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Jerman v. Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer & Ulrich, L.P.A. - 559 U.S. 573, 130 S. Ct. 1605 (2010)

Rule:

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) imposes civil liability on debt collectors for certain prohibited debt collection practices. 15 U.S.C.S. § 1692k(c) provides that a debt collector is not liable in an action brought under the FDCPA if she can show that the violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error.

Facts:

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq., imposes civil liability on “debt collectors” for certain prohibited debt collection practices. A debt collector who “fails to comply with any FDCPA provision with respect to any person is liable to such person” for “actual damages,” costs, “a reasonable attorney's fee as determined by the court,” and statutory “additional damages.” § 1692k(a). In addition, violations of the FDCPA are deemed unfair or deceptive acts or practices under the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), § 41 et seq., which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). A debt collector who acts with “actual knowledge or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances that such act is [prohibited under the FDCPA]” is subject to civil penalties enforced by the FTC. §§ 45(m)(1)(A)(C). A debt collector is not liable in any action brought under the FDCPA, however, if it “shows by a preponderance of evidence that the violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error.” § 1692k(c).

Respondents, a law firm and one of its attorneys (collectively Carlisle), filed a lawsuit in Ohio state court on behalf of a mortgage company to foreclose a mortgage on real property owned by petitioner Jerman. The complaint included a notice that the mortgage debt would be assumed valid unless Jerman disputed it in writing. Jerman's lawyer sent a letter disputing the debt, and, when the mortgage company acknowledged that the debt had in fact been paid, Carlisle withdrew the suit. Jerman then filed this action, contending that by sending the notice requiring her to dispute the debt in writing, Carlisle had violated § 1692g(a) of the FDCPA, which governs the contents of notices to debtors. The District Court, acknowledging a division of authority on the question, held that Carlisle had violated § 1692g(a) but ultimately granted Carlisle summary judgment under § 1692k(c)'s “bona fide error” defense. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the defense in § 1692k(c) is not limited to clerical or factual errors, but extends to mistakes of law.

Issue:

Did the Court of Appeals err in holding that the defense of bona fide error under 15 U.S.C.S. § 1692k(c) applied to the attorney's legal error?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the bona fide error defense in § 1692k(c) did not apply to the violation of the FDCPA resulting from the attorney's incorrect interpretation of the requirements of the FDCPA. The attorney, the same as every debt collector, was precluded from claiming ignorance of the law to excuse the violation, and the violation resulting from the attorney's legal misinterpretation could not be "not intentional" under § 1692k(c). Further, § 1692k(c) did not explicitly provide for the mistake-of-law defense to civil liability that appeared in other statutes, indicating that liability attached to intentional violations, and excluding errors of law from the defense did not place unmanageable burdens on lawyers who acted as debt collectors.

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