintiff elected to make this contribution in installments over a ten-month period, with the understanding that if she cancelled her policy before the final payment was made, she would still be responsible for the full surplus fund contribution. Plaintiff eventually cancelled her policy before the ten-month period passed and defendant demanded that she immediately pay her entire surplus fund contribution rather than allowing her to pay it off in installments as originally agreed upon by the parties. Plaintiff sued alleging that this attempt to accelerate the surplus fund payment was a breach of contract and a violation of the CFA. She sought to bring her claims as a class action.

Before addressing whether plaintiff could sustain a class action and be appointed class representative, the court first had to decide whether the CFA applied to “transactions involving the purchase and sale of medical malpractice insurance.” Because the court held that it did not, it never had to reach the class certification issues.

 

 

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Appellate Division to Foreclosing Lenders: “Do Less” Because If You Do More You Might Make Yourself Liable For Damages

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

 

There is a scene in the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" where the main character goes to a surf instructor to teach him how to surf. The lesson is not that helpful because, among other things, the instructor gives the main character advice that is impossible to follow, like: "Don't do anything. Don't try to surf. Don't do it. The less you do the more you do." And, then later: "try less" and "do less."

I was reminded of this decision when I read the Appellate Division's recent opinion in McRoy v. Eskander. In that case, the Appellate Division held that a lender was not a mortgagee in possession and therefore could not be liable for injuries sustained by someone who slipped and fell on the sidewalk in front of the property. The reason the lender could not be deemed a mortgagee in possession was because it had done almost nothing to maintain the property in the 18 months after it obtained a final judgment of foreclosure.

In McRoy, plaintiff slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of a four-unit apartment building that was owned by Defendant Eskander. At the time of plaintiff's fall, however, the building had been vacant for approximately 18 months. Eskander had defaulted on his loan with Bank of America ("BofA"), which led BofA to foreclose on its mortgage on the property. BofA obtained final judgment of foreclosure but had not proceeded to a sheriff's sale at the time of plaintiff's fall. Once final judgment of foreclosure was entered, Eskander stopped maintaining the property. Except for performing yard work once, BofA did not maintain the property either. It did periodically inspect the property to ensure it was vacant and, to protect its collateral, it paid the real estate taxes and a water bill.

 

 

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Another Lesson From A New Jersey Court On The UCC And Standing To Foreclose

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

The running battle between lenders and borrowers over standing to foreclose continues in the Garden State. A recent decision from the Appellate Division — Bank of New York v. Ukpe — is the latest in an ever-growing body of case law addressing this issue from seemingly every conceivable angle. 

The facts in Ukpe will be familiar to anyone who has followed the wave of residential foreclosures in recent years. Defendants applied for a mortgage from Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. (“CHL”). They claimed that they told the broker that they could not afford a monthly payment over $1,000 and were assured by the broker that the monthly payment would not exceed this amount. However, at the closing, they learned that the monthly payment would be almost $1,500 per month. They alleged that the broker told them not to worry because they could refinance the loan a few months after closing. Nonetheless, two years later, after several unsuccessful attempts to refinance the loan, Defendants defaulted. 

Defendants’ note was made "payable to lender," and the mortgage, after it was recorded, was held by Mortgage Electric Recording System ("MERS") as nominee for the lender. Shortly after being recorded, the mortgage was securitized along with other mortgages. As part of this process, several entities entered into a "Pooling and Servicing Agreement" ("PSA"). Under the PSA, CHL was identified as a "seller," CWABS, Inc. was identified as the "depositor" and "master servicer," and the Bank of New York ("BNY") was identified as the "trustee." Under the PSA, the CHL and the other “sellers” transferred the mortgages to CWABS, Inc., which then transferred them to BNY, which held the mortgages for the benefit of the investors in the newly-created security. The PSA also required the original mortgage notes to be endorsed in blank and delivered to BNY.

After Defendants defaulted, BNY filed a foreclosure complaint. In response, Defendants claimed, among other things, that BNY lacked standing to foreclose because it was not a holder in due course. The trial court rejected this claim and the Appellate Division affirmed. In doing so, the Appellate Division provided a crash course in what it means to be a holder in due course.

 

 

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Not A Holder In Due Course? Not Necessarily A Standing Problem

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

By now, all lenders have likely been faced with at least one situation where a borrower alleges that the lender lacked standing to sue on a note because the lender was not the holder of the note. While New Jersey courts have largely eliminated this defense, at least in the post-judgment context (see here), a recent decision from the Appellate Division reminds us that a lender can have standing to sue even when it is not a holder in due course.

In Lynx Asset Services, LLC v. Simon Zarour, National City Bank loaned defendant $190,000, and defendant executed a mortgage as security for the note. Thereafter, National City merged with PNC Bank. Sometime later, PNC Bank delivered the original note to Lynx Asset Services, LLC and issued an assignment of the note and mortgage, but did not indorse the assignment. Defendant eventually defaulted on the note and Lynx sued. Defendant admitted that he signed the note and mortgage and that he had stopped paying on the note. He nonetheless argued that Lynx lacked standing to sue because it did not have a signed assignment. The trial court rejected this claim, and the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that, although Lynx was not a holder in due course, it nonetheless had standing to sue on the note because it was a non-holder with the rights of a holder.

 

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