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Who can use FDCPA and Who follows it

Who Can Use, and Who Must Follow, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act only applies to consumer debts and, by and large, the actions of debt collectors (or original creditors pretending to be debt collectors). This is broken down into the questions of the type of debt for which collection is sought and the type of entity seeking the debt. In this article we will first discuss what the FDCPA covers, and then what that means to you.

Consumer Debts only

The FDCPA applies to “consumer debts,” or debts incurred primarily for personal, family, or household purposes. 15 U.S.C. Sections 1692a(3) and (5), Creighton v. Emporia Credit Service, Inc., 981 F.Supp. 411 (E.D.Va. 1997). When the debt is rung up on a corporate or business credit card, the courts will look into the nature of the debt – and not simply the name on the card. As I have pointed out elsewhere, however, making this argument can be dangerous to the “corporate shield” since it suggests a merging of assets which is sometimes used to defeat the corporate shield and allow a creditor to pursue an owner of the corporation.

Natural Persons Only

The act also only protects “natural” persons, which means it applies only to actual people and not corporations or separate associations. Again, since debt collectors never actually speak to corporations or businesses, but only to human individuals, this simply means that if a debt collector is calling on a debt rung up for business purposes, or calling a business regarding its debt (and harassing whoever picks up the phone, for example), the FDCPA does not apply.

Transactions Only

Because the FDCPA applies to only consumer debt, it applies only to “transactions” engaged in primarily for personal, family, or household debt. In other words, it does not apply to debts generated by child support obligations, tort claims (lawsuits against you for harming another person), or personal taxes, for example. Mabe v. G.C. Services Limited Partnership, 32 F.3d 86 (4th Cir. 1994); Zimmerman v. HBO Affiliate Group, 834 F. 2d 1163 (3rd Cir. 1987); Hawthorne v. Mac Adjustment, Inc., 140 F.3d 1367 (11th Cir. 1998).

On the other hand, the term “transaction” can be fairly broad, and would include things like condominium fees or other fees or debts incurred as part of a transaction that might, in fact, have occurred years before the debt in question arose. Because the FDCPA applies to debts arising out of transactions, it has applied to condo fees for a house the consumer once lived in but later (at the time of the FDCPA violation) was renting out to others for the purpose of generating income. This would suggest the reverse might also be true – a condo originally purchased for business purposes but later converted to personal use might not be covered by the FDCPA, but I have not seen a case with that holding.

The Act does apply to things you might consider “non-credit” obligations, such as bad check debts, condominium assessment fees, residential rental payments, municipal water and sewer service, and other non-credit consumer obligations – Bass v. Stolper, Koritzinsky,Brewster & Neider, S.C., 111 F.3d 1322 (7th Cir. 1997); FTC v. Check Investors, 502 F.3d 159 (3d Cir. 2007).

Debt Collectors Only

In general, the FDCPA applies only to “debt collectors.” What that means used to be a lot clearer than it is now.

The Supreme Court confused the question of who was a debt collector in some decisions in 2018. Primarily, it determined that when a company buys a debt – regardless of its status at the time of purchase – it is a “creditor” under the part of the law debt defendants had been using to sue junk debt buyers.

Instead, a person buying a debt might be a debt collector if its “principle business” is the collection of debts. It is not clear HOW MUCH of a company’s business must be collection of debts for that to be its “principle business.” I would guess a sizable majority – perhaps 90% or more – but the term has rarely been litigated, and has never been quantified to my knowledge. It would seem clear that a bank with a sizable business providing credit cards would not be a debt collector if it happened to buy someone else’s debts and bring suit on them. Likewise, law firms buying debt and suing on them would probably not be debt collectors if they do anything else – a truly unfortunate result, in my opinion.

But classic debt collectors (i.e., those working for someone else) would still be debt collectors, and so, probably, are the largest junk debt buyers.

What the FDCPA does not cover is actions by an “original creditor” (i.e., the company or person who claims you borrowed from it) unless it is pretending to be another entity. Sometimes original creditors seek to exert additional pressure on delinquent bill payers by pretending to be a debt collector, and when they do this they are not only covered by the FDCPA but also often in violation of it, since the Act prohibits deception and unfair collection methods. The Act will also not cover the actions of loan “servicers,” which are financial companies that buy debt not in default and manage it as if they had extended credit in the first place.

What It Means to Be Covered by the FDCPA or Not

As I am sure you know, the FDCPA requires and prohibits certain actions, giving you defenses and the right to counterclaim or file suit against a debt collector. If the FDCPA does not apply, you simply cannot claim any rights under it – cannot require verification, bring claims for deception or abusive conduct, or seek to enforce any other rights under the FDCPA against non-debt collectors or against debt collectors for their actions in pursuit of non-covered debt.

Making such a claim could damage your ability to defend against these debts, so you should carefully consider whether the Act applies before attempting to assert rights under it.

If your debt or bill collector is not covered under the FDCPA, that does not necessarily mean that you have no rights worth asserting. It just means that you must look somewhere else for them. Many states have their own debt collection laws, and these may apply to situations the FDCPA does not. Also, more generally, most states have laws regarding how “outrageous” a person – including a debt collector – is allowed to be.

One of the great things about the FDCPA is that it gives some specific rules – debt collectors cannot call before 8 in the morning, for example, whereas a few calls by an original creditor early in the morning will probably not be illegal. As the behavior becomes more and more extreme, however, the more likely it is to be “outrageous” enough to give you the right to sue. Threats of physical harm or police activity probably go over this line, for example; cussing you out a time or two? – maybe not. It is simply not clear what non-debt collectors are allowed to do in many instances. Courts have been pretty tolerant of some surprisingly bad or extreme actions by original creditors.

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.