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FDCPA and Minnesota and the Dakotas’ “Pocket Service”

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector is required to provide written notice of your right to dispute a debt within five days of its first attempt to collect the debt. See 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1692g(a). The law states that “a communication in the form of a formal pleading in a civil action shall not be treated as an initial communication under this section.” 15 US.C. Sec 1692g(d). The question we address here is whether the system Minnesota and the Dakotas use, which provides for service of a document that is not yet a civil action, is excluded from the definition of “initial communication.” In plain English, if a document may become part of a lawsuit, is serving it upon a debtor an initial communication under the FDCPA requiring the disclosures of Sec. 1692g(a). We argue that it is.

That would make most lawsuits, as they are currently being served in Minnesota and the Dakotas, a violation of the FDCPA.

“Pocket Service”

Minnesota and the Dakotas have a system of lawsuit initiation that is different than that of all other states, called “pocket service.” Under this procedure, plaintiffs are permitted to create what look like lawsuits and petitions and serve them on defendants without ever having filed suit. According to Minnesota law, this “commences” the action. MN Rule of Civil Procedure 3.1. Then, if the defendant fails to answer in time, the plaintiff can file suit and seek a default judgment. If the defendant does answer, however, the would-be plaintiff is free to leave the suit unfiled. It is “deemed” dismissed with prejudice if not filed within a year, MN R. Civ.P. 5.4, but “deemed” means, as is obvious, that it is NOT, in fact, dismissed – because it was never filed. Given that roughly 85% of debt cases are not answered but are in fact defaulted, while in almost all of the cases in which people do intelligently defend themselves the defendants win, pocket service is patently unjust in debt collection cases.

But our question here is, must the petition in a state allowing pocket protection include the right to dispute the debt? Or to put it slightly differently, is service of a petition and summons in a case which has not been filed constitute an “initial communication” for purposes of the FDCPA’s disclosure requirements? Our position is that it does, and that a debt collector whose first contact with a debtor is pocket service must include within that written document a notice of right to dispute.

They never do at present.

Further, even if they did include notice of the right to dispute, the pendency of the lawsuit would probably “overshadow” the right to dispute and be another violation of the FDCPA.

Here is the operative language of 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1692g:

(a) Notice of debt; contents Within five days after the initial communication with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt, a debt collector shall, unless the following information is contained in the initial communication… send the consumer a written notice containing —

(1) the amount of the debt;

(2) the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed;

(3) a statement that unless the consumer, within thirty days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector;

(4) a statement that if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt or any portion thereof, is disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment against the consumer and a copy of such verification or judgment will be mailed to the consumer by the debt collector; and

(5) a statement that, upon the consumer’s written request within the thirty-day period, the debt collector will provide the consumer with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.

Under the statute, pleadings of an “action” are not initial communications for purposes of the statute. Here is that provision at 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1692g (d):

(d) Legal pleadings

A communication in the form of a formal pleading in a civil action shall not be treated as an initial communication for purposes of subsection (a).

At first blush, Sec. 1692g(d) would seem to make a summons not an initial communication, but note that it says formal pleading “in a civil action.” The FDCPA has a section of definitions at 15 U.S.C. 1692a. It includes no definition of “civil action,” probably because the term has a widely accepted definition that it is a lawsuit that has been filed in court. With pocket service, no suit has been filed, and no suit need ever be filed. It is clearly not a pleading in a civil action. At most, it’s a pleading in what may become one.

Under Minnesota law, the action is supposedly “commenced” by service (Rule 3.1), but 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1692g(d) is federal law subject to federal interpretation – it is not governed by Minnesota’s vague use of the word “commenced.” At the time service is made, no court has knowledge of or jurisdiction over the matter – there has been no judicial involvement at all – and there may never be. Such a document cannot reasonably be construed as an actually existing lawsuit.

In addition to the plain language of the statute referring to a “civil action” and not a “potential civil action,” courts should require the FDCPA warnings in pocket service because the FDCPA is a “remedial” statute that should be read broadly and it is necessary to protect the interests the FDCPA requirements were designed to protect.

The purpose of the dispute provision of the FDCPA is to prevent debt collectors from pursuing people who do not owe the money. Congress had found that many such suits resulted in default judgments that were unjust. That risk, and that result, are plainly present in the pocket service jurisdictions. Moreover, as I understand the law, a debt collector can continue to communicate – completely free of the FDCPA – for up to a year under the most coercive conditions imaginable, before needing to file suit and submit to a court’s oversight.

