Gurstel Chargo’s “Accountability Matters” Campaign

For as often as I represented people sued by Gurstel Chargo or sued Gurstel Chargo for FDCPA violations, I’m shocked at how little I wrote about one of Minnesota’s busiest debt collection law firms. I actually know the marketer (a lovely person, actually) who came up with Gurstel’s current marketing campaign, and I chuckled when I saw it for the first time. Accountability Matters as a debt collector slogan is the height of hubris. I’m just grateful I’m here to see Gurstel take its own medicine.

Here’s what a Gurstel lawyer collector told a disabled veteran:

Fuck you! Pay us your money! You can’t afford an attorney. You owe us. I hope your wife divorces your ass. If you would have served our country better you would not be a disabled veteran living off social security while the rest of us honest Americans work our ass off. Too bad; you should have died.

Fortunately, Arizona consumer lawyer Floyd Bybee is holding Gurstel accountable. He sued Gurstel under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, among other things. Here’s what Gurstel has to say about the lawsuit:

We learned late last week of the lawsuit filed by Michael Andrew Collier and Kim Collier-Dingman. Gurstel Chargo takes the allegations made in the lawsuit very seriously and we have immediately launched an internal investigation to determine the facts. We are extremely disturbed by the allegations stated in the Complaint, as they are contrary to the policies, practices and values of our firm. We expect that all Gurstel Chargo employees fully comply with all state and federal laws, and we thoroughly train our employees to perform their job in a lawful and respectful manner. Under no circumstances does our firm tolerate the type of conduct alleged in the Complaint.

This is just boilerplate. It’s what debt collectors put into their company policies to cover their asses, regardless of what lawyers and collectors learn in the boiler room or the courtroom.

But let’s assume Gurstel means well. Imagine what happens to your psyche when you spend all day trying to get people who are broke to cough up some money for your client’s coffers. You sweated through three years of law school, and all you get to do is sign paperwork and show up for default hearings, or go against pro se defendants who have a decent chance of winning because your evidence is weak and you don’t have much time to prepare between signing things. How demoralizing must that be? How easy it must be to lose your perspective and your empathy and to think of all your accounts as deadbeat whiners. It’s not hard to imagine a lawyer breaking down and blowing up at a disabled veteran. But that doesn’t make it legal, and we’ll see whether Gurstel Chargo takes its own accountability seriously.

Update: As Todd Murray points out in the comments, the person who made the comment quoted above seems to have been a Minnesota legal assistant (i.e., plain old debt collector, not a lawyer). I don’t think that changes anything in the paragraph above this one, except that non-lawyer collectors don’t even get the diversion of court.

Update 2: See this comment and my response for the outcome. (tl;dr: The plaintiff agreed that “Gurstel Chargo performed no action that was in violation of the FDCPA” and “[t]he telephone call … was not made by Gurstel Chargo.” Seems conclusive.

  • Amy

    IMPORTANT UPDATE: Debtor Michael Collier and
    Kim Dingman voluntarily dismissed with prejudice their federal lawsuit against
    the firm, and all allegations of wrongful debt collection practices are fully retracted.

    In a stipulation filed with the court July 30, 2013, and signed by the plaintiffs themselves, Mr. Collier and Ms. Dingman acknowledge that Gurstel Chargo performed no action in violation of the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”] and that the telephone call referred to in the Complaint and that was the central subject of the lawsuit was not made by Gurstel Chargo, any employee or affiliate of Gurstel Chargo or anyone acting on behalf of Gurstel Chargo. The plaintiffs received nothing as a result of their lawsuit. Gurstel Chargo paid nothing and promised nothing to reach this dismissal.

    The outrageous allegations created significant negative publicity that wrongly disparaged Gurstel Chargo and its dedicated professional team. The firm was determined to make sure that the truth came out and spent nearly a year defending this case to do so.

    When the lawsuit was first filed in October 2012, Gurstel Chargo promptly investigated and within less than 30 days made clear in both its court filings and public statements that there was no evidence in its telephone database or elsewhere that anyone affiliated with Gurstel Chargo ever made the alleged phone call. The plaintiffs’ stipulation to the court now admits the same. See the Stipulation and Court Order here:

    http://www.gurstel.com/sites/default/files/gurstel/documents/Collier-Lawsuit-Dismissal.pdf

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Just to be clear, Amy apparently does PR for Gurstel Chargo. Here is her bio page.

      She also did not quote the important part of the stipulation (though she linked to it). Here it is:

      2. Gurstel Chargo performed no action that was in violation of the FDCPA;

      3. The telephone call … was not made by Gurstel Chargo ….

      Seems conclusive.

      • matt

        Wow…so your article was just a reactionary perpetuation of false allegations?

