The Hunstein Case: Upending Servicing and Debt Collection?

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A&B Abstract:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, covering Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, recently decided in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection and Management, Inc., that a debt collector’s communication with its third-party vendor violated section 1692c(b) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), which prohibits a debt collector for communicating, in connection with the collection of any debt, with an unauthorized third party.

The FDCPA and Regulation F

 In 1977, Congress enacted the FDCPA to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors.  Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA generally provides that, except with respect to seeking location information:

without the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector, or the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction, or as reasonably necessary to effectuate a postjudgment judicial remedy, a debt collector may not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer, his attorney, a consumer reporting agency if otherwise permitted by law, the creditor, the attorney of the creditor, or the attorney of the debt collector.

The FDCPA defines “communication” to mean “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.”

For decades the FDCPA was enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”).  However, prior to the Dodd-Frank Act, no federal regulator had rulemaking authority under the FDCPA.  The Dodd-Frank Act empowered the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or “Bureau”) with rulemaking authority with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, as defined by the FDCPA.  Prior to finalizing Regulation F, the CFPB conducted market outreach to better understand how debt collectors attempt to collect on accounts.  In July 2016, the CFPB published a study of third-party debt collection operations (“Operations Study”) that recognized debt collection firms’ reliance on vendors (such as print mail services, predictive dialers, voice analytics, payment processes and data servers).  In fact, the CFPB noted that most respondents use an outside vendor for sending written communications.

On November 30, 2020, amended Regulation F,  implementing the FDCPA, was published in the Federal Register with an effective date of November 30, 2021 (which has subsequently been delayed to January 29, 2022).  Regulation F does not specifically address the use of third-party vendors, such as print mail services, although the Operations Study was cited in the preamble to Regulation F.

With regard to civil liability, section 1692k of the FDCPA states that “[n]o provision of this section imposing any liability shall apply to any act done or omitted in good faith in conformity with any advisory opinion of the Bureau, notwithstanding that after such act or omission has occurred, such opinion is amended, rescinded, or determined by judicial or other authority to be invalid for any reason.”

The Hunstein Case

Despite the CFPB’s implicit recognition of debt collectors’ use of print and other vendors,  a recent court decision suggests that use of certain vendors could violate the FDCPA’s prohibition on third-party communications.  In Hunstein, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment, holding that (1) a violation of section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA confers Article III standing; and (2) a debt collector’s transmittal of a consumer’s personal information to its dunning vendor constituted a communication “in connection with the collection of any debt” within the meaning of section 1692c(b).

The facts in this case are not unusual, and reflect the typical interactions between a debt collector and their third-party vendors. Specifically, the debt collector, Preferred Collection and Management Services Inc. (“Preferred”), electronically transmitted information concerning Hunstein’s debt (his name and his status as a debtor, the entity to which he owed the debt, the outstanding balance, the fact that his debt resulted from his son’s medical treatment, and his son’s name) to its third-party vendor. In turn, the vendor used that information to create, print, and mail a dunning letter to Hunstein.  As a result, Hunstein sued alleging that by sending his personal information to the third-party vendor, Preferred had violated section 1692c(b). The district court dismissed Hunstein’s action for failure to state a claim, holding that Hunstein had not sufficiently alleged that Preferred’s transmittal to its third-party vendor violated section 1692c(b), because it was not a communication “in connection with the collection of any debt.”  Hunstein appealed to the Eleventh Circuit. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit addressed both the issues of Article III standing and whether Preferred’s communication was “in connection with the collection of any debt.”

The court first considered the threshold issue of whether a violation of section 1692c(b) confers Article III standing. Specifically, the court focused on whether Hunstein had suffered an injury in fact, which requires an invasion of a legally protected interest that is both concrete and particularized and actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. The court indicated that the “standing question here implicates the concreteness sub-element.”  The court explained that a plaintiff can satisfy the concreteness requirement in one of three ways. A plaintiff can meet this requirement by (1) alleging a tangible harm (e.g., physical injury, financial loss, and emotional distress), (2) alleging a risk of real harm, or (3) identifying a statutory violation that gives rise to an “intangible-but-nonetheless-concrete injury.”  The court ultimately concluded that Hunstein had met the concreteness requirement “[b]ecause (1) § 1692c(b) bears a close relationship to a harm that American courts have long recognized as cognizable and (2) Congress’s judgment indicates that violations of §1692c(b) constitute a concrete injury.”

