It is well known to financial services practitioners that a “debt collector” under the FDCPA is prohibited from using false or misleading information in furtherance of collecting a debt, and that a debt collector is liable for the claimant’s attorneys’ fees for such a violation. But a recent decision out of the Fifth Circuit serves as a worthwhile reminder that the conduct of a party and its counsel, as well as reasonableness of the fees, matters in considering whether or not to grant recovery of fees.
In Davis v. Credit Bureau of the South, the defendant’s name alone reveals a violation of 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692e(10), (16), as it had ceased to be a credit reporting agency years before it attempted to collect a past due utility debt from Ms. Davis under that name. Cross motions for summary judgment were filed, and the Court found that the defendant was liable for statutory damages under the FDCPA for inaccurately holding itself out as a credit reporting agency.
Subsequently, Davis’ attorneys filed a motion for recovery of their fees, relying upon 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3), which states that a debt collector who violates these provisions of the FDCPA “is liable [ . . . ] [for] the costs of the action, together with reasonable attorneys’ fees as determined by the court.” The motion sought recovery of fees in the amount of $130,410.00 based upon on hourly rate of $450.00. The trial court was, as it held, “stunned” by the request for fees and denied the motion. For its holding, the court cited to the fact that there was disposed of by summary judgment with a Fifth Circuit case directly on point, and that there were substantial duplicative and excessive fees charged by Plaintiff’s multiple counsel. The trial court also characterized the rate of $450.00 as excessive in light of the relative level of difficulty of the case and the fact that the pleadings were “replete with grammatical errors, formatting issues, and improper citations.” From this order, Davis appealed.
In its holding, the Fifth Circuit recognized that the FDCPA’s express language, and several other circuit holdings, suggest that attorneys’ fees to a prevailing claimant are mandatory. However, the Court relied upon other circuits that have permitted “outright denial” (as opposed to a mere reduction) of attorney’s fees for FDCPA claims in “unusual circumstances,” as well as other Fifth Circuit cases with similar conduct under other statutes containing mandatory attorney fee recovery, to deny recovery of fees altogether. The Court found there was extreme, outrageous conduct that precluded recovery of fees, where the record showed Davis and her counsel had colluded to create the facts giving rise to the action. For instance, Ms. Davis misrepresented that she was a citizen of Texas rather than Louisiana in order to cause the defendant to mail a collection letter, thus “engaging in debt collection activities in the state of Texas.” Furthermore, Davis and her counsel made repeated, recorded phone calls to the defendant asking repetitive questions in order to generate fees. While the FDCPA’s fee recovery provision was intended to deter bad conduct by debt collectors, the Fifth Circuit found it was even more important in this case to deter the bad conduct of counsel.
The Davis opinion may be found here and is a cautionary tale that attorneys’ fees, as well as behavior throughout a case, may be held under the microscope, even where the law suggests that fees are recoverable as a matter of right.
House Financial Services Committee introduces bill to provide uniform reporting standards in the event of data breachesOctober 17, 2018 | Megan Stumph-Turner
In the spirit of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, BSCR reports that Rep. Luetkemeyer of Missouri introduced H.R. 6743, a measure aimed at amending the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act to provide a national uniform standard for addressing cyber security data breaches. The bill has already made some traction, as it was ordered by vote to be reported to committee last month.
Some key amendments would be to revise the following two sections of the GLBA:
Standards with respect to breach notification
Each agency or authority required to establish standards described under subsection (b)(3) with respect to the provision of a breach notice shall establish the standards with respect to such notice that are contained in the interpretive guidance issued by the Comptroller of the Currency, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Office of Thrift Supervision titled Interagency Guidance on Response Programs for Unauthorized Access to Customer Information and Customer Notice, published March 29, 2005 (70 Fed. Reg. 15736), and for a financial institution that is not a bank, such standards shall be applied to the institution as if the institution was a bank to the extent appropriate and practicable.
Relation to State laws
This subtitle preempts any law, rule, regulation, requirement, standard, or other provision having the force and effect of law of any State, or political subdivision of a State, with respect to securing personal information from unauthorized access or acquisition, including notification of unauthorized access or acquisition of data.
The full text of the proposed amendments can be found at this link.
It is this second provision that is troubling some state-level authorities. In a letter to Chairman Hensarling, John W. Ryan, the President and CEO of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) expressed concern on behalf of state regulators that the bill, if enacted into law, could hurt efforts to protect consumers more than help. Arguing that the GLBA and state privacy laws already provide sufficient guidance for cyber breach events, Mr. Ryan contends that H.R. 6743 would actually undermine state consumer protection laws, and that it would undermine the authority of state attorneys general and other authorities to enforce reporting requirements.
BSCR will continue to monitor the status of H.R. 6743, and our Financial Services Law Blog will keep the community posted as to pertinent events.
A cyber thief was able to trick AT&T into providing Michael Terpin’s account information, enabling that thief to make off with nearly $24 million in cryptocurrency belonging to Terpin, according to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of California in Los Angeles.
In the lawsuit, among other things, Terpin alleges that AT&T was negligent in failing to protect its customers’ private data, and that it willfully disregarded unlawful transactions between AT&T employees and cyber thieves. Terpin claims that his digital currency was lost due to a “SIM swap fraud,” where the customer’s phone number is transferred to a SIM card operated by a hacker, who then resets the customer’s passwords and logs into their accounts in order to obtain confidential data and access to assets. Terpin believes that an AT&T employee cooperated in the swap that caused him to lose digital coins that would have been valued at $23.8 million in January of 2018, during a time where the value of the bitcoin was soaring, as previously reported by the BSCR financial services law blog. Because he has been publicly involved in cryptocurrency enterprises, Terpin was a prime target for cyber thieves.
AT&T has responded to the complaint publicly, stating, “We dispute these allegations and look forward to presenting our case in court.” Terpin, though, alleges that the telecommunications juggernaut has simply become “too big to care,” prioritizing expansion and acquisition over investing in hiring qualified professionals, providing ongoing training, or investing in systems that would better protect customer data.
While it remains to be seen what the outcome of this litigation will be, this lawsuit serves as a cautionary tale to any large institution that possesses sensitive online account data of its customers. These institutions would be well advised to look into their hiring and training procedures, as well as to consider implementing secure storage systems, in order to curtail future liability. BSCR will continue to monitor this litigation and will provide updates as milestones occur in the case.
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The BSCR Financial Services Law Blog explores current events, litigation trends, regulations, and hot topics in the financial services industry. This blog will inform readers of issues affecting a wide range of financial services, including mortgage lending, auto finance, and credit card/retail transactions. Learn more about the editor, Megan Stumph, and our Financial Services practice.
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