That title is a little over-simplified, so here is the ABA’s actual summary from Formal Opinion 469:
A prosecutor who provides official letterhead of the prosecutor’s office to a debt collection company for use by that company to create a letter purporting to come from the prosecutor’s office that implicitly or explicitly threatens prosecution, when no lawyer from the prosecutor’s office reviews the case file to determine whether a crime has been committed and prosecution is warranted or reviews the letter to ensure it complies with the Rules of Professional Conduct, violates Model Rules 8.4(c) and 5.5(a).
Basically that says prosecutors who just hand off their stationery to a debt collector (to collect parking fines or fines for bounced checks, for example) are engaging in unethical conduct. If they want to do this, then a lawyer from the prosecutor’s office has to actually take the time to review each file to determine whether a threat of prosecution is actually warranted.
Felix Salmon built Bad Paper around Jake Halpern’s book and New York Times Magazine piece of the same name. By playing the game, you can put yourself in the shoes of a debtor or collector and explore the different scenarios. You win when you get the case dismissed or collect a judgment.
It’s an interesting exercise, but the game is misleading about what it takes to win in court. According to the game, all you have to do is show up in court and say “Excuse me: Where’s the proof that this is my debt?” to the judge.
Two weeks ago, it was big news when a Salt Lake City school took lunches away from students when their card was declined at the register. (Students at many schools use a card to buy lunches, and parents are responsible for depositing money to the student’s lunch card account through the school’s website.)
It turns out that many Minnesota schools do the same thing. According to the StarTribune:
A majority of public school districts in this state deny hot lunch — or any lunch at all in some cases — to children who can’t pay for them. Some schools take the meals from students in the lunch line and dump them in the trash when the computer shows a deficit in their lunch accounts.
A “child-nutrition manager” in Salt-Lake City, notified of an unusually-large number of students who owed money for lunch at Uintah Elementary School, came up with a brilliant plan: take away their lunches. Students with delinquent school-lunch accounts went through the lunch line as usual, but when their card was declined at the register, the lunch-room staff tossed their meal in the trash.
Several parents told the Salt Lake Tribune that they were not notified that they owed money for their children’s lunches. It doesn’t seem like anyone was notified that their children would have their lunches taken away from them, either. The school has said it is “currently investigating to see if [notification] guidelines were followed correctly.”
The Minnesota interest rate for debts due to overdrawn bank accounts is 6%. Bradstreet & Associates was trying to charge 21.75%. According to Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson,
Since 2009, Bradstreet and its predecessor company bought at least $18 million in debt that originated with Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank. This affects, we believe, at least 16,000 Minnesota consumers.
Under the terms of the settlement reached in several class actions against Midland Funding for its (apparently past) practice of employing robo-signers to execute affidavits for debt buyer lawsuits, each class member would receive under $20 — and that’s it. The Sixth Circuit rightly decided this was unfair (pdf).
Unfortunately, the Sixth Circuit seemed to think the settlement was unfair primarily because the named plaintiffs (i.e., those whose names actually appeared on the complaints) would receive $8,000 plus the elimination of their debts. The class members who opted into the settlement just got $17.38 each, and still owed their debts:
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is basically a checklist for debt collectors, a list of things they must do and things they cannot do. With some regularity, someone actually breaks it up into a list. Consumerist just put together a list of 23 things debt collectors may not do, which includes the obvious:
As well as the not-so-obvious:
This list is far from complete, but it is a good place to start. It is also worth pointing out that these prohibitions only apply to consumer debts; they do not apply to business debts. (Via Consumer Law & Policy Blog)
Sometimes administrative errors cause real problems for real people. From Consumerist:
Typically, the notices of delinquent bills get mailed in late January to mid-February, but this year there was a transition to a new collection agency, which delayed the process.
That same transition mucked up the city’s ability to easily figure out which property owners still owed some or all of their $178 annual fee for the last 10 years. Instead, the collection company was authorized to use the city’s written records to put together a database of who still owed money.
It sounds like they send collection notices to a lot of people who already paid. Residents are pissed, but the city seems to think it’s no big deal. “If a property owner can produce proof of payment, such as a receipt or canceled check, [the city treasurer] will certify that the fee was paid.” I’m sure that will be great comfort to everyone who has kept 10 years of receipts and canceled checks.
Read “Scranton sends out delinquent garbage bills from 1999 through 2011” on the Scranton Times-Tribune.
Everyone agrees that a consumer plaintiff who prevails in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act lawsuit is entitled to get his or her attorney fees and costs paid by the debt collector defendant. But in Marx v. General Revenue Corporation, the question is whether, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a debt collector can collect costs from an unsuccessful plaintiff. In other words, does the FDCPA apply, or do the rules of civil procedure?
This is a Really Big Deal, because if debt collectors can collect costs from unsuccessful plaintiffs, it will make it riskier to sue debt collectors. Quite apart from the law, the whole point of the FDCPA is to provide a formidable check on debt collection abuses. Damages in these cases are small, so if they cannot recover attorney fees and costs — or if they risk having to pay substantial costs — they will not sue.
If you want people to be able to stop debt collection abuses, then you cannot increase the risk. Doing so will render the FDCPA far less effective as a check on debt collection abuses. If you think consumers and consumer lawyers are running amok, then I suppose you favor the debt collector’s position.
Read Argument preview: Court considers litigation expenses in debt-collection disputes on SCOTUSblog. (Thanks, Graham!)
According to the National Law Journal*, the American Bar Association’s Business Law Section filed comments (PDF) with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau objecting to its latest move to assume jurisdiction over debt collectors — plenty of which are lawyers and law firms. Lawyers don’t like anyone regulating us but other lawyers, generally through state professional responsibility boards, which hear complaints and dole out punishment for ethical infractions. Judges can also punish lawyers for misusing the legal system.
But those options don’t seem to have stemmed the tide of complaints about debt collection abuses, some of which surely come from law firms with more than $10 million in annual receipts from debt collection — the ones now subject to the CFPB’s jurisdiction. Exempting debt collectors from the CFPB’s jurisdiction just because they happen to work for a law firm would be just as silly as exempting them from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Which they aren’t.