Sunday, June 13, 2010

Are You Liable For Your Process Server Under The FDCPA?

Consumers often assert FDCPA claims against collectors based upon alleged misstatements or misconduct by process servers while serving a state court summons and complaint. Thus, consumers may claim a process server was rude or abusive at the time of service, causing them to suffer emotional distress, or that a process server made false statements about the debt. These allegations are not sufficient to impose liability on the collector under the FDCPA.

The alleged conduct of the process server while serving the summons and complaint is not covered by the FDCPA. In fact, when it defined the term “debt collector” under the FDCPA, Congress specifically noted that the term “does not include . . . . any person while serving or attempting to serve legal process on any other person in connection with the judicial enforcement of any debt . . . .” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6)(D). This is sometimes referred to as the “process server” exemption, which applies to "those individuals whose involvement in a debt collection communication was limited to serving the communication on the consumer – in effect, to being messengers[.]" Romea v. Heiberger & Assoc., 163 F.3d 111, 117 (2d Cir. 1998); see also S.Rep. No. 95-382, at 3-4 (1977), reprinted in 1977 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1695, 1697-98 ( The term debt collector is not intended to include ... process servers. ).

Given this exemption, any alleged improper conduct or statements made by a process server while serving or attempting to serve a complaint cannot give rise to FDCPA liability. Since there is no FDCPA liability for the process server’s statements or conduct, the debt collector cannot be held vicariously liable. See, e.g., Worch v. Wolpoff & Abramson, LLP, 477 F. Supp. 2d 1015,1018-19 (E.D. Mo. 2007) (process server who allegedly came to residence and “pounded on the door repeatedly and aggressively” to serve debtor was not subject to FDCPA; collection firm not vicariously liable for server’s alleged conduct); Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. v. Lamar, 2006 WL 2422903, *8-9 (N.D. Ohio Aug. 22, 2006) (process server allegedly involved in erratic car chase while serving debtor with complaint not liable under FDCPA; collection firm not vicariously liable).

This conclusion – that collectors are not liable for communications made by their process servers – is reinforced by provisions of section 1692c of the FDCPA. Although that section places important restrictions upon a collector’s ability to communicate with debtors and third parties, it provides exceptions for any communications made with the “express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction.” See, e.g., 15 U.S.C. § 1692c(a), (b) (listing restrictions on communications made at inconvenient times or places, with debtors represented by counsel, or at places of employment, but providing exception for communications permitted by “the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction”). Collectors are not only permitted by the court to serve a summons and complaint on a debtor, they are required to do so consistent with state law. Thus, the service of the complaint by a process server falls within the exemption under section 1692c(a) and (b) of the FDCPA.

Similarly, even where a consumer has notified a collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay the debt, or that he wants further communications by the collector to cease and desist, the FDCPA allows the collector to notify the consumer about “specified remedies” that the creditor or collector normally invoke and/or intend to invoke. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692c(c). The service of a state court complaint by a process server is notification that the creditor is seeking to invoke a remedy – judicial enforcement of the debt – and is exempt.

This article is not meant to provide a comprehensive analysis of a debt collector’s potential liability for “sewer service” by a process server. In situations where an FDCPA claim against a collector is based solely upon statements or conduct by a process server in connection with serving or attempting to serve a summons and complaint, however, the FDCPA simply does not apply.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Beating FDCPA Claims That Were Not Disclosed In Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy filings and FDCPA lawsuits are both rising steadily. If you have been sued in an FDCPA action by a consumer who recently filed for bankruptcy, you should pull the bankruptcy filings and carefully review the debtor’s petition. You may find that the consumer failed to properly disclose the claims they now seek to pursue against you. If so, the case is subject to a motion to dismiss. Consumers lack standing to assert claims based upon pre-petition conduct if the claims were not properly disclosed in the bankruptcy petition. See, e.g., Yack v. Washington Mutual Inc., 389 B.R. 91 (N.D. Cal. 2008) (granting motion to dismiss FDCPA class action where debtor failed to disclose claims in bankruptcy schedules).

The filing of a bankruptcy petition creates an “‘estate’” that consists of “‘all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the [bankruptcy] case,’” including any causes of action the debtor may have. See Cusano v. Klein, 264 F.3d 936, 945 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting 11 U.S.C. § 541(a)). Once a cause of action becomes part of the bankruptcy estate, “[o]nly the trustee . . . has the authority to prosecute and/or settle such causes of action.” Cain v. Hyatt, 101 B.R. 440, 442 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. 1989).

A debtor has an affirmative duty to schedule all property the debtor owns, including all legal claims. See 11 U.S.C. § 521(1). “Causes of action are separate assets which must be formally listed.” Cusano, 264 F.3d at 947. The importance of complete disclosure of a debtor’s assets cannot be overstated: “These matters are at the heart of the bankruptcy system . . . . The proper ‘operation of the bankruptcy system depends on honest reporting.’” In re Mohring, 142 B.R. 389, 394 (Bankr. E.D. Cal. 1992) (citation omitted); see also In re Colvin, 288 B.R. 477, 480 (Bankr. E.D. Mich. 2003) (“the disclosure obligations of consumer debtors are at the very core of the bankruptcy process and meeting these obligations is part of the price debtors pay for receiving the bankruptcy discharge”).

