“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. 

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

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. 

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

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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Havanese Day! Statements on duped dog buyer’s blog not defamatory

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

HavaneseIn Roberts v. Mintz, defendant bought what he believed was a "healthy, nine-month old, purebred Havanese," but what he got was a two-year old dog that was not a purebred Havanese, and was suffering from various health problems. Defendant complained and plaintiffs offered to refund his money in exchange for the dog. Defendant refused. He wanted the refund, but he wanted to keep the dog because he had already incurred $800 in veterinary fees and because he had become fond of the dog, which he named Moose.

One month after buying Moose, defendant began posting about his experience with plaintiffs on his blog. As you probably guessed, the posts were not positive. Eventually, plaintiffs sued in connection with six specific statements defendant made on his blog, which, among other things, accused plaintiffs of being members of a "notorious ring of South Jersey dog grifters," alleged that plaintiffs had been convicted of animal cruelty, claimed that plaintiffs' lived in a "run down farmhouse with 6 children," and described plaintiffs as "despicable human beings" who ran a "fraudulent puppy mill." Defendants also posted that they had heard from others who were "unwittingly scammed" by plaintiffs. Individuals who claimed to be plaintiffs responded to some of the posts in the comments sections of the blog, calling defendant a "liar" and a "jerk," and claiming that he "suffered from 'rage syndrome,' a behavioral condition that afflicts canines."

In lieu of answering plaintiffs' complaint, defendant moved for summary judgment, seeking to have the complaint dismissed. He also served plaintiffs with a frivolous litigation letter. Plaintiffs cross moved for summary judgment and also sought an injunction preventing defendant from defaming them. The trial court granted defendant's motion. It held that plaintiffs were barred from suing in connection with several of the statements because the one-year statute of limitations had expired. In doing so, it rejected plaintiff's claim that the statute of limitations should have been tolled because defendant had committed a continuous tort. The trial court found that the remaining statements were "opinions, epithets, and hyperbole," and were therefore "not sufficiently factual to be actionable."

Defendant then moved for sanctions, and the trial court granted the motion. Although it did no award defendant all of the sanctions he sought, it did award him $25,000 — assessed against both plaintiffs and their counsel — because plaintiffs filed their complaint without sufficient evidentiary support and because several claims were barred by the statute of limitations. 

Both sides then appealed — plaintiffs seeking to reverse the trial court's decision dismissing their complaint, and defendant seeking to reverse the trial court's decision to award him less in sanctions than what he requested

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We got next! Injured during a pick-up game, no expert needed; injured during a league game, get an expert.

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

Soccer (pd)Continuing with a recent theme of people getting injured playing sports and then suing the people who allegedly injured them, we now have Greaves v. Inline Skating Club of America, LLC. In Greaves, plaintiff was the goalie on a soccer team. He was injured during a formal, league-sponsored game with referees (this will be important later on). The Appellate Division described the underlying events as follows:

[Plaintiff] was severely injured while playing soccer as goalie for "Kiss the Baby" team. At the time, plaintiff was in the process of picking up the ball inside the goalie  box.  He had the ball for approximate[ly]  [five] to [ten] seconds when he was tackled/kicked and/or pushed to the ground in a violent manner by .  .  .  a player on the  opposing soccer team. Plaintiff struck his head on the hard surface losing brief [sic] consciousness. At the same time and place, the game was being refereed by [the referee] who was working as an agent and/or employee of [defendant].

Plaintiff sued the player who made contact with him, the referee, and the facility that ran the league. Plaintiff never served the player or the referee with the summons and complaint, however, so they were dismissed and the lawsuit proceeded against the facility alone. Plaintiff alleged that the facility was "responsible for maintaining a safe facility and failed to supervise and provide security at the facility." Stated differently, plaintiff alleged that the referee's failure to officiate the game properly caused his injuries.

Plaintiff never produced an expert report during the discovery period. After receiving an adverse decision from an arbitrator during mandatory, pre-trial arbitration, plaintiff moved for trial de novo and served a liability expert report. Defendant objected, forcing plaintiff to move to reopen discovery so that he could amend his discovery responses to identify his expert and serve the expert report. The motion was denied.  Defendant then moved for summary judgment, which was also denied because the trial court held there were issues of fact regarding the role of the referee and whether defendant breached any duty it may have had to plaintiff.