The justification often given for exempting pleadings in a suit from the protections of the FDCPA is that once suit is filed, a court has oversight of the matter and can prevent overreaching and unjust behaviors. If pocket service is permitted without the notices required by the FDCPA, then the protections are withdrawn without that judicial oversight. Indeed, that state of affairs would enable the very thing the FDCPA was designed to prevent for the very reason that it allows debt collectors to seek default judgments without costs or judicial oversight, but to drop the case in the event a defense is offered, also without cost. So frivolous and unjust suits are encouraged, and debt collectors – notorious for their dishonesty and overreaching – would be permitted to set up a “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario fundamentally at odds with the purpose of the FDCPA.

If the defendant appears and defends, then the quasi lawsuit can continue without judicial oversight for up to a year (or even beyond) without a court even becoming aware of it. Such a situation is ripe for abuse, and there can be no doubt that is being abused on a routine basis.

The fact that Minnesota and the Dakotas would allow such a process for lawsuits other than debt collection may reflect badly on them but has no effect on the FDCPA. Under the Supremacy clause of the constitution, Federal law governs where there is any conflict with state law. The FDCPA makes pocket service without the notices required by the FDCPA illegal.

Don’t be a “Verification Sucker” – When You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

When a debt collector sues you as the first thing you hear from it (they can do that), this does not give you a right to dispute and require verification. Your rights are through the legal process, and you must answer the petition or you will be defaulted. Sometimes debt collectors use people’s confusion over their rights and do things which suggest you could dispute the debt. This video discusses your rights.

You would be amazed how often people ask me whether they should “just send a verification letter” to the company or law firm when they get served with a debt lawsuit. Or as one person put it, “now that I’ve called the court to tell them I object, should I just send a verification letter? Or was that enough?”

No. It wasn’t enough – it wasn’t even anything at all.

Dispute and Verification

Click here for a copy of this article in pdf form: Don’t be Verification Sucker

Let’s take a quick step back here and review some facts and some rights.

When a debt collector first contacts you regarding a debt it is attempting to collect, it is required by law to provide you certain information. If the contact is not in writing, it must send you a notice in writing. If the contact is in writing, that contact must contain a notice. That notice must inform you of the debt collector’s identity, the nature and amount of the debt in question, and your right to dispute the debt and require verification. People often refer to this notice as the “verification letter,” although more properly it’s a notice of the right to dispute the debt. If you dispute, they must verify the debt before attempting to collect again, and you have thirty days to dispute the debt.

If they don’t want to attempt to collect again, they don’t need to dispute. It’s a law supposed to prevent continued attempts to collect on an unverified debt.

A Lawsuit is NOT a First Contact

If you’ve never heard from a debt collector, can they sue you for a past due debt? And if they do, must they give you notice of your right to dispute? Yes. And no. They can sue you without first bugging you for money. If they do sue you, the lawsuit is NOT a contact that triggers your right to dispute and verification. That’s what the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) says, and the reason for that is simple: you’re in the court system and play by court rules once a lawsuit gets filed.

You Must Answer

And the court rules are that once you get served with a lawsuit you must file an Answer (or other “responsive filing” – a motion to dismiss, for example) or you will be in default. Put another way, if you don’t respond in court with an Answer denying liability or a motion to change or get rid of the lawsuit, you will lose. The lawsuit changes the rules, and you “aren’t in Kansas anymore.” [That’s what Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz when all the weird things start happening.]

Don’t be a Verification Sucker

The debt lawyers know the rules very well, and one would like to think that it’s only an “excess of caution” that causes them sometimes to print the FDCPA language on their lawsuit. But given the fact that so many people have sent dispute letters instead of answers, and the fact that the debt collectors KNOW this, that might be naïve.

What I’m here to tell you is that whether or not such language is on your lawsuit, YOU MUST ANSWER THE SUIT or face a default judgment. Don’t be a sucker – file an Answer or other responsive document within the time allowed by the rules of civil procedure. You must defend yourself in court – you’re not in Kansas anymore, and the FDCPA no longer applies.

A Little Window, Maybe

Litigation does not technically rule out the FDCPA entirely, just the “first contact” rule. It may be that the debt collector’s attachment of the notice to a lawsuit is itself a violation of the FDCPA, as it may be an attempt to sucker you into seeking verification instead of answering the lawsuit. It might be an unfair attempt to get a default judgment. I have argued as much before. That might give you a counterclaim to their lawsuit.

And if you have sought verification rather than answering, and they got a default judgment, you should certainly consider moving to vacate that judgment either on the basis of that deception or your own confusion. The courts favor judgments on the merits rather than technicalities, so there’s a very good chance such a motion to vacate, if filed in time, would work.

