Business Debt and the FDCPA

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) does not apply to “business” debts. According to its terms, the law only applies to “consumer” debts, and this can mean two things: a consumer is the “end-user” of the product, so the debt cannot have been generated in purchasing something for commercial resale; and the purchase cannot have been for business purchases. What does all this mean to you?

Is it a Business Debt?

For most people using my materials, this limitation may be more of a pleading issue than anything else. I say that because if your business is a legally distinct entity, you are not allowed to represent yourself anyway – because only lawyers are allowed to represent people other than themselves, and that rule applies to legally distinct businesses (i.e., corporations even if owned completely by you). If you are being sold personally, though, how would they know that your debt was generated for business purposes? Usually this is difficult if not impossible (but there are times when it is obvious that it is a business and not consumer debt, of course – as, for example, equipment leasing or purchase), and the debt collector simply pleads or alleges that it is business-related. Unless you admit that, however, it is going to be tough in most cases for them to prove it – and until it is proved, you can counterclaim under the FDCPA.

Don’t Claim Something You’ve Expensed as a Consumer Debt

As I’ve pointed out before, however, this can cause tax complications you want to consider carefully, because if you have claimed the expenses as tax deductible business expenses you can create several severe problems by turning around and claiming them as consumer expenses in a lawsuit. On the other hand, the courts will not regard your previous tax treatment of debt as necessarily deciding the question. It’s just that you can get in OTHER trouble if you claim things you have previously deducted were consumer transactions.

You Still Need to Defend Yourself Even if It Is a Business Debt

If the debt is a business debt and not a consumer debt, and everybody knows it, then the FDCPA does not apply to it. That means you cannot sue the debt collector for violating the Act. Does that mean that the Litigation Materials won’t be useful to you? Not at all. You still need to defend yourself, and all the basic rules and principles of defense still apply, and this is true whether or not the entity suing you is a debt collector or original creditor.

Alternatives to the FDCPA for Counterclaims

Beyond defense, though, consider what the FDCPA was designed to do. It makes “unfair” collection practices illegal. It was designed to level the playing field and give relatively unsophisticated consumers fairly clear rights against the debt collectors. It eased the requirements of proving damages and “wrongful” intent. In a general sense, it was designed to extend certain legal and practical rights to consumers, whereas congress considered businesses more capable of defending themselves from the day-to-day intrusions of the debt collectors and to hire lawyers to protect their legal rights.

In plain English, what I am saying is that many of the claims a consumer might bring under the FDCPA could, with slight alterations, be brought by businesses under other state laws. For example, the FDCPA makes it illegal for a debt collector to call you before 9:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. without some reason to believe that’s okay. A debt collector calling a business owner at 8 a.m. Is probably going to be okay, but calling at 6 a.m. mightt rise to the level of “outrageous conduct,” which is a basis for suing regardless of whether or not the debt was business related.

State Tort Laws

Bad language or harassing calls might be similar. There are many other laws (these are called “tort law”) that might also apply to ruthless debt collection. The FDCPA certainly has its advantages if you can use it, but most of the things it applies to are, to some degree or another, already illegal under tort law. Your challenge as a pro se lawyer is to find your state’s tort law. To search for that you will be better off actually going to a law library, finding your state’s legal digest (a multi-volume – in Missouri has more than fifty volumes – that pretty much discusses all the state’s laws) and looking up some of the following terms: defamation, libel, slander, invasion of privacy, outrageous conduct, assault, harassment, and debt collection. Some states have broader protections than the FDCPA provides.

What if it Is Your Business Being Sued?

If the debt collector is suing your business rather than you, can you defend it? The answer here is a “qualified no.” If the business is a partnership or “C” corporation, the answer is almost certainly not. If it is a “sole proprietorship” (really just you as owner of the business), on the other hand, the answer is that you can defend yourself. There are some gray areas, however – if the corporation is an “S” corporation you may or may not be able to represent the corporation – some courts seem to allow it, although there are some good reasons not to do it. If you are being sued along with the company as a guarantor of the debt, you can defend yourself, but you will probably need a lawyer at least to file an answer to the suit against the company.

Conclusion

It’s a little more complicated, and a little tougher to prove, but there’s a good chance you can find a counterclaim even if the debt collector is after you for a debt that is clearly not a consumer debt. You just cannot bring it under the FDCPA.

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