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Spokeo, Activist Courts, and Consumer and Debt Law

People involved in debt and consumer law have heard a lot about “Spokeo” in the past few years, and they’re going to hear more. Spokeo is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a Supreme Court decision purporting to limit the Judicial system’s ability to override the functions of the other branches of government, but actually itself a vast usurpation of that power. It has been used to gut consumer and debt law protections enacted by Congress, and it will increasingly be used to do so. I expect it to be extended to state courts and jurisdiction as well.

So, what is “Spokeo” and how does it usurp legislative power? We discuss these issues and suggest some possible approaches in the following article.

Spokeo” is the way many refer to a case and the Supreme Court decision that decided it. The case was Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016).  Spokeo, Inc. was a business that compiled information on essentially everybody and made it available to people searching it. Some of the information was free, and some was only available upon payment (not a distinction relevant to the case). It disseminated information on creditworthiness and lifestyle and general biographical information, and its reporting on creditworthiness (allegedly) brought it within the reach of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).[1]

In the case of Robins (the plaintiff in the suit), Spokeo reported that he was in his mid-fifties, employed, affluent and married – all of which Robins alleged was false. Robins claimed the information had hurt his attempt to obtain employment. Robins brought suit under the FCRA.[2]

The Supreme Court held (essentially) that he had not alleged a “concrete, actual injury.” Probably every single person reading this article intuitively knows how false this holding was, in reality.

The Court based its analysis on Article III of the Constitution, which limits judicial action to actual “cases and controversies.” They pointed out a fundamental concept of the law, which is that courts are only empowered to hear cases involving real people with real adversary interests – otherwise people would make up cases to test abstract limits of the laws as a sort of judicial review. To keep the Judicial branch in its own lane, courts have determined that, to satisfy Article III, a plaintiff must show (1) injury in fact, (2) causation, and (3) redressability (ability of a court order to “solve” the wrong that has been committed. With respect to the injury requirement, the injury must be (1) “concrete and particularized” and (2) “actual or imminent.” A “bare procedural violation” of a statute is not enough: there must be some harm already, or some harm must be imminent.[3]

Article III’s “Standing” Requirement and the Federal Court’s Attack on Statutory Consumer Rights

To satisfy Article III, a plaintiff must show (1) injury in fact, (2) causation, and (3) redressability. With respect to the injury requirement, which the Supreme Court discussed at length in its seminal opinion in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), the injury must be (1) “concrete and particularized” and (2) “actual or imminent.” A “bare procedural violation” of a statute is not enough.

All of these requirements are designed to insure that a litigant is protecting his or her own specific rights and not some theoretical general or public right which would be akin to judicial review.

In Spokeo, the Supreme Court seemed to take the position that the “harm” or injury Robins alleged was a procedural violation – like he was some purist offended by Spokeo’s carelessness in keeping information. The harm, however, was crystal clear and not at all theoretical or akin to judicial review: Spokeo had wrong information about Robins. Having and disseminating false information about him WAS the wrong, and it was also the very “harm” that the FCRA was designed to prevent. The fact that the incorrect information was also damaging to him was irrelevant to the Article III analysis, though of course it would be relevant to the amount of damages he should have gotten.

The Court was not unaware of this; its decision was a blatant attack upon civil and consumer rights, many of which are quite difficult to quantify and are intangible. The Court is hostile to these rights, and Spokeo was a usurpation of the legislature’s Constitutional power to create them and give people the right to enforce them. Thus it is a lasting monument to the hypocrisy of the current Supreme Court. There will likely be many more over the coming years. The Spokeo decision has been used to attack civil and consumer rights from the instant it was written, most notably, perhaps, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), but what will be the harm to a debt litigant under the FDCPA of the debt collector failing to publish warnings in conspicuous print if the consumer sees the warning anyway? What’s the harm of making harassing phone calls late at night? The Supreme Court has put itself in the business of evaluating and quantifying those harms, while the FDCPA made them per se violations. The courts will use Spokeo to attack the FDCPA as well.