But these are not exceptions to the rule that you must respond to the lawsuit in court. If you get sued, the FDCPA no longer applies in that way. You must respond or they will get a default judgment against you, and the next you will hear about it will be when they garnish your wages or bank accounts. Don’t let that happen.

Disputing and demanding verification would be much easier, no doubt, but it doesn’t work at this point.

Don’t look for the “easy” way. Look for the RIGHT way.

 

Debt Verification – How to Protect Yourself

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Dispute and Debt Verification under FDCPA

Within five days of first contact, a debt collector is supposed to identify itself and advise you of your right under the FDCPA to seek verification. This right will also have what we call the “mini-Miranda,” which is notification to you that the communication is seeking payment of a debt (alleged debt) and that any information you provide will be used for the purpose of collecting that debt. You should dispute the debt and demand verification.

Disputing – A Step toward Protecting What’s Yours

Mini-Miranda

You must take the mini-Miranda seriously. Debt collectors often record, and always at least make notes of, anything you say. They are building a file on you from the first time they contact you. You should remember that anything you say that reveals financial information will be remembered by the debt collector, and that anything you say that sounds bad for you, like cussing or name-calling, may come up again at a bad time for you. This is why I say that silence is golden with debt collectors.

Verification

The other right you are told about, of course, is your right to seek “verification” or “validation.” If you request it within thirty days of receiving notice of your right, the debt collector must validate the debt and notify you before taking any further action on the debt. For some reason, debt collectors often will not do this if you seek verification, but instead will either ignore the request or sell the debt and move on to greener pastures.

What Is Verification?

Verification is not a clearly defined term. It was certainly not required as a means of slowing the debt collection process substantially. It appears to be almost a pure formality, but it does at least, according to most courts, require the debt collector to contact the original creditor and make sure, in some vague sense, that the debt is supposed to involve you. If that sounds vague or minimal to you, I’m sure you’re right. But it is an actual obligation that the debt collector take some time and do something besides harass you, and it does require them to stop harassing you, and it may give you a claim against them if they continue bugging you before verifying the debt. These are all good things.

And it often makes them go away entirely.

Talking with Debt Collectors

If you have debt troubles at all, you’re probably going to be getting calls from debt collectors. Should you answer them and speak to the debt collectors? If so, what should you say? Usually you should not say anything at all, but if you have something you need to say, say it and then hang up.

Most of the Time, Silence Is Golden

Most of the time you should not be talking to debt collectors unless you have a specific, well-defined reason to do so. Otherwise, you can end up making their life a lot easier – and yours a lot harder.

There is almost no reason to talk to a debt collector. If you HAVE all the money they want, and you want to pay it, then it would make sense to negotiate. If you think you have enough to make a deal, you might also negotiate, but you should remember not to admit anything. YOU CAN ALWAYS NEGOTIATE A SETTLEMENT WITHOUT ADMITTING THAT YOU OWE THE MONEY.  People ask me that all the time – and yet everybody knows that companies settle lawsuits all the time without admitting they did anything wrong. You can do it because the assertion of a claim, or the threat (or existence) of a lawsuit is a threat. You settle to make that threat go away.

If you don’t have enough money to make a deal for at least 70% of the debt, it’s usually a bad idea to attempt to negotiate beyond a very preliminary stage. The person you’re talking to doesn’t have authority to make such a deal. So you can say you might pay 10% of the debt, but it would make no sense in attempting to negotiate beyond that. You will need to talk to someone higher in authority. You could ask to speak to that person.

Beyond that, anything you say will likely just be wasting your energy and time and may lead to other trouble. Remember that your dispute, in order to force verification, needs to be in writing, so you can tell the debt collector you dispute the debt but don’t forget the dispute letter.

Verification under FDCPA

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Right to Verification Can be Deceptive

The Right to Verification of the Debt

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When a debt collector communicates with you the first time, it is required to give you written notice of your right to dispute the debt and require “verification.” In my opinion, the level of verification required by law – if you make your dispute in writing – is pretty minimal. Still, the fact is that requiring validation seems to make a significant number of debt collectors go away, so it is apparently worth doing for that reason. It’s also an important first step in preparing to defend yourself from a law suit if it happens.

Remember, they don’t HAVE to verify – they simply have to verify before taking any further actions to collect. If they leave you alone, they don’t have to do anything else.

