Alabama law permits the creation of public corporations known as “improvement districts,” which can then issue bonds that are similar to bonds issued by a municipal corporation. These bonds can be used to finance improvements within the district. In Aliant Bank v. Four Star Investments, Inc., the Alabama Supreme Court allowed claims against the directors of one of these improvement districts to go forward despite claims of immunity. The Court also allowed certain fraud claims to go forward against the directors as well as other related individuals and entities. In addition to authorizing lenders to bring suit, the opinion also serves as a strong reminder that lenders should monitor their collateral and promptly investigate any signs of misconduct.
This week, the United States Supreme Court issued a key decision under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in a case litigated by Balch & Bingham lawyers, Jason Tompkins and Chase Espy. In Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, the Supreme Court resolved a circuit split over the issue of whether debt collectors who file bankruptcy proofs of claim for stale debts are subject to suit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Siding with Midland, one of the nation’s largest buyers of unpaid debt, the Supreme Court held that “filing a proof of claim that on its face indicates that the limitations period has run” is not actionable under the FDCPA, thereby avoiding a potential conflict between the FDCPA and the Bankruptcy Code. Although ostensibly limited to the bankruptcy context, the Johnson decision could potentially ripple into other FDCPA cases. In the meantime, though, Johnson will undoubtedly turn off the faucet for would-be FDCPA plaintiffs who had hoped to capitalize on what the Eleventh Circuit complained is a “deluge” of out-of-statute proofs of claim.
The Eleventh Circuit recently clarified that sending periodic mortgage statements following a debtor’s bankruptcy discharge is not misleading to the “least sophisticated consumer.” In Helman v. Bank of America, 15-13672, 2017 WL 1350728 (11th Cir. April 12, 2017) Gayle Helman filed suit, alleging that Bank of America violated the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA), Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (FCCPA), and other state laws when it sent Ms. Helman periodic mortgage statements after her mortgage loan was discharged in bankruptcy. She claimed that the statements unlawfully attempted to collect a discharged debt and that such communications would be misleading to the least sophisticated consumer because it suggested she remained liable for the debt.
Late December, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (Fourth Circuit), in Lovegrove v. Ocwen Home Loans Srvs., upheld summary judgment in favor of a mortgage servicer against allegations under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), under which courts generally apply a “least sophisticated consumer” standard. The plaintiff in Lovegrove alleged that monthly mortgage statements he received from the servicer violated the FDCPA because they attempted to collect a debt which had been discharged in a recent bankruptcy. The notices, however, contained the familiar and—here, exposure limiting—disclosures that “if the debt is in active bankruptcy or has been discharged through bankruptcy, this communication is not intended as and does not constitute an attempt to collect a debt.” In following its own recent case law, the Fourth Circuit applied a “commonsense inquiry” into whether these notices, in light of the quoted disclaimer, attempted to collect debt, ultimately deciding that they did not. Of further note is the passing comment by the Fourth Circuit that “there is an argument that sophisticated and high-dollar loan arrangements should not be analyzed under the least sophisticated consumer standard. Perhaps, sophisticated consumers should not get the benefit of the lenient standard when they are part of a complex relationship or situation that may be confusing to less sophisticated individuals.”
The clear take away is that disclaimers that can be easily disregarded as boilerplate still have significant meaning, and, as in this case, may form the basis for escaping liability altogether. Further, while debt collectors still have to strictly comply with all requirements under the FDCPA, the wildly lenient “least sophisticated consumer standard” may give way under certain circumstances.
The Alabama Supreme Court recently held in Ex parte Arvest Bank, that an unexecuted judgment lien against the property interest of one joint tenant does not sever a joint tenancy with the right of survivorship, thereby extinguishing the lienholder’s rights in the property when that joint tenant dies.
In an unpublished opinion, the Eleventh Circuit applied the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016) and held that a debtor who allegedly did not receive certain disclosures required by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) suffered an injury-in-fact to her statutorily created right to receive such information, and therefore had standing to pursue an FDCPA claim against the entity attempting to collect the debt.
Few issues involving the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) are more hotly contested than whether filing a proof of claim on a time-barred debt violates the FDCPA. In bankruptcy, creditors have a right to file proofs of claim outlining the debt owed to them by the bankrupt debtor. In some instances, the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit on that debt has run, and up until July 10, 2014, when the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Crawford v. LVNV Funding, LLC, it was common practice to file a proof of claim on such a time-barred debt. Crawford—for the first time—likened the filing of a proof of claim to the filing of a lawsuit, finding that if one is wrongful, so is the other. After Crawford, debt collectors have faced a tidal wave of cases across the country, raising numerous defenses, one of which is res judicata. The argument goes like this: if a debt collector files a proof of claim to which neither the debtor nor the trustee objects and the court subsequently confirms the debtor’s plan, then a final judgment exists stating the debt is valid. Thus the debtor is barred by res judicata from further challenging the debt.
Despite a chorus of cases adopting this reasoning, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia recently dealt a blow to the res judicata argument, finding that the grounds upon which the FDCPA claim was raised and the grounds upon which the proof of claim was confirmed were not sufficiently similar such that one could foreclose the other. For two years the so-called Crawford cases have raged; circuit splits exist; and this recent decision from the Southern District of Georgia shows that further disagreement is likely. Creditors and debt collectors alike should monitor the development of these cases to ensure they know how their claims will be treated in the bankruptcy courts.
Last week, the Eleventh Circuit refused to compel arbitration because the defendant financial institution failed to prove that its online deposit agreement actually included an arbitration clause. This decision reflects the importance of (1) documenting the original agreement (both the actual terms and the assent of the consumer), (2) retaining the documentation, (3) documenting any change in terms (and the customer’s assent to them) and (4) carefully proving the existence of these agreements (and the customer’s assent) in Court.
Following the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Bishop v. Ross Earle & Bonan, P.A., No. 15-12585, creditors and debt collectors should immediately review their practices to ensure that any communication to a debtor or a debtor’s attorney complies with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This is especially true for FDCPA § 1692g(a)’s requirement that the debtor has a right to dispute the debt and that such dispute must be in writing.
In Gloor v. BancorpSouth Bank, No. 2140914 (Ala. Civ. App. April 1, 2016), the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals held that a creditor may revive and collect on an unpaid judgment that is older than 10 years, further clarifying a significant protection afforded to financial institutions charged with recovering past due amounts owed by judgment debtors.