California Enacts Debt Collector Licensure Law

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A&B Abstract:

On September 25, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Senate Bill 908, which, in part, enacts the California Debt Collection Licensing Act (“Act”). Effective January 1, 2022, the Act will require the licensure of persons that engage in debt collection in California with California residents.   Notably, the Act also applies to entities collecting debt on their own behalf.  The Act’s requirements are in addition to those arising under the California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the “Rosenthal Act”), which regulates the practices of debt collectors.

A New Licensing Obligation

The Act provides that “[n]o person shall engage in the business of debt collection in this state without first obtaining a license [from the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (“DFPI”), which succeeds the Department of Business Oversight effective January 1, 2021].”

What is debt collection and who is a debt collector?

The Act defines “debt collection” as “any act or practice in connection with the collection of consumer debt.”

“Consumer debt” is defined as “money, property, or their equivalent, due or owning, or alleged to be due or owing, or alleged to be due or owing, from a natural person by reason of a consumer credit transaction,” and specifically includes mortgage debt and “charged-off consumer debt” as defined in Section 1788.50 of the California Civil Code.

“Debt collector” means any person who, “in the ordinary course of business, regularly, on the person’s own behalf or on behalf of others, engages in debt collection.” The term includes any person, “who composes and sells, or offers to compose and sell, forms, letters and other collection media used or intended to be used for debt collection.” The term also includes a “debt buyer” as defined in Section 1788.50 of the California Civil Code.

Exclusions

The Act contains several exclusions from both its licensing obligation and the Act’s substantive provisions. Notably, the Act excludes from its scope, depository institutions, which is defined to include FDIC-insured out-of-state state-chartered banks, licensees under the California Financing Law, licensees under the California Residential Mortgage Lending Act, licensees under the California Real Estate Law, and a trustee performing acts in connection with a nonjudicial foreclosure, among others. Additionally, the Act does not apply to debt collection regulated by California’s Student Loan Servicing Act (Cal. Fin. Code §§ 28000 et seq.).

However, it should be noted that the Act authorizes the Commissioner of the DFPI to take action against those exempt from the Act, for violations of the Rosenthal Act (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1788 et seq.) or the California Fair Debt Buying Practices Act (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1788.50 et seq.).  Such actions may include, after notice and an opportunity for a hearing, ordering the person to (1) desist and refrain from engaging in the business of further continuing the violation, or (2) pay ancillary relief, which may include refunds, restitution, disgorgement, and payment of damages, as appropriate, on behalf of a person injured by the conduct or practice that constitutes the subject matter of the assessment.

California Debt Collector Application

Persons wishing to obtain a California Debt Collector License must submit an application to the DFPI. Among other requirements under the Act, applicants must submit:

  • A completed license application signed under the penalty of perjury;
  • An application and an investigation fee; and
  • A sample of the initial consumer debt validation letter required by 15 U.S.C. § 1692g that the licensee will use in correspondence with California consumers.

The DFPI has not yet released an application for this license. However, the Act authorizes the DFPI to require that applications be submitted through the NMLS.  We anticipate the DFPI will require that applications be submitted and processed through the NMLS.

Duties of Debt Collector Licensees

The Act imposes express duties on licensed debt collectors. Specifically, all licensed debt collectors must: (1) develop policies and procedures reasonably intended to promote compliance with the Act; (2) file any required reports with the Commissioner; (3) comply with the provisions of the Act and any regulation or order of the Commissioner; and (4) submit to periodic examination by the DFPI as required by the Act and any regulations promulgated thereunder.

Licensees must also maintain a surety bond in a minimum amount of $25,000.  The Commissioner is authorized to require licensees to submit bonds, riders, and endorsements electronically through the NMLS’s electronic surety bond function.

Additionally, each licensee will be required to pay an annual fee, representing the debt collector’s “pro rata share of all costs and expenses reasonably incurred in the administration of [the Act], as estimated by the commissioner, for the ensuing year and any deficit actually incurred or anticipated in the administration of [the Act] in the year in which the annual fee is levied.”

Licensees are also required to file an annual report with the Commissioner, on or before March 15, that contains all relevant information that the Commissioner reasonably requires concerning the business and operations conducted by the licensee in California during the preceding calendar year, including information regarding collection activity. The report must, at minimum, require disclosure of all of the following:

  • The total number of California debtor accounts purchased or collected on in the preceding year;
  • The total dollar amount of California debtor accounts purchased in the preceding year;
  • The face value dollar amount of California debtor accounts in the licensee’s portfolio in the preceding year;
  • The total dollar amount of California debtor accounts collected in the preceding year, and the total dollar amount of outstanding debt that remains uncollected;
  • The total dollar amount of net proceeds generated by California debtor accounts in the preceding year;
  • Whether or not the licensee is acting as a debt collector, debt buyer, or both; and
  • The case number of any action in which the licensee was held liable by final judgment under the Rosenthal Act (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1788 et seq.) or the California Fair Debt Buying Practices Act (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1788.50 et seq.).

Notably, these individual annual reports will be made available to the public for inspection.

DFPI Authority Under the Act

As noted above, the Act grants the Commissioner with broad authority to administer the Act, through investigations and examinations, and to adopt rules and regulations consistent with that authority.

If the Commissioner determines that a person who is required to be licensed under the Act is engaged in business as a debt collector without a license, or a person or licensee has violated any provision of the Act, the Commissioner may, after notice and an opportunity for a hearing, order such person to (1) desist and refrain from engaging in the business of further continuing the violation, or (2) pay ancillary relief, which may include refunds, restitution, disgorgement, and payment of damages, as appropriate, on behalf of a person injured by the conduct or practice that constitutes the subject matter of the assessment.  In addition, the Commissioner has the authority to suspend or revoke licenses issued under the Act.

Takeaway

Effective January 1, 2022, California will require “debt collectors” engaged in the business of debt collection in the state to obtain a debt collection license.  The Act also authorizes the DFPI to enforce the provisions of the Rosenthal Act against “debt collectors,” which the Act defines consistent with the Rosenthal Act.

The Act should be of particular note for persons that service and collect on their own debt, as California joins a growing list of states that require a license for first-party collection activity.  Unlike other state debt collection laws, certain licensees in California may avail themselves of an exemption from the Act’s licensing obligation. Those currently acting as debt collectors in California that do not qualify for an exemption should closely monitor DFPI guidance for the release of application procedures.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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