Deceptive Notice of a Right to Verify

A Dirty Trick by Debt Collectors: “This is a Communication by a Debt Collector” on the Lawsuit

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The essence of this trick is the habit debt collection lawyers have of putting on the legal pleadings that “this communication is an attempt to collect a debt… [ and on to the right to require verification].” The problem with this is two-fold. If it WERE a qualified communication, it would violate the FDCPA because the fact of the lawsuit and the timing required by that would “overshadow” the right to require validation.

HOWEVER, A LAWSUIT IS NOT A COMMUNICATION attempting to collect a debt under the FDCPA. Suggesting that it is one, and offering a “right” to require verification, can lure consumers into disputing the debt and requesting validation instead of answering the suit. Then, while they’re waiting for the debt collector to answer their dispute, the debt collector is getting a default judgment against them.

I know they do this trick, and I know that some people fall for it. If you have, you have a strong case for a motion to vacate the judgment. And the whole thing is probably a violation of the FDCPA and would give you a counterclaim under the appropriate circumstances.

Requiring Verification – Your Secret Weapon against Debt Collectors

When you get the first notice that a debt collector is after you, you should get an opportunity to “dispute and request verification.” That right is provided by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Click here to get your free copy of the FDCPA. This video here explains why you should dispute the debt and require the debt collector to verify it. In other words, always seek verification  And this video shows you how to do it, and how it affects some of your other rights, because often a debt collector will either disappear completely once you seek verification or will fail to provide verification but still harass you – a violation of the FDCPA.

But remember this does not work if they file suit against you – if you don’t answer a lawsuit when it is filed, you will lose the case. See Bogus Right to Verification on Petition – Dirty Trick! If you have already sought verification but not received it, you might file a motion to dismiss based on their failure to verify.

Here’s what to do if they fail to verify the debt before suing you.

When debt collectors contact you for the first time, they are supposed to send you a written notice of your right to dispute and require them to verify the debt. They are to inform you that you have 30 days to send in this dispute, and if you do so, they are supposed to “verify” the debt prior to taking any further collection actions.

Now, to be clear, we do not think the “verification” to which you have a right under the FDCPA amounts to much, but we do, in fact, recommend making sweeping demands of the debt collector. At a minimum, you may get some materials that will be useful if they decide to sue you. And there’s a pretty good chance that disputing the debt will cause them to go away and leave you alone. I have never had a satisfactory explanation for why this might be, but it appears to be the case. Therefore it makes sense to demand verification when you first hear from a debt collector.

Take NOTE

This right to verification does not extend to law suits. If they serve you with a lawsuit, you must answer the petition or lose the case. You HAVE NO RIGHT TO VERIFICATION ONCE THEY FILE SUIT. But if they have contacted you, and you have demanded verification before they filed suit, then they should verify before filing suit. Failure to do so violates the FDCPA.

Also note two other things: your dispute should be in writing – they don’t have to verify if it isn’t. And while you have only thirty days to make the dispute, they can take any amount of time in providing that verification – it’s just that they cannot make other attempts to collect the debt until they do.

Two Kinds of Verification – FDCPA and FCRA- and How to Use them

We have spent much of our time talking about “verification” on our site and videos, and what we have meant in most of that has been the “verification” process provided by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). But there is another kind of validation you can use – validation as permitted by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

We talk about that below and discuss how you can use both forms of validation, together or separately, to your advantage in defending yourself from the debt collectors and in repairing your credit.

The two kinds of verification are different rights. They apply in different circumstances, to possibly different “persons” under different circumstances, give different rights, and have different time requirements.

You can use them both, but they are completely separate. It is important to keep them straight.

Make sure you keep track of everything you do under either statute, and make sure that the response you get is appropriate for the statute you used for the specific right you invoke.

Rights under the FDCPA

Under the FDCPA, when a debt collector first contacts you on a debt, it is required by law to notify you of your right to dispute the debt and require “validation” or “verification.” The two words are used interchangeably, and the requirement is quite simple in general:

  • First, the debt collector must notify you of the right to dispute within 30 days (along with giving you the “mini-Miranda” warning – that anything you say may be used for collection of a debt) within five days of first contacting you.
  • And then, the debt collector must “verify” the debt if you ask within the thirty days provided.

Just to make clear, it is YOU who have 30 days to dispute after getting the notice of your rights. The debt collector does not literally even have to do anything at all and also has no time limit. It’s just that, if you dispute and request verification, it cannot make further attempts to collect on the debt until it has verified it.

Exactly what verifying it is, is not exactly clear.

It would appear that contacting the original creditor and “establishing” that the debt is yours would be enough. That’s because the purpose of the requirement is not to require a separate lawsuit, but just to protect consumers from harassment based on typos or mistaken identities. The debt collector has to take some action to connect you to the debt if you dispute it under the FDCPA.