State Law Applicability of Spokeo

Even a casual reading of Spokeo will reveal that the Court pretended to be careful to limit its ruling to federal courts. There is no doubt the state courts will follow, however. Note the reasoning, applicable to every state, in the following paragraph of a New York State opinion. I include the links so you can more conveniently track down the cited cases:

“Under the common law, there is little doubt that a `court has no inherent power to right a wrong unless thereby the civil, property or personal rights of the plaintiff in the action or the petitioner in the proceeding are affected'” (Society of Plastics Indus. v County of Suffolk, 77 NY2d 761, 772 [1991], quoting Schieffelin v Komfort, 212 NY 520, 530 [1914]). Related to this principle is “a general prohibition on one litigant raising the legal rights of another” (Society of Plastics, 77 NY2d at 773). Thus, if the issue of standing is raised, a party challenging governmental action must meet the threshold burden of establishing that it has suffered an “injury in fact” and that the injury it asserts “fall[s] within the zone of interests or concerns sought to be promoted or protected by the statutory provision under which the [government] has acted” (New York State Assn. of Nurse Anesthetists v Novello, 2 NY3d 207, 211 [2004]).[2] The injury-in-fact requirement necessitates a showing that the party has “an actual legal stake in the matter being adjudicated” and has suffered a cognizable harm (see Society of Plastics, 77 NY2d at 772) that is not “tenuous,” “ephemeral,” or “conjectural” but is sufficiently concrete and particularized to warrant judicial intervention (Novello, 2 NY3d at 214; see Spokeo, Inc. v Robins, 578 US __, __, 136 S Ct 1540, 1548 [2016]).

MENTAL HYGIENE v. Daniels, 33 NY 3d 44, 50 – (NY App. 2019).

What to Do

 

People familiar with my writing and videos will perhaps recognize that some of the language in Mental Hygiene is familiar. We argue the issue of standing all the time at a more basic level: a debt collector must show that it owns the right to sue – the injury in fact requirement is a constitutional necessity that the plaintiff show it owns the debt in question. Provided you dispute the debt collector’s ownership, which I have said every defendant should do in every case.

If you are alleging a violation of the FDCPA or the FCRA, you must obviously take some care to allege actual harm closely connected to the right you claim was violated.  If they are suing you for debt beyond the statute of limitations, their unfair collection practice has caused you emotional distress, the expense of hiring a lawyer or seeking help, the time reading, thinking about and responding to the suit, the price of paper in filing your answer or responsive motion, postage incurred in providing notice to the debt collector, gas in taking the suit to be filed, and whatever else you can think of.

The courts are extremely aggressive in TCPA litigation, where they have held that “a single emailed fax” was not a cognizable harm even though Congress said it was, and even though even a single emailed fax would require some time to read and elicit some emotional response. If ONE emailed fax isn’t enough despite the fact that Congress made it so, then what about two? Or twenty-two? Expect the courts to apply this type of analysis routinely, and state your damages in as lurid and concrete a fashion possible.

Many state consumer protection laws are subject to what is called “strict liability” and do not require any harm at all – even a mere “technical” violation creates liability. The Supreme Court is willing to recognize that a trespasser, by stepping one foot across the line, has caused cognizable damage even though it may not be seen, felt, or even exist at all – it’s a legal wrong (to a property interest most often held by the wealthy). Will it see deceptive sales language that did not deceive a consumer as a violation in the same way? I believe a careful litigant should consider alleging shock and outrage, perhaps a call to a lawyer  or at least photocopying expense – something, anything – to show actual harm until some theoretical limitation has been placed on the courts’ “discretion” to reconsider and reevaluate damages determined by the legislature. Spokeo abandoned the principle of Judicial limitation.

[1] Among other things, the FCRA states that “[a]ny person who willfully fails to comply with any requirement [of the Act] with respect to any [individual] is liable to that [individual]” for, among other things, either “actual damages” or statutory damages of $100 to $1,000 per violation, costs of the action and attorney’s fees, and possibly punitive damages. § 1681n(a).

[2]Apparenty Robins did not dispute his “report” (and perhaps he couldn’t because of the nature of Spokeo) and sue under the provisions provided by that. Instead, he seems to have alleged a failure of Spokeo to use the required care to obtain information. This may have been a litigation decision based on the attempt to bring the claim as a class action, which requires “commonality” of legal issues among the class members. If so, it was the wrong decision for Robins’s individual chances, as it turned out.