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          I don’t know what actually happened, but it certainly appears that the plaintiff was mistaken, at best. You call me reactionary for publishing the factual allegations in the complaint, but I think that’s a weird way to characterize reporting the facts alleged in the complaint.

          And I still think accountability matters is a stupid slogan for a debt collector to adopt.

          • matt

            The publication of the complaint was not reactionary; however the diatribe against the collectors was.

            Perhaps it’s just as stupid to make fun of their “accountability matters” slogan when your article turns out to be uninformed (at best).

          • matt

            Seriously though, you think “accountability matters” is an inappropriate slogan for a company that collects unpaid debts?

            Granted some debt buyers ARE sleazy, but some debtors ARE dead-beats.

  • Robyn

    I keep getting letters from GC, looking like legal signed court documents but cannot recall ever being served or asked to appear in court. How can I have a ciurt signed judgement without defending myself. They are trying to collect on Cap 1 acct from 2007 in AZ. I attempted to make pay arrangements with them but they declined my offer and now have nearly doubled the amount due to interest which they claim the court signed off on. I now live in NJ and they do not represent in NJ. but are sending me mail there. Where should I go from here?

    • http://caveatemptorblog.com Sam Glover

      You should talk to a consumer lawyer in the state where the lawsuit was initiated. You can start looking at the website for the Nat’l Association of Consumer Advocates, naca.net.

  • Connie

    I have to share the irony. GC should practice what they preach in their slogan. If “Accountability Matters”, GC should be held accountable on their end. I can’t seem to get a copy of a “Letter of Satisfaction” for a judgement that was paid in full in May of 2010. In my first attempt to finalize the record and make it accurate, they claimed it was the responsibility of the original creditor to notify the court. The original creditor explained to me that it was their responsibility to update the tagline in the consumer credit report and the collecting law firm (GC) was responsible for notifying the court (Letter of Satisfaction), which allows the court to update the public record. This is my second attempt to simply update the record and make it accurate, so I called the court administrator who verified that it is indeed GC’s responsibility to provide that letter and that they “know better”. The court administrator also said that GC has a bad reputation as being difficult to deal with and that I should physically go to GC’s office and bring a Letter of Satisfaction and get them to sign it and if they don’t, file a Motion stating that GC “refuses to sign” and the court would be able to take it from there. So, I called GC again and this time got a different story. They say it was mailed not only to the court, but also to me in July of 2010. I told them that neither I, nor the court, has received a “Letter of Satisfaction”. The rep offered to mail me a copy, so I said “That would be great. Then I can provide it to the court myself.” I’m still waiting for this copy to show up in the mail. I plan on calling them tomorrow and my next step will be to go there in person. This is something so simple on their end and is part of their job. They should be “accountable” because it DOES “matter”.

  • Rick

    While the employees tirade against the consumer, if even remotely accurate, should warrant some severe sanctions against the agency/firm, I am left wondering about the initial catalyst. The statement is reported to have been made while the consumer was attempting to contact the firm to facilitate recovery of illegally garnished assets. GC are claiming that the allegations in the suit are without evidence, but I find the mere fact that the consumer had to make an attempt to recover their funds – after they were ruled to be illegally seized – evidence enough of GCs tactics. If a firm is willing to ignore the law in seizing assets, and ignore an order to return the spoils, it should not be much of a stretch to believe the rest of the complaint.

  • Ryan McNamee

    Sam, your update is still misleading.

    Based on a read of the Complaint, it is very clear the plaintiff spoke to a “legal assistant”. Gurstel Chargo employs dozens of “legal assistants”, which are distinctly not debt collectors (make no mistake, GC also emloys dozens of “collectors”). My assumption is Todd is speculating the Complaint itself was misleading, since consumers rarely reach a “legal assistant” directly, and are routed to collectors.

    Further, the Complaint was filed in AZ, based on an AZ case. GC has a full AZ operation, and the likelihood the plaintiff would have spoken to a “Minnesota” legal assistant/collector is quite small.

    While I admire your passion on the subject (as both a former GC senior manager and disabled vet I share it; and like Mr. Murray I have no particular affinity for the industry) I would advise caution before passing judgment on this matter. Based on GC’s statement (www.gurstel.com), it appears the allegation may be without evidence – and as you know, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff. This matter could well be dismissed, we would be best served awaiting the Court’s findings before making conclusions; let the legal process work, and afford all parties their due process.

    Mr. Murray, for what its worth, makes some exceptional points about GC making genuine efforts to avoid these types of tactics; yet the system by its nature ties compensation to collections, and we all know there are always those who will sacrifice morals for money.

    • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Sam Glover

      Everyone who works at Gurstel Chargo, from the lawyers to the legal assistants, is a debt collector under the law when participating in debt collection activity. The title Gurstel gives to its employees isn’t particularly important, where the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is concerned. The collector’s location is equally irrelevant.

