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.
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.