[3] “Imminence” has created some interesting legal issues not important here. The courts have held that an enacted law may create imminent harm, but they have also held that where the executive has renounced enforcement of the law, the harm is not imminent.

Oklahoma Law on Debt Collection

Oklahoma Debt Law

This will eventually be an article on small claims courts in Oklahoma.

Small claims courts are a frequent bane to debt defendants because they apply loose rules (of evidence and civil procedure) designed for pro se, unsophisticated parties disputing small amounts of money. Debt collectors, however, have discovered that these lax rules can make it easier for them to get even more default judgments and to win cases on obviously insufficient evidence. Oklahoma put a stop to that by enacting rules that forbid debt collectors from bringing their claims in small claims courts.

Of course this hasn’t stopped them.

Here is the rule: http://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?CiteID=438809

Here’s an article. There will be more: https://www.okbar.org/freelegalinfo/smallclaims/

Sued for Debt Action Steps

Finding out that you’re being sued for debt can be a big shock, and it also puts you at risk for losing the things you have. We have good news for you. You can protect yourself.

Could Anything Actually Make You Glad to Get Sued by Debt Collectors?!

It’s hard to believe that could happen, isn’t it – that you could actually end up glad you got sued by a debt collector? And yet it could true.

If you’re being sued by a debt collector, chances are it’s coming at the end of a long process that started with missed bills, phone calls, letters, messed up credit reports, worry, and missed sleep at night. I don’t need to tell you how awful it is. And the lawsuit itself may seem like a nightmare. After all, if you lose, you could face new problems: garnishment of wages, seizure of bank accounts, and possibly even worse.

And you can forget about your credit report if they get a judgment, right?

So How Could Getting Sued Possibly Be Good News?

The lawsuit could actually be the end of your trouble. Instead of hanging back and destroying your credit or just bugging you to death, which you can’t do much about, they’re suing you. And there’s a lot you can do about that.

That’s because the debt collectors usually start their lawsuit without what they need to win. If you play your cards right, that may give you a chance to erase your debt for good. In the process, you can take control of your life again.

Imagine how you’ll feel when you drive the debt collector away and erase the debt. You can start repairing your credit report and get back to your life. You can answer your phone without worrying about debt collectors

Finally.

Here’s what one user of our materials said about his experience:

Today I received in the mail an offer “Stipulation For Dismissal With Prejudice”,which basically states the Plaintiff will dismiss their Complaint if I dismiss my counterclaim.  All the examples,logic and powerful arguments presented in your materials helped me beyond belief! I am eternally grateful,and right now quite ecstatic!

Thanks Ken,
Frank from Arizona 

And another:

Just a quick email to say THANK YOU for your well written manual! I was scared to death when I got a Summons and Complaint served on me by a debt collection attorne. I did exactly what you said though, and basically let them know I wasn’t going away.… So I filed a Motion to Dismiss, and that was pretty much it. The Attorney folded like a cheap suit, and I have to say it almost felt better than sex!

Thanks again! 
Gary

These people, and many more, could tell you the same thing: you can beat the debt collectors.

And when you do, it will feel even better than you would ever guess. It will change your life. They’ll never push you around again. You’ll never be scared of debt collectors and their lawyers again.

If you know what you’re doing – and that’s what we teach you – you can probably win the case even if the debt collector actually has or can get what it needs. And it usually doesn’t.  Your job is to make them start looking for those records, make them start losing money and worrying about whether they will ever see their money again.

The trick is to fight. They’re not really set up to fight you if you know what you’re doing.

I Don’t Want to Tell You You Can Just Get Away with It (But You Probably Can)

I don’t want to tell you you can rack up debt and get away without paying, because we should all pay our debts. But these are tough times, and sometimes things happen that make it impossible to pay.

And sometimes those things are the fault of the banks – they have just about ruined the economy for all of us, after all. not having to pay them would only be poetic justice. Although poetic justice can wait – if they’re after you, you’re in a fight that you just need to win.

Find Out More

If you’re ready to think about taking on the debt collectors, look through our site and consider joining us. We can help you take control of your life and force the debt collectors to leave you alone.

