The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently declined to adopt the “meaningful attorney involvement” standard for Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) claims based on alleged insufficient attorney involvement in debt collection litigation, a standard that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sought to invoke in its proceedings against collection firms. 

In Mostofi v. Midland Funding, LLC, the defendant, a debt buyer, had obtained a final judgment against the plaintiff in a state court lawsuit seeking collection of a credit card debt.  The plaintiff subsequently filed a complaint against the debt buyer in state court in which he claimed that the debt buyer did not own the debt, the judgment in the collection case was void, and the debt buyer’s assertions regarding its ownership of the debt and its amount constituted false, deceptive, or misleading representations that violated the FDCPA and Maryland law.

The debt buyer moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel and, in the alternative that he had failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss based on the doctrines of res judicata and claim preclusion. On appeal from the dismissal, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed that the plaintiff’s collateral attack on the underlying judgment was barred by res judicata because the trial court had previously ruled against the plaintiff regarding the debt buyer’s ownership of the debt and the plaintiff did not appeal that ruling.

The court found, however, that res judicata did not bar the plaintiff’s FDCPA and Maryland statutory claims because “they do not attack a debt collection judgment per se.” However, it found that such claims were properly dismissed under the doctrines of collateral estoppel/issue preclusion because they were predicated on allegations decided against him in the collection case—namely that the debt buyer misrepresented the amount of the debt and was never assigned the debt.

The plaintiff had also based his FDCPA and state law claims on the allegation that the debt buyer’s attorney in the collection case could not show that it had conducted a “meaningful review” of his file before filing the lawsuit. He claimed that the “operative complaint alleges that [the attorney] also signed thousands of other complaints filed  the same month as the complaint filed against [the plaintiff].”

According to the Court of Special Appeals, this allegation was an attempt by the plaintiff to invoke Bock v. Pressler & Pressler, 30 F. Supp. 3d 283 (D.N.J.), currently on appeal to the Third Circuit, in which the district court ruled that a debt collection law firm violated the FDCPA by filing a complaint without “meaningful involvement.” In its ruling, the district court highlighted computer records submitted in evidence that indicated an attorney had spent four seconds reviewing the debtor’s electronic case file before approving the complaint.

The Court of Special Appeals stated that it had “not adopted the reading of the FDCPA advanced in Bock, and we decline to do so today.” The Court also noted that, even were it to follow Bock, the plaintiff’s allegation regarding the attorney’s signing of thousands of other complaints was not conclusive as to whether there was meaningful attorney involvement. Taking a somewhat dismissive approach, the Court observed that the alleged facts could be consistent with the existence of such involvement (for example, if the attorney had spent more time on the plaintiff’s complaint than others). In addition, to underscore its rejection of Bock’s “meaningful involvement” standard, the court observed that the case before it was “hardly rocket science—the appellees alleged, and proved in the collection case, that they acquired a credit-card debt that remained unpaid, and it did not require complicated pleading or cutting-edge research to prepare the case for filing or trial.”

Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Services Group regularly advise clients on compliance with the FDCPA and state debt collection laws and defend clients in FDCPA lawsuits and enforcement matters. To assist clients in responding proactively to the documentation-related challenges being faced by the debt collection industry and creditors attempting to collect their own debts, the Group has formed a Collection Documentation Task Force. Attorneys in the Group also prepare clients for Consumer Financial Protection Bureau examinations.

For more information, please contact Consumer Financial Services Group Practice Leader Alan S. Kaplinsky at 215.864.8544 or kaplinsky@ballardspahr.com, John L. Culhane, Jr., at 215.864.8535 or culhane@ballardspahr.com, or Collection Documentation Task Force Chair Christopher J. Willis at 678.420.9436 or willisc@ballardspahr.com. 


Copyright © 2015 by Ballard Spahr LLP.
www.ballardspahr.com
(No claim to original U.S. government material.)

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author and publisher.

This alert is a periodic publication of Ballard Spahr LLP and is intended to notify recipients of new developments in the law. It should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own attorney concerning your situation and specific legal questions you have.

 

Related Practice

Consumer Financial Services

CFPB

Visit CFPB Monitor, our blog on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau >

Subscribe to the blog via e-mail >