Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jerman v. Carlisle: Supreme Court Rules That A Legal Error Regarding The Requirements Of The FDCPA Cannot Be A “Bona Fide Error”

The FDCPA includes a “bona fide error” defense, which provides that a debt collector may not be held liable in any action brought under [the FDCPA] if the debt collector shows by a preponderance of evidence that the violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(c). In Jerman v. Carlisle, _ S. Ct. _, 2010 WL 1558977 (Apr. 21, 2010), the United States Supreme Court held that the “bona fide error” defense does not apply to a violation resulting from a debt collector’s mistaken interpretation of the legal requirements of the FDCPA.

Although Jerman does not provide collectors with much to celebrate, the opinion is very narrow and leaves significant issues undecided. The Court expressly declined to decide whether a violation of the FDCPA that results from a collector’s mistaken interpretation of state law or a federal statute other than the FDCPA, would support the bona fide error defense. Id. at *4 n.4. Thus, the lower courts will need to sort out, for example, whether a collector’s erroneous interpretation of a state’s statute of limitations, or an incorrect interpretation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, can give rise to a bona fide error defense. Jerman may help collectors facing claims for highly technical violations of the Act, as it strongly suggests that any good faith error of law by a collector can provide grounds for significantly reducing the amount of statutory damages or attorneys’ fees to be awarded to a plaintiff. Id. at *11. Jerman also confirms that any good faith factual mistake by a collector – not just a “clerical” error – can support a bona fide error defense. Id. at *7.

In Jerman, the defendants, a law firm and one of its attorneys, filed a complaint in state court seeking to foreclose on the plaintiff’s property. Id. at *4. They attached to the complaint a notice stating, inter alia, that the debt would be assumed valid unless the plaintiff disputed the debt “in writing” within thirty days of receiving the notice. Id. The district court held that the collector’s notice violated section 1692g(a)(3) of the FDCPA, but also held for defendants on the “bona fide error” defense, because the wording of the notice was based upon their error of law. Id. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court, but the Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme Court rejected the argument that Congress only meant to impose liability on collectors who know that their conduct is unlawful, citing the “common maxim, familiar to all minds, that ignorance of the law will not excuse any person, either civilly or criminally. Id. at *5 (citations, internal quotation marks omitted). When Congress wants to provide a mistake of law defense, it generally does so explicitly. For example, the administrative-penalty provisions of the FTC Act only apply if a debt collector has acted with “actual knowledge or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances” that its conduct is prohibited by the Act, but the “bona fide error” defense does not contain similar language. Id. Given this, the Court inferred that Congress intended to allow consumers to recover for an FDCPA violation even when it results from a collector’s mistaken interpretation of the FDCPA, while reserving the more onerous provisions of the FTC Act to be imposed on collectors whose intentional actions reflected “knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances” that they knew their conduct was prohibited. Id.

The Court also observed that the defense allows a collector to maintain “procedures” to avoid the error, and that a “procedure” is defined as “a series of steps followed in a regular orderly definite way. (Citation).” Id. at *7. The word “procedure” is thus “more naturally read to apply to processes that have mechanical or other such ‘regular orderly’ steps to avoid mistakes, for instance, the kind of internal controls a debt collector might adopt to ensure its employees do not communicate with consumers at the wrong time of day (citation), or make false representations as to the amount of the debt. (citation).” Id. Legal reasoning is not a “mechanical or strictly linear process,” said the Court, and therefore the “relevant procedures are ones that help to avoid errors like clerical or factual mistakes.” Id.

The Court noted that section 1692k(e) of the FDCPA provides separate protection from liability for “any act done or omitted in good faith in conformity with any advisory opinion of the [FTC].” Id. Congress apparently wanted the FTC to resolve ambiguities in the Act, and debt collectors would have no incentive to consult the FTC if the “bona fide error” defense provided immunity “for good faith reliance on private counsel.” Id.

Finally, the Court observed that Congress passed the FDCPA nine years after it had enacted the Truth In Lending Act (“TILA”), and Congress copied verbatim the language from TILA’s “bona fide error” defense into the FDCPA. Id. at *8. Three circuit courts had interpreted the language of the TILA statute to only extend to clerical errors. Id. While this may not have “settled” the meaning of TILA’s bona fide error defense, there was no reason to conclude that Congress disagreed with those interpretations when it passed the FDCPA. Id. The Court found “an inference that Congress understood the statutory formula it chose for the FDCPA consistent with Federal Court of Appeals interpretations of TILA.” Id.

The Court rejected the argument that its decision would lead to a “flood of lawsuits” against collection attorneys, or that it would create “an irreconcilable conflict between an attorney's personal financial interest and her ethical obligation of zealous advocacy on behalf of a client . . . .” Id. at *11. The Court observed that the FDCPA contains provisions designed to protect creditors and their attorneys. If an alleged violation is trivial, the actual damages “will likely be de minimus or even zero.” Id. Courts have discretion to reduce statutory damages “where a violation is based on a good faith error” of law. Id. Courts also have discretion to reduce the amount of attorneys’ fees below the lodestar in appropriate circumstances. Id. at *11, n. 16. Attorneys’ fees can be awarded to a collector defendant if the court finds that a plaintiff brought the case “in bad faith and for purpose of harassment.” Id. at *11. To the extent the FDCPA imposes constraints on a lawyer’s vigorous advocacy on behalf of a client, the Court found this “hardly unique in our law” citing, inter alia, a lawyer’s duties of professional conduct, and Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Id. at *12.

The Court noted that Congress can amend the FDCPA if it believes that errors of law relating to the application of the Act should be included within the “bona fide error” defense. “This Court may not, however, read more into § 1692k(c) than the statutory language naturally supports. We therefore hold that the bona fide error defense in § 1692k(c) does not apply to a violation of the FDCPA resulting from a debt collector's incorrect interpretation of the requirements of that statute.” Id. at *13.

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