 

Being Sued for Debt

Being Sued for Debt

If you’re already being sued for debt – that is, they’ve filed suit against you and served you (or you have found out in some other way) – you have an immediate decision to make. You could give up and let them get a judgment and take your money if they can find it. Or you could defend yourself.

It makes all the sense in the world to defend yourself.

You may think that lawyers wouldn’t file a law suit if they didn’t have the evidence to prove it, and in most kinds of cases that would be correct. Lawyers don’t want to waste their time on bad lawsuits. But in debt law it’s different. In debt law, the debt collectors take hundreds of alleged debts and file suit in all of them (if they want to) without ever looking to see whether they have any evidence that’s any good. They do that – and you might even say the HAVE to do that – because they know that almost all of the people they manage to get served with the lawsuit will give up. When you never have to fight to win, making sure you could win the suit is a waste of time. So they don’t.

As a matter of fact, you have an excellent chance of winning if you fight the debt collectors, and you can do that in one of two ways. You can either hire a lawyer or represent yourself (this is called “pro se” representation).

Going “Pro Se”

While I have always considered hiring a lawyer who understands debt law and will be aggressively on your side as the best way to defend yourself if you can afford it, there are two problems with it. First, it is almost always pretty expensive, and it can be very expensive sometimes, And secondly, it can be difficult to find the right lawyer – and it isn’t always easy to tell who is the wrong lawyer.

It can make sense to represent yourself. This type of law is not extremely complicated, and the debt collectors are often lazy or simply do not have and cannot get what they need, to beat you. If you want to take this route, then I suggest that you get one of our memberships. That will give you information and backing you can use all the way through your defense.

Hiring a Lawyer

I have always considered hiring a lawyer who knows debt law as the best option when you’re sued for debt if you can afford it. As I mention above, the challenge can be finding a lawyer who is experienced in debt law defense and who is not too expensive. I believe I have found a good option for that – a prepaid legal plan specializing in debt defense. If you think you would like to hear about this plan, check out our information on prepaid law.

Who or What is a Debt Collector

The definition of “debt collector” became a lot less clear in 2018 when the Supreme Court ruled that owning a debt made one a “creditor” regardless of the status of the debt at the time of purchase. But there are still ways to prove that the company suing you is a debt collector. Doing so means they have to follow the FDCPA – or more particularly it means that if they don’t obey it you can counterclaim against them or file suit yourself.

The Company Suing You

The company suing you, if it’s one of the big debt collectors, probably still is a debt collector. As far as I’ve heard, these companies don’t really do anything other than buy debts and collect on them. But I doubt this situation will persist. After there is some litigation quantifying what makes an activity a “principle purpose” of the business, the debt collectors will likely buy subsidiaries or engage in some other business to an extent necessary to exempt them from the FDCPA. I would, and in this area of business and law, these guys are more knowledgeable and smarter than I am. Expect them to take steps to reduce their liability.

What Is a “Debt Collector?”and When Are You being Sued by One?

So who is a debt collector? Well, there is the classic debt collector – the company that a creditor hires to hassle debtors to pay bills to the creditor. In that situation, the debt collector is an agent of the original creditor and is supposed to follow certain rules (the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act).

There’s another kind of debt collector, though. This is a business or person whose “principle business” is the collection of debts. Just what percentage of business makes the activity the “principle purpose” of the business is not clear – I would suggest it is very significant, at least 90%. But that’s just a guess at this point, as there has been very little litigation on the point. It seems clear that a bank that makes lots of money on regular banking services and also has a junk debt buying subsidiary is probably NOT a debt collector.

There is a tremendous amount of confusion of who is suing you. People will tell me that they are “being sued by a debt collector, but the name on the suit is Capital One,” for example. They think that because the lawyer signs the pleadings, or a lawfirm shows up in court, that it is the lawyer who is suing them.

And in a very limited sense – but only in a limited sense – that is correct. For most purposes, the entity suing them is the one named as “plaintiff” in the lawsuit

Lawyers who Regularly Collect Debts Are Debt Collectors

The lawyer and law firm representing the company suing you are probably debt collectors within the meaning of the FDCPA. That means that their personal actions may bring them within the law, but it isn’t always clear when they will, though. It appears that if the pleading asks for something, the lawyer signing it will be liable (on the hook) personally (and his or her lawfirm, also) for the violation. But the company won’t always be liable for the actions of the lawyer – its agent – as would normally be the case for most things.

