Thursday, September 13, 2007

consumer - debt collection - bad checks

FTC v. Check Investors, Inc. - Third Circuit - September 6, 2007

http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/053558p.pdf

The court affirmed the district court's grant on injunctive relief and a $10.2 million fine pursuant to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 USC 1692 et seq., against a company which purchased more than 2.2 million bad checks for $348 million and admittedly used abusive debt collection practices against the consumer who had written the checks -- most notably false threats of criminal prosecution and calling people criminals or crooks. The defendant also tried to collect a fee of $125-$130 to the face amount of each check, which exceeded the legal limit of most states. The court said that defendant's tactics "apparently knew no limits."

Background of the FDCPA
The court discussed the "basis tenet" of the FDCPA that "all consumers, even those who have mismanaged their financial affairs resulting in default on their debts, deserve the rights to be treated in a reasonable and civil manner," and noted that the "number of persons who willfully refused to pay debts is minuscule....When default occurs, it is nearly always due to an unforeseen event such as unemployment, overextension, serious illness or marital difficulties or divorce."

NSF checks are "debts" under the FDCPA
A "debt" under the FDCPA is "any obligation...to pay money" arising out of a consumer transaction, even if the payor's intent was fraudulent at the time s/he wrote the check. Four other courts of appeals reached this same conclusion. A check written in a consumer transaction evidences the drawer's obligation to pay, which remains even if the check is dishonored. A transaction's status as a debt must be determined at the time the obligation first arose. The crime of writing a bad check is a specific intent crime; the bad intent must exist at the time the check is written--a fact that defendant could not establish. There is no crime even when the drawer is at fault for the dishonor unless wrongful intent exists at the time the check was written.

But even if that were not the case, "there is no fault exception in the FDCPA....Congress chose not to exempt debt collectors from following the Act [even] if they could prove that the consumer intended his check to be dishonored or accepted credit from a merchant intending default....[N]o consumer deserves to be abused in the collection process."

The payors/drawers of the NSF checks are "consumers" under the FDCPA
The FDCPA defines "consumer" as "any natural person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay any debt." (emphasis in original). "Congress realized that some people who write bad check do so knowingly and willfully and that their conduct is fraudulent. It is just as clear that Congress enacted a definition of 'consumer' that did not exclude such person from the protections they would otherwise be afforded under the FDCPA."

Check Investors was a "debt collector" and not a "creditor under the FDCPA
The court rejected defendant's argument that because it purchased the checks involved, it was not a "debt collector" under the FDCPA because it was collecting its own debts, not those of another. The court distinguished those who acquire a debt with the intent to continue to service it, from those who buy for collection--the case here. The court also stressed the difference between buying a debt which is not in default from buying one which was in default when acquired.

"Not only do we conclude that Appellants are 'debt collectors' rather than a 'creditors,' we believe that their course of conduct exemplifies why Congress enacted the FDCPA and the wisdom of doing so. It also shows why Congress has directed us to focus on whether a debt was in default when acquired to determine the status of 'creditor' vs. 'debt collector.' "

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