4th Cir. Holds Express Demand For Payment Not Required to State FDCPA Claim Against Foreclosure Firm

In McCray v. Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that a borrower stated a claim under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §1692 et seq., (“FDCPA”) against a foreclosure law firm, noting that the definition of a “debt collector” does not require an “express demand for payment.” Rather, relying on its prior holding inWilson v. Draper & Goldberg, P.L.L.C., 443 F.3d 373, 374-76 (2006), the Court determined that Borrower sufficiently alleged that a law firm and substitute trustees were engaged in conduct regulated by the FDCPA, because their foreclosure activities were “in connection with” the collection of a debt or “an attempt” to collect a debt. 

The Court also determined inapplicable the FDCPA’s exclusion from the definition of a “debt collector” for  collection activities “incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation” noting that foreclosure is “central to,” not incidental, to the trustees’ obligation under the deed of trust.   

A copy of the opinion can be found here.


Shortly after foreclosure proceedings commenced against her Maryland home, Borrower brought an action for damages under the FDCPA in federal court against the law firm (“Law Firm”), and attorneys within the firm who were appointed as substitute trustees under the deed of trust securing her mortgage loan (collectively “Substitute Trustees”).   Borrower also sued the owner of the loan and her loan servicer, claiming, among other things, that they violated the federal Truth-in-Lending Act (“TILA), 15 U.S.C. § 1601, et seq.  As to all defendants, Borrower alleged that defendants failed to provide her with certain notices and requested information purportedly required by these statutes.  Regarding the owner of the loan, she claimed that it failed to provide her notice when it purchased the loan, as required under TILA, 15 U.S.C. § 1641(g).  As to her loan servicer, she asserted that an assignment of her deed of trust also required it to afford her notice under TILA.

The district court dismissed the FDCPA claims against Law Firm and the Substitute Trustees, distinguishing their role in initiating foreclosure proceedings, from a role focused on collecting the debt.  The district court noted that, even where a communication included a provision indicating that it was “an attempt to collect a debt,” it does not qualify as an attempt to collect a debt under Blagogee v. Equity Trustees, LLC, 2010 Wl 2933962 at *5-6, “unless there is an express demand for payment and other ‘specific information about the debt, including the amount of the debt, the creditor to the debt is owned, the procedure for validating the debt, and to whom the debt should be paid.” Id.  Applying the Blagogee factors, the district court concluded that Borrower had failed to “allege any facts indicating that [Law Firm] or the [Substitute Trustees] were engaged in any attempt to collect a debt.”  Op. at 7.

The district court also either dismissed or granted summary judgment as to Borrower’s remaining claims against the lender and loan servicer.  Borrower thereafter appealed.


Reversing the dismissal of the FDCPA claims against the Law Firm and Substitute Trustees, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Borrower had adequately alleged that they were debt collectors, and that their actions constituted debt collection activity regulated by the FDCPA.  Op. at 16.

Citing the definition of a “debt collector” under Section 1692a(6), the Court determined that such definition does not include any requirement that a debt collector be engaged in an activity by which it makes a “demand for payment.”  Op. at 11.  Rather, to be actionable, a debt collector need only have used a prohibited practice “in connection with” the collection of a debt or in an “attempt” to collect a debt.” Op. at 12 (citing Powell v. Palisades Acquisition XVI, LLC, 782 F. 3d 119, 123 (4th Cir. 2014)).

The Court found dispositive its prior holding in Wilson, in which it determined that a law firm that sent the borrower notice that it was preparing foreclosure papers, and who later initiated foreclosure proceedings, could be a debt collector under the meaning of the FDCPA because those foreclosure actions constitute attempts to collect a debt.

Thus, here, the Court concluded that “[i]t is clear from the complaint in this case that the whole reason that the [Law Firm] and its members were retained by [the creditor] was to attempt, through the process of foreclosure to collect on the $66,500 loan in default.”  Op. at 14.  The Court observed that documents furnished by the Law Firm and/or Substitute Trustees to Borrower indicated that they were pursuing foreclosure because she missed one or more payments; indicated that if she did not bring the loan current, such as by repayment, a foreclosure action may be filed in court; and provided Borrower with the nature of the default and the amount necessary to cure.  “Thus, all of the defendants’ activities were taken in connection with the collection of a debt or an attempt to collect a debt.” Op. at 15 (Emphasis in original).