After concluding that Hunstein had standing to sue, the court considered whether Preferred’s transmittal to its third-party vendor was a “communication in connection with the collection of any debt.” At the outset, the court noted that the parties were in agreement that Preferred was a “debt collector,” that Hunstein was a “consumer,” and that the debt at issue was a “consumer debt,” as contemplated under the FDCPA. Moreover, the parties agreed that Preferred’s transmittal of Hunstein’s information to the third-party vendor constituted a “communication” within the meaning of the FDCPA. Thus, the only question remaining before the court was whether Preferred’s communication was “in connection with the collection of any debt.” The court began its analysis by reviewing the plain meaning of the phrase “in connection with” and the word “connection,” and determined that “in connection with” and “connection” are generally defined to mean “with reference to or concerning” and “relationship or association,” respectively.  Based on these definitions, and the facts at issue, the court found it “inescapable that Preferred’s communication to [its third-party vendor] as least ‘concerned,’ was ‘with reference to,’ and bore a ‘relationship or association’ to its collection of Hunstein’s debt.”  Accordingly, the court held that Hunstein had alleged a communication “in connection with the collection of any debt” as that phrase is commonly understood.

The court next considered, and rejected, Preferred’s three arguments that its communication was not “in connection with the collection of any debt.” First, the court found Preferred’s reliance on prior Eleventh Circuit decisions interpreting the phrase “in connection with the collection of any debt,” as used under section 1692e, to be misplaced. The court explained that in those line of cases, the court had focused on the language of the underlying communications that were at issue. However, the court found that the district court’s conclusion that the phrase “in connection with the collection of any debt” necessarily entails a demand for payment “defies the language and structure of § 1692c(b) for two separate but related reasons—neither of which applies to § 1692e.” First, the court explained that the “demand-for-payment interpretation would render superfluous the exceptions spelled out in §§ 1692c(b) and 1692b.” The court noted that under section 1692c(b), “[c]ommunications with four of the six excepted parties—a consumer reporting agency, the creditor, the attorney of the creditor, and the attorney of the debt collector—would never include a demand for payment,” and that the “same is true of the parties covered by § 1692b and, by textual cross-reference, excluded from § 1692c(b)’s coverage.” Accordingly, the court held that the phrase “in connection with the collection of any debt” in section 1692c(b) must mean something more than a mere demand for payment, so as not to render “Congress’s enumerated exceptions…redundant.”

The court also rejected Preferred’s argument that the court adopt a holistic, multi-factoring balancing test that was adopted by the Sixth Circuit in its unpublished opinion in Goodson v. Bank of Am., N.A., 600 Fed. Appx. 422 (6th Cir. 2015), for two reasons: (1) “Goodson and the cases that have relied on it concern § 1692e—not § 1692c(b),” and (2) sections 1692c(b) and 1692e differ both “linguistically, in that the former includes a series of exceptions that an atextual reading risks rendering meaningless, while the latter does not, and…operationally, in that they ordinarily involve different parties.” Moreover, the court found that “in the context of § 1692c(b), the phrase ‘in connection with the collection of any debt’ has a discernible ordinary meaning that obviates the need for resort to extratextual ‘factors.’”

Finally, the court rejected Preferred’s “industry practice” argument—namely that there is widespread use of mail vendors and a relative dearth of FDCPA suits against them—holding that simply because “this is (or may be) the first case in which a debtor has sued a debt collector for disclosing his personal information to a mail vendor hardly proves that such disclosures are lawful.”

In holding that Preferred’s communication with its third-party vendor constituted a communication “in connection with the collection of any debt,” the court acknowledged that its “interpretation of § 1692c(b) runs the risk of upsetting the status quo in the debt-collection industry…[and that its] reading of § 1692c(b) may well require debt collectors (at least in the short term) to in-source many of the services that they had previously outsourced, potentially at great cost.” Moreover, the court recognized that “those costs may not purchase much in the way of ‘real’ consumer privacy.” Nevertheless, the court noted that its “obligation is to interpret the law as written, whether or not we think the resulting consequences are particularly sensible or desirable.”

Takeaway 

The court’s textual reading of the statute fails to account for the technological changes to the industry since the FDCPA was enacted in 1977.

The CFPB has the authority to take a more pragmatic view, either through its advisory opinion program or formal rulemaking to recognize the important role of vendors while also putting in proper guardrails to protect consumers’ privacy.  Such a view would be consistent with the FTC’s treatment of this issue.  The FTC previously indicated that a debt collector could contact an employee of a telephone or telegraph company in order to contact the consumer, without violating the prohibition on communication to third parties, if the only information given is that necessary to enable the collector to transmit the message to, or make the contact with, the consumer. Presumably, a debt collector would have to transmit much the same information for purposes of communicating with the debtor through a letter vendor.

Congress also has the authority to modernize the FDCPA.  The House of Representatives recently passed a comprehensive debt collection bill (H.R. 2547, the Comprehensive Debt Collection Improvement Act, sponsored by Chairwoman Waters). While this bill currently doesn’t address the issue in Hunstein, that could be remedied in the Senate.

The consumer finance industry will be closely watching the Hunstein case as it works through the appeal process, as well as how other courts, Congress, CFPB and other regulators react.

[View source.]

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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