      Further, the allegation is apparently not without evidence. The testimony of the plaintiff is perfectly good evidence on its own. It will not be dismissed unless a court finds that the language alleged in the complaint does not violate the FDCPA, which a court could not do without ignoring the FDCPA entirely, since it prohibits swearing in addition to harassment and abuse, in general. The only way this is likely to get dismissed is if Gurstel Chargo writes a big check.

      As for those who will sacrifice morals for money, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Debt collectors will say just about anything to get a payment or a commitment to pay.

      • Ryan McNamee

        You are correct in the “debt collector” classification of all staff, including attorneys. I merely assumed if you were clarifying “collector” versus “attorney”, that you were seeking to accurately portray the employees professional classification (as opposed to FDCPA classification).

        As legal professionals (or mere commentators on that arena), should our modus operendi not be the attainment of justice and illumination of truth? My fear is that we are rushing to judgment based solely off a plaintiff’s statements, and denying due process to all parties in the “court of public opinion”. All 3 of us posting here clearly have unique and relevant knowledge of both the industry and firm in question; if discussing the Complaint itself, I would hope we’d advocate due process before judgment (and the harshest penalties permissible if the allegations prove correct!). Yet if we’re discussing the industry a whole, we should distinguish the two matters to avoid “guilt by association” (and the implicit denial of due process). What incited my posting was the seeming misrepresentation of the content and substance of the Complaint itself – I clearly took it to be an attempt to summarize the allegations and relay indignation, rather than provide a context as defined under FDCPA. I apologize.

        Again, I admire your passion, and appreciate the opportunity to engage in a discussion on the matter. As a vet, my former role in the Army was that of a paralegal – advising Soldiers in the aversion of law of war violations, particularly. Unfortunately, I am sad to say that no profession, even the military, is not without those who cross moral lines. Yet I have always held that the attainment of justice is our role in a civil society – be it the repayment of mines borrowed, or the restoration of someone victimized by predatory tactics. I was proud to work for GC because I truly believed, although occasionally disgusted with infractions, legal and moral compliance WAS an overarching, core value.

        Perhaps the great irony is that, if the offender was indeed an AZ-based legal assistant, their Director at the time would have been yours truly, a disabled vet, and they would have personally recieved the “My grandmother passed away last year with creditors calling her in hospice care. If you don’t make a point to treat every file with the dignity and respect you should afford my grandmother, you should quit now before I fire you” speech.

    • http://toddmurraylaw.com Todd Murray

      Ryan: my only purpose in pointing out Sam’s original error was to ensure his story was factually correct. I did not intend to imply that there was a legal distinction between a lawyer and non-lawyer for FDCPA purposes or suggest that the Complaint was misleading.

  • Ryan McNamee

    If you read the Complaint, it clearly alleges a legal assistant for Mr. O’Brien made the remarks.

    Without a doubt, they’re some serious allegations. Unfortunately, at this point, they are merely allegations – the likes of which are commonly made against creditors or those representing creditors – and it may be wise to reserve judgment on this incident until the Court can do so first.

  • Todd Murray

    Obviously I’m not here to defend Gurstel, but you may want to read the complaint again. The abusive statements that you quoted above were alleged to have been made by a non-lawyer legal assistant (or more likely, a collector).

    • http://caveatemptorblog.com Sam Glover

      Fair enough. Post updated. I don’t think that changes much of what I wrote, though.

      Since you know, just how demoralizing was it to work for Gurstel, anyway? I can only imagine.

      • Todd Murray

        I don’t think it changes any of what you wrote. I’m just trying to keep you out of hot water.

        I don’t believe that Gurstel intentionally hires bad-apple collectors or explicitly encourages this type of abuse. If you assume the allegations in the complaint are true–and to be fair, Gurstel has (sort of) denied the allegations so far and the consumer has the burden of proof here–I think the root of the collection abuse problem lies in the culture of most modern collection law firms and collection agencies. These firms set monetary collection goals for each individual collector and are ruthless in demanding that each collector meet his goal. The collector’s compensation and continued employment are both directly tied to his ability to collect the required amount of money and collectors are fired nearly every day for not meeting goal. In my opinion, this cut-throat atmosphere is what leads to the type of abuse alleged here.

        • http://caveatemptorblog.com Sam Glover

          Agreed. Gurstel — like every other collection firm on the planet — explicitly prohibits abusive collection tactics, while implicitly encouraging them by giving collectors every incentive to ignore the explicit platitudes.

          • Todd Murray

            And the owners of collection law firms/agencies insulate themselves from the day-to-day collection activity. This structure creates plausible deniability and allows them to express shock and indignation when their collectors are accused of anything illegal. And as long as the money continues to roll in, they typically don’t ask too many questions of those in the trenches.

          • http://caveatemptorblog.com Sam Glover

            Exactly.