Even this low burden often seems to be too much, and possibly that is because the second owner of the debt (if there is one) has no relationship to the original creditor and simply cannot get the debt verified.  Whatever the reason, asking for verification is often enough to make them go away. If they try to collect without having verified, that violates the FDCPA. And that in turn might allow you to stop a lawsuit brought against you.

Remember, however, that when the debt collector immediately files suit against you, this is not a “first contact” which triggers your right to notice and dispute. If you get served, you have to answer (or move to dismiss). It is not enough to request verification.

Disputing under the Fair Credit Reporting Act

There is another kind of validation, and it is completely different from the FDCPA, although you can use it to fight debt collectors, too. It is the validation provided for by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

This is your right to “dispute” an item on your credit report.

You do this after looking at your credit report and seeing something that is not positive. Let’s say you see a debt collector reporting that you owe a debt. Remember your right to verification under the FDCPA comes when the debt collector first contacts you to try to collect the debt. You can dispute a line item on your credit report at any time.

There are rules, and there are better and worse ways to do it. But it does not depend on the other side being a debt collector or having tried to collect the debt. It simply requires that they have put some bad information on your credit report.

When you seek verification under the FDCPA, the debt collector has to verify the debt before making further attempts to collect. When you “dispute” the debt under the FCRA, it doesn’t affect collection. Instead, you are forcing the company to “investigate” the debt and show that what it is saying to the credit reporting agencies is true.

If the company reporting you cannot validate the debt, it is just required to withdraw the offending credit reference. But it could still try to collect the debt.

If it does keep trying to collect the debt after withdrawing a bad credit reference, that might be a type of admission that it can’t prove the debt if the case goes to a lawsuit.

But it probably isn’t controlling on the case because “validation” of a credit report is not

the same thing as proving that the debt is valid.

A Helpful Strategy

Here’s a strategy that might be helpful. If you receive a bill from a junk debt buyer – a company that bought your debt from the original creditor, in other words – you should

send a request for verification under the FDCPA right away. Then you should and get your credit report and look at it.

If the debt collector is reporting your debt on your credit report, you will want to dispute the credit report and seek validation under the FCRA. Separately.

Remember these are completely different rights. Your sending two different disputes may confuse the debt collector, but remember that under the FDCPA it must provide proof as to your identity and its right to bug you, while under the FCRA it must explain why the information it put on your credit report was correct. The debt collector may not verify under the FCRA, in which case you can clear your credit report.

If it DOES try to validate, it will probably give you information that it would object to having to provide if it were suing you for the debt – so it’s a shortcut to some discovery in that situation.

You should not try to do the FCRA verification first because it takes too much time.

To do the credit dispute right you have to get your credit report and dispute it with the credit bureau before you dispute it with the debt collector under the FCRA if you want to protect all your rights. You don’t have time to work your way through the FCRA before asserting your FDCPA rights.

On the other hand, if the company does not verify under the FDCPA, that would be worth mentioning as a basis for your credit dispute.

We should add that when you get the first letter from the debt collector you may not even know whether it is reporting you on your credit report. They often do not, so you won’t know whether or not you will have anything under the FCRA. But if they are contacting you, you have the right under the FDCPA. Since it only lasts for 30 days, you need not to delay in disputing.

We always recommend sending your disputes by certified mail (and keep all the proof). You don’t have to do this legally, but these things often come down to a question of what you can prove, and having proof from the postal service is a very good investment.

Demanding Verification is NOT a Substitute for an Answer to Lawsuit

Don’t be a Verification Sucker

Demanding verification of your debt will NOT prevent a default judgment if you get sued.

People in debt trouble hear a lot about debt validation, and that is a good thing. I have argued that even though verification requires little from the debt collector, it’s still a good idea to make the demand when you’re first contacted by a debt collector who is trying to harass you into paying. I think that requesting verification sends a signal to the debt collector that you will defend your rights. If you get sued by a debt collector – even if that’s the first you’ve ever heard from them – you must do more. You must answer the lawsuit by filing your answer in court.

Anything short of that allows the debt collector to get a default judgment, and that will effectively end your rights to fight the debt.

Conclusion

When a debt collector (or creditor) files suit against you, you will have to file an answer in court to avoid a default judgment. Many people think all they have to do is “dispute the debt and request verification.” The right to verification, however, applies only to collection efforts that are not part of a lawsuit. Don’t be a verification sucker – file an Answer and defend yourself.