If the company was an original creditor, and the lawyer threatened you with suit, and you sought verification of the debt, would the company be unable to sue you using the same lawyer? Not likely. Because the company – not a debt collector – has no obligations to you under the FDCPA, and that’s where the right to verification comes from. If you filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on the company’s failure to verify the debt, it should be denied.

The Name on the Lawsuit Is the Important Name

If your lawsuit says “Cap One vs. You,” you are being sued by an original creditor and not a debt collector. They don’t have to play by the rules that apply to debt collectors. That means they don’t have to verify the debt, and they can do some of the things debt collectors are not allowed to do. You need to direct you Answer, Defenses, and any Counterclaims with the awareness that the other party is the original creditor and not a debt collector. It means, for example, that they needn’t verify the debt before or after suit, and that an attack by you on the ownership of the debt is not going to work – their name is on the debt. There’s no “chain of title” issue where title has never passed to another company.

But how they act when they sue you may bring the lawyers within the FDCPA.

Preparing for Mediation Pro Se

Mediation is “rigged” against pro se defendants in debt law cases. Why do I say that? Is there some evil force at play? No…

The mediator might be trying his hardest to be fair and honest, but even so the process is rigged. To understand why, let’s first go back to who the mediator is.

A mediator is usually (but not absolutely always) a lawyer.  That is useful and appropriate in general because you generally want someone who knows how the legal process works and what you might encounter, in general, if you went to court. At the least it will almost certainly be someone who spends a lot of time in court or with lawyers and is impressed with lawyers.

Often the parties are given a list of “approved” mediators by the court. You’d have to get permission to get someone else. In some situations the parties are completely free to find their own mediator.

And I gather that in some situations a mediator is just assigned by the court automatically, and you don’t get to choose.

Mediation is Rigged

Whatever way it works, the lawyer has an advantage. The mediators have a reputation, and the lawyers can find out what that reputation is far more easily than you can. They won’t use a mediator who has a reputation of pushing too hard against them.

And the mediators know that, of course. You see, the debt collection lawyers are “constant.” They handle many, many of these cases, and if one of them decides never to use a mediator…well, that could be a lot of money to the mediator. If you decide against a mediator or don’t like him or her after going through the process, your options are extremely limited. Your opinion simply doesn’t matter as much to the mediator. And that’s true of everything in the whole process.

Lawyers Trust Lawyers

Next, have you ever heard the saying that “everything looks like a nail to someone who is good with a hammer?” That will apply to mediation. As I said, you can pretty much expect the mediator to be a lawyer or at least an ex-lawyer. Lawyers tend to respect, trust and understand other lawyers.

The mediator might like and respect you and be warm and friendly and all that. But when the chips are down, the mediator will tend to trust and believe the lawyer more than you. And he or she will also expect you to lose the case if it goes to trial, no matter what the evidence shows, because of this sympathy to the lawyer for the debt collector.

No matter what the evidence shows.

And this is true even if the mediator doesn’t specially trust or respect collection lawyers. We all know that debt collection isn’t rocket science, but lawyers come basically from the same caste, and they expect other lawyers to be able to beat non-lawyers.

Your Advantages Could Get Forgotten

The mediator will get paid regardless of whether you settle, and regardless of who wins. That reduces the amount of attention the mediator must spend on your central advantage: the price of litigation.

Further, the mediator will almost certainly not know much about debt law or the debt collection business. That means the mediator will tend to undervalue your second main advantage, the Rules of Evidence! If you have my materials (you should!), you will probably know far more about the relevant law and the “facts of life” than the mediator does. That’s because lawyers tend to take sides in their lives. I would never have represented a debt collection company, and debt collector lawyers rarely defend against debt collectors. So no debt collection attorney from either side would be likely to be truly impartial.

And most other lawyers don’t know much about debt collection at all. Thus the mediator’s tendency to trust and believe the debt collector is magnified in importance.