The Fourth Circuit also found inapplicable the fiduciary exclusion to the definition of debt collector under Section 1692a(6)(F)(i) for collections activities “incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation.”  Op. at 15-16.  The Court noted that foreclosure was “central” – not incidental – to the trustee’s obligation under the deed of trust.

As to the TILA claim regarding allegations of failure to provide notice of the transfer of ownership of the loan under 15 U.S.C. § 1641(g), the Court noted that Borrower failed to challenge the trial court’s determination that she was required to allege that the loan transferred after 2009, when the subject provision was enacted.  Further, the Court also determined that, because Borrower conceded that she had notice of the transfer to the owner of the loan more than one-year prior to filing the lawsuit, the claim was barred by TILA’s one-year statute of limitations. 

The Court also affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the TILA claim against her loan servicer, determining that allegations of assignment of the beneficial interest under a deed of trust (as opposed to legal title) did not implicate the statute.  In addition to failing to challenge such ruling, the Court observed that her allegations were inconsistent with her claims against the loan owner.

Consequently, the Court reversed only the dismissal of the FDCPA claims against the Law Firm and Substitute Trustees and remanded the case for further proceedings, expressly stating that its conclusion “is not to be construed to indicate, one way or the other, whether they, as debt collectors, violated the FDCPA.”  Op. at 20.


4th Cir. Holds No FDCPA Violation For Filing Proof of Claim on Time-Barred Debt

In Dubois v. Atlas Acquisitions, LLC, a majority panel of the Fourth Circuit recently held that, while the filing of a proof of claim in a borrower’s bankruptcy proceeding constitutes “debt collection”, filing a proof of claim in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy based upon a time-barred debt does not violate the FDCPA or state collection laws so long as the statute of limitations itself does not extinguish the debt.  The Court noted that under Maryland law, the statute of limitations does not extinguish the debt itself, but merely bars the remedy. 

Consequently, the Fourth Circuit rejected the Eleventh Circuit’s holding in Crawford v. LVNV Funding, LLC, 758 F.3d 1254, 1259-60 & n.6 (11th Cir. 2014), noting that the “[t]he Eleventh Circuit in Crawford is the only court of appeals to hold that filing a proof of claim on a time-barred debt in a Chapter 13 proceeding violates the FDCPA.”

A copy of the opinion can be found here


At the outset, the Court determined that filing a proof of claim is debt collection activity subject to the FDCPA.  The Court explained that “[d]etermining whether a communication constitutes an attempt to collect a debt is a ‘commonsense inquiry’ that evaluates the ‘nature of the parties’ relationship,’ the ‘[objective] purpose and context of the communication[],’ and whether the communication includes a demand for payment.”  Op. at 9 (citations omitted).

In the bankruptcy context, the “only relationship between [the parties] [is] that of a debtor and debt collector. . . . [and] the ‘animating purpose’ in filing a proof of claim is to obtain payment by sharing in the distribution of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.” Op. at 9-10.  Consequently, “[p]recedent and common sense dictate that filing a proof of claim is an attempt to collect a debt.  The absence of an explicit demand for payment does not alter that conclusion, . . . nor does the fact that the bankruptcy court may ultimately disallow the claim.” Op. at 10.

Nevertheless, in an explicit departure from the Eleventh Circuit’s holding in Crawford, the Court determined that filing a proof of claim based on a debt that is beyond the applicable statute of limitations does not violate the FDCPA. 

To that end, the Court considered whether a time-barred debt fell within the definition of a claim in the bankruptcy context.   The Court observed that “while the Bankruptcy Code provides that time-barred debts are to be disallowed, see, e.g., 11 U.S.C § 558, the Code nowhere suggests that such debts are not to be filed in the first place.”  Op. at 16.  Rather, recent amendments to Rule 3001 suggest that “the Code contemplates that untimely debts will be filed as claims but ultimately disallowed.”  Op. at 16-17.  As such, they fall within the definition of a claim within the bankruptcy context.

Further, the Court determined that excluding time-barred debts from the scope of bankruptcy “claims” would frustrate the Code’s intended effect to define the scope of a claim as broadly as possible, and provide the debtor the broadest possible relief.  The Court also observed that under applicable Maryland law, the statute of limitations does not extinguish the debt, but merely bars the remedy.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that “when the statute of limitations does not extinguish debts, a time-barred debt falls within the Bankruptcy Code’s broad definition of a claim.”  Op. at 17.