Courts have recognized that, “[f]ull and comprehensive disclosure is critical to the integrity of the bankruptcy process.” In re Rolland, 317 B.R. 402, 413 (Bankr. C.D. Cal. 2004). This “duty of candor . . . accrues from the time the facts that give rise to the potential claim are known.” Rose v. Beverly Health & Rehab. Servs., Inc., 356 B.R. 18, 25 (E.D. Cal. 2006) (emphasis added).

Debtors have a “paramount duty” to not only list all of their assets, but also to do so “carefully, completely and accurately,” using the appropriate schedules. See In re Mohring, 142 B.R. at 394 (emphasis added); see also Cusano, 264 F.3d at 945 (bankruptcy code places “affirmative duty” on debtor to schedule “assets and liabilities”). As the In re Mohring court explained:

“The basic rule is that schedules must be accurate and complete. And they must be corrected if they are incomplete. Thus, amendments are liberally permitted and can be demanded by the court. . . . Numerous cases hold that the debtor has a duty to prepare schedules carefully, completely, and accurately. . . . There are, however, no bright-line rules for how much itemization and specificity is required. What is required is reasonable particularization under the circumstances. The Official Forms themselves have generally been regarded as subject to a rule of substantial compliance.”

In re Mohring, 142 B.R. at 394-95 (citations omitted); see also In re Searles, 317 B.R. 368, 378 (9th Cir. B.A.P. 2004) (“Every debtor has a continuing duty to assure the accuracy and completeness of schedules. Postpetition discovery of rights that actually existed at the time of filing must be addressed in the schedules. This implies a duty to amend.”).

At the conclusion of the bankruptcy proceedings, if a claim was properly scheduled by the debtor, and was not otherwise administered by the trustee, the claim is “abandoned to the debtor.” 11 U.S.C. § 554(c). But if a debtor has failed “to properly schedule an asset, including a cause of action, that asset continues to belong to the bankruptcy estate” and the claim does not revert to the debtor. Cusano, 264 F.3d at 945-46.

A trustee cannot “abandon” a claim if the claim was never disclosed by the debtor. For this reason, in Stein v. United Artists Corp., 691 F.2d 885 (9th Cir. 1982), the Ninth Circuit held that “abandonment results only when the trustee knows of the existence of the property. . . . When the bankrupt fails to list an asset, he cannot claim abandonment because the trustee had no opportunity to pursue the claim.” Id. at 891 (affirming dismissal of debtor’s unscheduled antitrust claim). Similarly, in Cusano, the Ninth Circuit held that a debtor lacked standing to assert a claim for royalties that had not been scheduled by the debtor:

“Thus, if there was any outstanding balance due Cusano on the open book account when he filed for bankruptcy, he was under a duty to schedule it as a receivable or as a cause of action for unpaid royalties. His failure to do so vests the claim in the bankruptcy estate, where it remains.”

Cusano, 264 F.3d at 948.

The debtor lacks standing to pursue claims that were not properly disclosed. See Cusano, 264 F.3d at 945-48 (where a debtor fails to “properly schedule an asset, including a cause of action, that asset continues to belong to the bankruptcy estate” and does not revert to the debtor); see also Stein, 692 F.2d at 891 (debtor lacked standing to pursue antitrust claims that were not listed in bankruptcy).

Debtors may seek to reopen the bankruptcy proceedings to reacquire claims they failed to list, but the judicial estoppel doctrine should bar them. Judicial estoppel is “is an equitable doctrine that precludes a party from gaining an advantage by asserting one position, and then later taking to their benefit a clearly inconsistent position.” See Yack, 389 B.R. at 96 (citation omitted). In “the bankruptcy context, a party is judicially estopped from asserting a cause of action not raised in a reorganization plan or otherwise mentioned in the debtor’s schedules or disclosure statements.” Hamilton v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 270 F.3d 778, 783 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Hay v. First Interstate Bank, 978 F.2d 555, 557 (9th Cir. 1992) (failure to list a cause of action in bankruptcy schedule judicially estops prosecution of that claim). This is true “even if the discharge is later vacated.” Hamilton, 270 F.3d at 784.

Where a debtor failed to disclose their alleged claims, they are judicially estopped from seeking to re-acquire and assert them later. To hold otherwise would reward debtors for hiding assets from her creditors and the trustee, and would amount to a fraud on the bankruptcy court. See Latman v. Burdette, 366 F.3d 774, 785 (9th Cir. 2004) (surcharge remedy prevented “a fraud on the bankruptcy court” where plaintiffs knowingly failed to disclose assets that should have been listed on bankruptcy schedule).

For these reasons, collectors sued in FDCPA action should carefully review the bankruptcy filings of the debtor to determine if these defenses are available.