“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?””

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. 

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

Four Residential Mortgage Lenders May Resume Uncontested Foreclosures: Will Long Processing Backlogs Return?

by:  Michael L. Rich

Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ordered that four of New Jersey's six largest mortgage servicers may resume uncontested residential foreclosures after apparently demonstrating they have taken adequate steps to remedy improper "robo-signing" and other questionable practices.  Specifically, the Court’s directive permits Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase Bank and Wells Fargo to resume uncontested residential foreclosures which had been effectively halted since December 2010.  Retired Appellate Division Judge Richard Williams, serving as Special Master, reported that these four institutions had made a prima facie showing that they implemented new processes to redress the problems previously identified.  His Report led to the Court’s recent ruling.

These four mortgage servicers, together with several other big banks, account for a large percentage of New Jersey's residential foreclosures.  Thus, the approximate 7-month hiatus occasioned by the Court’s prior halting of uncontested foreclosures by these servicers afforded an opportunity for New Jersey’s Office of Foreclosure to make some significant strides in reducing the long backlogs that been occurring due to the unprecedented level of residential foreclosure filings – particularly as concerns speeding up the processing of larger commercial foreclosures.  However, with the temporary halting lifted, at least as to the four major banks, it is altogether likely that the backlog in processing final foreclosure judgment applications through the Office of Foreclosure is likely to return  and perhaps even worsen over the coming months.

And Gordon Gekko Wept…New Book Blames Financial Crisis On “Reckless” Greed

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously claimed that "greed is good."  A new book out by Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson begs to differ.   In her book, "Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon," Morgenson lays the blame for the financial crisis squarely at the feet of Fannie Mae, and particularly its CEO James Johnson, who built the quasi-governmental entity into "the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world."  While government regulators sat idly by, Fannie Mae allegedly "fudged accounting rules, generated big salaries and bonuses for its executives, used lobby and campaign contributions to bully regulators, and encouraged the risky financial practices that led to the crisis."  To read more about the book, including an excerpt, check out "How 'Reckless" Greed Contributed To Financial Crisis" on NPR's website.

Chickens Continue Coming Home To Roost For Lenders And Mortgage Companies Involved In Foreclosure Crisis

by:  Peter J. Gallagher and Steven P. Gouin

Our regular followers know that many of our pieces focus on the foreclosure industry, and with good reason, as over 2 million American homes are currently in foreclosure.  Add to this troubling statistic the recent allegations of shoddy paperwork at many of the nation's largest mortgage companies and the law firms representing them, and you have the makings of a compelling story of a giant foreclosure-induced catastrophe.  While homeowners have been feeling the pain from this crisis for years now, the catastrophe struck close to home recently for many of the banks and mortgage companies at the heart of the foreclosure crisis. 

In an article entitled “Confidential Federal Audits Accuse Five Biggest Mortgage Firms Of Defrauding Taxpayers,” the Huffington Post is reporting that a recent federal audit conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revealed that five of the nation's largest foreclosure firms, including industry giants like CitiBank and Bank of America, are guilty of fraud under the Federal False Claims Act.  Specifically, the audit concluded that the banks “filed for federal reimbursement on foreclosed homes that sold for less than the outstanding loan balance using defective and faulty documents.”  According to the article, federal prosecutors are debating whether to use the audits as the basis for criminal and civil sanctions against the mortgage companies. 

At the same time, the New York Times is reporting that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has requested information and documents from three major banks – Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley – about their mortgage-backed securities operations (“NY State Investigates Banks’ Role In Financial Crisis”).  This suggests that Mr. Schneiderman may be launching an investigation into the banks' practices, which many believe led to billions in mortgage losses.  One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the suggestion that, by requesting this information from the banks, Mr. Schneiderman is “operating independently of peers from other states who are negotiating a broad settlement with large banks over foreclosure practices.”  The article notes that Mr. Schneiderman has been unwilling to join this proposed settlement because the banks are demanding that it include a clause whereby regulators agree not to conduct additional investigations into the banks’ activities during the mortgage crisis.