Mediation Can be Intimidating

Finally, let’s consider the mediation process itself. It’s a chance for one-on-one combat (so to speak) between the parties without the rules of evidence being so important. (And the rules of evidence are another of your biggest advantages). The debt collection lawyer will act like he can prove everything –no sweat. The mediator will believe that. Both will exert pressure on you to “realize” how strong the debt collector’s case is. You will feel lonely and outnumbered. The debt collector’s lawyer feels no risk in this situation –it’s just a job to him—whereas the personal stakes are much higher for you.

What You Must Remember

Through it all, you have to remember, cling tenaciously to the facts that… most debt collections lawyers do not have the evidence they need to win their case and cannot get it cheaply enough to go to trial against you and make money. What have they actually shown you? Can they pull up and show you and the mediator an affidavit from the original creditor that proves that they, the debt collector, actually own the debt, how much it is, that you owe it and didn’t pay? Can they prove that you owe the money? How? Remember that if they want to introduce any account information from the original creditor they’ve got to have either a witness or an affidavit. Can they get it cheaply enough to justify the expense? Not likely! You may have to remind the mediator of these facts—many times.

Don’t Forget Collection Risk

Also, you have to remember their “collection risk.” How likely are they going to be able to collect the money from you? If you didn’t pay (and if you owed) it was probably because you couldn’t afford to pay. Just because they manage to get a judgment, if they do and over your strenuous efforts in court and before, that doesn’t mean, by a long shot, that they’ll get their money.

Your Advantages

Your main tasks in mediation are to remember these facts. AND to remember not to provide them any information or material that could help them get past these problems. If you say you could pay, or if you admit the account was yours…you make their job in court much easier.

Also, remember your advantage: if they have a lawyer or two present, the clock is running, and someone is paying and not very happy about that. Time is on your side in mediation as elsewhere. Remember the Litigation materials and what your advantages are. If you can withstand the fear and temptation to give up, you’ll be in very good shape and can settle (or not) according to what is really in your best interests.

What to Do if Sued for Debt

What to Do if You’re Being Sued for Debt

If you are being sued for a debt, you may be intimidated or even feel panicked. You may be considering giving up, but there is really no need for you to do that. You have an excellent chance to win if you will just fight a little bit. If you’re being sued on a  debt and want to know what your options are, watch this video.

If You Are Already Being Sued

If you are already being sued, you probably should not wait for anything. You need action now. You should be doing things to protect yourself NOW. You can beat them – it’s mostly a question of knowing what you need to do and doing that thing throughout the lawsuit, while at the same time not doing the things you should not do, until you either make them go away or win at trial. It sounds simple, and it is – if you know what you’re doing.

The purpose of our debt defense memberships is to help you know and do the things you need to do. And avoid the things that might hurt you.

I have had a great deal of experience both as a litigator and web master and have realized that almost every person representing himself or herself in a debt case would do much better if

  1. they have an opportunity, preferably on a regular basis, to talk to other people who can help them with insights and information; and
  2. a lot of the work done for them.

Our membership and resources do that. They certainly will not take all the work, or much of the learning, out of it, but any of our memberships will dramatically increase your chances of winning and reduce the amount of work you have to do.

If You Are Not Already Being Sued

If you are not already being sued, and want to try to negotiate with the debt collectors or creditors to clear up your credit report or make sure they do not sue you, then you may want our Debt Negotiation Membership.

Not all negotiation and settlement happens in court, you know. It is possible to contact many creditors and debt collectors to work things out without a law suit. But – whether there is a lawsuit or not, all negotiations occur “within the shadow of the law.” That is, in order to negotiate effectively, you need to know what their rights are, and what your rights are, in the law. What can they do to you if you do not settle? And what can you do to them? Knowing the answers to these questions helps you handle the fear and uncertainty that haunts so many people as they try to get a grip on their financial lives. You can find the answers you need.

And after you find the answers that lie behind the debts, you still need to know what to say and how to say it. You’ll find plenty of help with that, too. You see, it makes a large difference who you’re talking to and where in the debt collection process you are. We do not offer empty formulas, but rather solid understanding of what they are after, what you might want or get… and a few suggestions about how to say things so you’ll get them.