Moreover, the Court noted a unique consideration in the bankruptcy context: “if a bankruptcy proceeds as contemplated by the Code, a claim based on a time-barred debt will be objected to by the trustee, disallowed, and ultimately discharged, thereby stopping the creditor from engaging in any further collection activity.”  Op. at 18.  Alternatively, “[i]f the debt is unscheduled and no proof of claim is filed, the debt continues to exist and the debt collector may lawfully pursue collection activity apart from filing a lawsuit.”  Op. at 19. 

The Court rejected the borrower’s claim that trustees and creditors fail to object to time-barred debts, noting that “for most Chapter 13 debtors, the amount they pay into their bankruptcy plans is unaffected by the number of unsecured claims that are filed.”  Op. at 20.  “As additional claims are filed, unsecured creditors receive a smaller share of available funds but the total amount paid by most Chapter 13 debtors remains unchanged.  Thus, from the perspective of most Chapter 13 debtors, it may in fact be preferable for a time-barred claim to be filed even if it is not objected to, as the debtor will likely pay the same total amount to creditors and the debt can be discharged.”  Op. at 20-21 (emphasis in original).

Moreover, the Court noted various other considerations that differentiate filing a proof of claim on a time-barred debt from filing a lawsuit to collect such debt.  Op. at 21-23.  Consequently, the majority concluded that “filing a proof of claim in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy based on a debt that is time-barred does not violate the FDCPA when the statute of limitations does not extinguish the debt.”  Op. at 23.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the Debtor’s FDCPA and state law collection claims.

Md. App. Ct. Holds Debtor Cannot Attack Prior Collection Judgment as Void, Where Defense Previously Rejected; Rejects “Meaningful Review” Allegations Under FDCPA

In Mostofi v. Midland Funding, LLC, et al., the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that a debtor could not collaterally attack a credit card judgment on jurisdictional grounds, where he raised and lost on the same issues in the prior collection case.  The Court distinguished a prior decision – which held that judgments in favor of an unlicensed debt collector are void – because, unlike the present case, the judgments at issue in the prior decision were uncontested. 

The Court further rejected the Debtor’s claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §1692, et seq. (FDCPA), including claims that the Creditor’s attorney failed to engage in meaningful review prior to filing suit, and expressly rejected the rationale of Bock v. Pressler & Pressler, 30 F.Supp.3d 283 (D.N.J. 2014).

A copy of the opinion is available here.

In Mostofi, Debtor had incurred credit card debt that had ultimately been assigned to Creditor.  In a prior collection case, Debtor claimed that Creditor lacked standing, because he claimed it lacked a proper chain of assignment for the debt and challenged the count owed.  Ultimately, after exhausting his appeals, a final judgment was rendered in favor of Creditor. 

Separately, Debtor filed a lawsuit in state court, which was ultimately amended to assert that because Creditor “did not own the debt, [it] lacked standing to sue him and the judgment in the collection case was void.”  Slip Op. at 4.  Debtor also asserted claims against Creditor and its attorneys under the FDCPA and related state statutes premised upon his theory that Creditor’s claim of ownership and the amount of the debt constituted “false, deceptive, or misleading statements,”  Slip Op. at 5, and alleged that the attorneys failed to engage in meaningful review of the lawsuit before filing, asserting this conduct also violated the FDCPA as articulated in Bock v. Pressler & Pressler, 30 F.Supp.3d 283 (D.N.J. 2014).

Creditor moved to dismiss, contending that Debtors claims were barred by res judicata, and collateral estoppel, and otherwise failed to state a viable claim for relief.  After determining that the law firm had not been properly served, the trial court granted Creditor’s motion to dismiss, and Debtor appealed.

Affirming, the Maryland intermediate appellate court held that Debtor’s attack on the judgment was barred under the doctrine of res judicata due to the prior judgment in the collection action.  The Court explained that under Maryland’s permissive counterclaim rules, a defendant “is not required to ‘raise or waive’ that counterclaim unless successful prosecution of it would nullify the other party’s claim  . . . .”  Slip Op. at 9 (Emphasis added). 