Continue reading “We got next! Injured during a pick-up game, no expert needed; injured during a league game, get an expert.”

Do Lawyers Have A Duty To Disclose, To The Client, Significant Errors Committed By Co-Counsel?

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

Ethics (pd)
This was the question posed to the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York State Bar Association. Its answer was a qualified yes — counsel has a duty to disclose the alleged error to the client but only if it was a significant error that could give rise to a malpractice claim.

The issue presented to the Committee was the following:

The inquirer was engaged to represent a client on the eve of trial. The client’s prior counsel is serving as co-counsel.  In preparing the case, the inquirer has learned that co-counsel conducted virtually no discovery and made no document requests, although the inquirer believes correspondence and emails between the parties could be critical to the case.  The inquirer believes this was a significant error or omission that may give rise to a malpractice claim against co-counsel. The outcome of the case, however, has yet to be decided. The inquirer is concerned about disclosing this situation to the client because it would undermine inquirer’s relationship with co-counsel, but the inquirer also believes it is in the client’s best interests to disclose the facts as soon as possible.

It is already established in New York (and several other jurisdictions, including New Jersey) that lawyers must report their own significant errors or omissions to clients. This requirement is based partly on Rule 1.4 and partly on Rule 1.7, each of which the Committee discussed in its opinion.

Rule 1.4 requires lawyers to keep clients informed about any material developments in their representation, and to explain issues "to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation." A client may decide not to continue to retain a lawyer who makes significant errors or omissions, and the client cannot make an informed decision on this issue unless the lawyer self-reports his own errors. Accordingly, clients must self-report their own significant errors or omissions to their clients. The Committee held that this rationale applied equally to lawyers reporting significant errors or omissions committed by co-counsel because the decision facing the client in both situations was the same — whether to continue to retain the lawyer who committed the errors or omissions — and the client cannot make an informed decision on that issue without full disclosure.

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“Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader”

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

Judge (pd)[Apologies for the Blue's Clues reference in the title to this post.]

In his concurring opinion in a recent Seventh Circuit decision — United States v. Dessart — Judge Posner agreed with the majority's conclusions, but wrote separately to express his "reservations about some of the verbal formulas in the majority opinion." He did not "criticize the majority for reciting them" because, as he noted, they are "common, orthodox, even canonical." But he did criticize the "verbal formulas" themselves as being "inessential and in some respects erroneous" and thus, he urged, "ripe for rexamination."

What were the "verbal formulas" that Judge Posner was so keen to criticize? Just some of the legal standards that we see recited in opinions every day. For example, the commonly-used "abuse of discretion" standard, of which Judge Posner appears not to be a big fan. In his concurring opinion, Judge Posner noted that the majority defined this standard as including "among other missteps, 'material errors of law.'" This apparently did not jibe with Judge Posner's understanding of discretion and its abuse, as he explained:

Of course, material errors of law are potentially very serious, but what has that to do with discretion or its abuse? Common as the term "abuse of discretion" is in opinions dealing with appeals from district court decisions, I find it opaque. If the appellate court is persuaded that the trial court erred in a way that makes the trial court's decision unacceptable, it reverses. What has discretion to do with it? And "abuse" seems altogether too strong a term to describe what may be no more than a disagreement between equally competent judges – the trial judge and the appellate judges – that the appellate judges happen to be empowered to resolve as they see fit.

Similarly, he challenged the majority's similarly well-settled statement that an appellate court, when reviewing a trial court's decision to issue a search warrant, must afford that decision "great deference." (Among the issues in the Dessart case was whether a search warrant was supported by probable cause.) Judge Posner acknowledged that the standard comes from a Supreme Court decisions holding that "[a] magistrate's determination of probable cause should be paid great deference by reviewing courts," but questioned it nonetheless. First, he questioned why "great" deference should be afforded to such decisions since "warrants [are] usually issued by the most junior judicial officers – and often police or prosecutors can shop among magistrates for one who is certain or almost certain to respond affirmatively to a request to issue a warrant." Second, Judge Posner noted that "[n]othing in the [Fourth] amendment requires warrants – ever," therefore it was not fair, in Judge Posner's opinion, to conclude, as is often concluded, that the Constitution expresses a preference for searches conducted pursuant to warrants or to afford great deference to a trial court's decision to issue one.

Continue reading ““Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader””