This article previously appeared on Ballard Spahr's CFPB Monitor and is republished here with permission. The post was co-authored by John L. Culhane, Jr. and Christopher J. Willis.

The CFPB has filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff in Arias v. Gutman, Mintz, Baker & Sonnenfeldt, PC and 1700 Development Co., a FDCPA case on appeal to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  In its brief, the CFPB states that its interest in the case stems from its FDCPA enforcement authority and its special mandate to protect older Americans from unfair, deceptive or abusive practices.

The defendants in the case are a landlord and a debt collection law firm seeking to collect a default judgment against the plaintiff for unpaid rent obtained by the landlord.  The law firm issued a restraining notice to the plaintiff’s bank  which restrained a portion of the plaintiff’s funds on deposit after establishing that the remaining funds were automatically protected as deposits of Social Security benefits.  The plaintiff subsequently claimed an exemption for all of the funds in his account on the basis that  the only deposits to the account were monthly Social Security benefits. 

The law firm objected to the exemption claim by commencing a special proceeding in state court supported by an affirmation.  In its supporting affirmation, the law firm claimed that (1) it was not possible to determine the amount of exempt funds because the plaintiff did not provide any records starting from a zero balance, and (2) the Social Security benefits would lose their exempt status if commingled with non-exempt funds and the plaintiff failed to provide documents showing there had been no commingling.  The law firm eventually stipulated to the release of the restrained funds.

The plaintiff thereafter filed an action in federal district court in which he alleged that the law firm’s objection was false, misleading, and deceptive in violation of the FDCPA and was also unfair and unconscionable in violation of the FDCPA.  The district court assumed the claims made by the law firm in the objection were false but determined they were not actionable because they were not material.

The court found that the misrepresentations would not have impeded the ability of the “least sophisticated consumer” to respond to or dispute collection because the objection sought a prompt hearing and, even though he appeared pro se, the plaintiff had received an exemption notice that included information about how to obtain free legal representation.  The court also determined that the least sophisticated consumer would realize that the law firm’s misstatement about commingling funds would not have been a sufficient ground to allow the law firm to garnish the funds.

In addition, the court concluded that the law firm could not have engaged in unfair or unconscionable conduct because it had objectively complied with New York process, whether or not it had acted in bad faith.  The court also found that the existence of a separate remedy under New York law made it  unnecessary to impose liability under the FDCPA.  Accordingly, the court granted judgment on the pleadings to the defendants.

In its brief, the CFPB argues that the district court erred in rejecting the consumer’s claims and asks the Second Circuit to vacate the judgment on the pleadings and remand the case to the district court.  According to the CFPB, under the objective least sophisticated consumer standard, the district court should have considered the effect of the law firm’s misstatement about commingling on a hypothetical consumer, rather than on a plaintiff who claimed never to have commingled his account.  It also asserts that the law firm’s misrepresentations were material because the information would have been important to the least sophisticated consumer in deciding how (and whether to) respond to the law firm’s objection.

The CFPB also calls the district court’s reliance on the law firm’s compliance with New York procedures “fundamentally misplaced,” arguing that the plaintiff’s allegation that the law firm filed a baseless pleading in the hopes of recovering exempt funds stated a FDCPA claim.  It also argues that the plaintiff’s claim “is no less viable because he could have also pursued relief under New York law.”


Advertisement