The Court observed that Debtor’s “explicit purpose” in arguing that Creditor lacked standing to sue him, was to render the collection case’s judgment a nullity.  Slip Op. at 12.  “Having failed to convince one trial court that jurisdiction was a problem, and having failed to appeal, [Debtor] does not get another bite at the apple, even if we were to assume that he was right (and we do not) about who owned his debt.  His collateral attack on the underlying debt judgment, then, is barred under res judicata.”  Slip Op. at 14-15.

Relying on Finch v. LVNV Funding LLC, 212 Md. App. 748 (2013), involving an alleged unlicensed debt collection agency, Debtor argued that “a void judgment ‘may be assailed at all times,’ and ‘[i]t does not constitute res judicata.’”  Slip Op. at 12.   Notably, the Finch Court held that “[a] complaint filed by an unregistered collection agency is a nullity, and any judgment entered on such a complaint is void.”  Slip Op. at 13 (citing Finch, 212 Md. App. at 761).

However, the Court found Finch inapposite, because Finch involved uncontested default judgments, whereas here, it was undisputed that Debtor raised his lack of standing argument in the collection case.  Slip Op. at 14.  Because Debtor had raised the issue in the collection case, he could not use that same issue to collaterally attack the judgment in a subsequent lawsuit.  See Op. at 14  (“[W]here the issue of jurisdiction is raised and determined in favor of the jurisdiction, the ensuing judgment on the merits is not open to later collateral attack on the jurisdictional issue, whether or not the determination therein was erroneous.”) (citation omitted).

As to the FDCPA and state law consumer protection claims, the Court determined that such claims “are not necessarily barred by the doctrine of res judicata/claim preclusion if they are not asserted [in the collection action], because they do not attack a debt collection judgment per se.”  Slip Op. at 18.  However, “[w]hen a party tries to use one of these statutes to attack a judgment against him or her collaterally . . . res judicata/claim preclusion normally bars the attack.”  Slip Op. at 17.  Nevertheless, assuming without deciding that the FDCPA and related claims were not barred by res judicata (i.e., claim preclusion) the Court determined that they were, in any event, barred by collateral estoppel (i.e., issue preclusion).

“[W]hen [an] issue of fact . . . is actually litigated and determined by a valid final judgment, and that determination is essential to the judgment, the determination is conclusive in a later action between the parties, whether the same or different claim is asserted.”  Slip Op. at 18 (citations omitted).  Because Debtor’s FDCPA and related claims were predicated on allegations decided against him in the collection case--i.e., a judgment for a sum certain in favor of Creditor, despite his challenge to its ownership--those claims could not be re-litigated. 

Finally, the Court rejected Debtor’s claim that Creditor’s counsel (also a defendant) “could not establish that a meaningful review of [Debtor]’s file occurred before filing suit.”  Slip Op. at 19.  Notably, the Court expressly declined to adopt the New Jersey federal court’s interpretation of the FDCPA in Bock v. Pressler & Pressler, 30 F.Supp.3d 283 (D.N.J. 2014), which held that a lawyer violated the FDCPA by filing a lawsuit without meaningful review by an attorney, where the attorney had conceded that he only spent four seconds reviewing the complaint against a debtor. 

In this case, Debtor asserted that Creditor’s counsel had signed thousands of other complaints filed in the same month as the complaint filed against him.  Slip Op. at 19.  Rejecting Bock, the Court explained that such allegation “is not conclusive of the question of meaningful attorney involvement.”  Slip Op. at 20.  Notably, Creditor’s counsel “could have worked every day that month at twelve hours a day, and turned out 2000 complaints, giving him a full eleven minutes per complaint on average, compared to Bock’s four seconds.  Counsel could have short-shifted every other complaint filed that month and spent hours working on [Debtor]’s, and that would still be consistent with the facts [Debtor] has alleged. On a Bock theory—which again, we have not adopted—it is still [Debtor]’s burden to allege actual facts that, if believed, would demonstrate a lack of meaningful attorney involvement in his case. . . .  He has failed to do so.  And this case is hardly rocket science—the appellees alleged, and proved in the collection case, that they acquired a credit-card debt that remained unpaid, and it did not require complicated pleadings or cutting-edge research to prepare the case for filing or trial.”   Slip Op. at 20-21.

Accordingly, the intermediate appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the complaint with prejudice.