Oppong v. First Union Mortg, 326 F. App’x 663 (3d Cir. 2009)
A complete contradiction. From rejection of the classification of a debt collector to “a self-proclaimed” debt collector, no wonder its hidden away as an unpublished opinion. It’s a shocker as the Ninth Circuit would confirm and as written by the lawyers at K&L Gates LLP which follows.
APR 17, 2021
Atuahene Oppong appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania entered in favor of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Inc. (“Wells Fargo”), in Oppong’s suit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 et seq.
Oppong’s original complaint naming First Union Mortgage Corporation (“First Union”), Wells Fargo, and Francis S. Hallinan, Esq. (“Hallinan”), as defendants alleged that they failed to provide him with the requisite validation information concerning his debt on his home mortgage, in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1692g. In 2004, we affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment as to First Union because it was not a “debt collector,” under the FDCPA. See Oppong v. First Union Mortgage Corp., No. 04-1252, slip op. at 9, 112 Fed.Appx. 866 (3d Cir. 2004).
We noted that although the payoff figure and reinstatement figure documents on the letterhead of Federman Phelan, L.L.P., explicitly stated that “this firm is a debt collector attempting to collect a debt,” there was no record evidence that attorney Hallinan himself was engaged in debt collecting activities, and thus, we concluded that he was not a “debt collector” under the FDCPA.
Id. at 6-7.
We vacated judgment as to Wells Fargo, however, and remanded the matter to the District Court because an issue of material fact existed as to Wells Fargo’s “debt collector” status. In 2006, we affirmed the District Court’s ruling at summary judgment that Wells Fargo was a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, but we vacated its ruling that Oppong’s action was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. See Oppong v. First Union Mortgage Corp., 215 Fed.Appx. 114, 120 (3d Cir. 2007).
On remand, the District Court conducted a one-day non-jury trial at which Oppong testified. Oppong agreed to the facts proposed by Wells Fargo. These facts are set forth in the District Court’s opinion. See D. Ct. Op. at 3-5.
The District Court found that the only interaction between Oppong and Wells Fargo, at any relevant time, was a letter that Wells Fargo sent to Oppong, dated February 26, 2001, stating that Wells Fargo had assumed the role of servicer of Oppong’s mortgage.
The court also found that Wells Fargo never sent Oppong a validation notice and that it never attempted to collect the debt.
The District Court found that the law firm of Federman and Phelan, L.L.P., drafted and filed the foreclosure action for First Union in January 2000 and that, at the foreclosure trial in January 2002, the law firm gave Oppong the payoff figure document, which itemized the payoff figure and amounts owed on the loan and attorney’s fees.
At trial, Oppong contended that Wells Fargo violated the FDCPA when it failed to provide him with a validation notice.
Wells Fargo argued that Oppong had in fact received an “initial communication” when he was served with the foreclosure complaint filed in 2000. Wells Fargo also argued that the language in the foreclosure complaint satisfied all of the requirements set forth in § 1692g and, thus, it constituted a proper “validation notice.”
The District Court agreed, noting in addition that Wells Fargo’s duties as a debt collector under the FDCPA were not triggered because Wells Fargo never attempted to collect on the debt.
The District Court entered judgment for Wells Fargo and against Oppong. Oppong filed this timely appeal.
We review a district court’s findings of fact following a bench trial under the clearly erroneous standard. Gordon v. Lewistown Hosp., 423 F.3d 184, 201 (3d Cir. 2005). We exercise plenary review “over a district court’s choice and interpretation of legal precepts.” Blasband v. Rales, 971 F.2d 1034, 1040 (3d Cir. 1992).
We will affirm.
Oppong claims that Wells Fargo erroneously relied on the foreclosure complaint’s initial communication and validation notice because it was issued by First Union, who is not a “debt collector” under the law.
The claim is meritless.
The District Court properly set forth the principles of law regarding the FDCPA and correctly applied the standards for determining Wells Fargos’ compliance with §§ 1692a and 1692g to the facts in Oppong’s case.
The initial communication and validation notice was issued in the foreclosure complaint drafted by the law firm of Federman and Phelan, a self-proclaimed debt collector representing First Union in the foreclosure action.
The District Court correctly held that the substance of the foreclosure complaint’s validation notice fully complied with all of the notice requirements set forth in 15 U.S.C. ¶ 1692g.
The District Court also properly held that the validation notice satisfied the objective “Least Sophisticated Consumer” standard.
See Wilson v. Quadramed Corp., 225 F.3d 350 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2000); Graziano v. Harrison, 950 F.2d 107, 111 (3d Cir. 1991).
The notice was straightforward, not confusing or misleading; it indicated that the drafter of the complaint, the law firm of Federman and Phelan, was in fact a debt collector trying to collect a debt; it cautioned Oppong to seek legal advice, advised him where to get it; and it informed him where he could find legal assistance if he could not afford a lawyer.
Thus, because Oppong received a fully compliant validation notice in 2000, Wells Fargo was not obligated under the FDCPA to send its own validation notice for the same debt after it took over servicing the loan in March 2001.
See Senftle v. Landau, 390 F.Supp.2d 463, 473 (D.Md. 2005); Nichols v. Byrd 435 F.Supp.2d 1101, 1106 (D.Nev. 2006).
The Burkes have filed their Petition for Rehearing en banc to allow all the active judges who are not recused and able to participate, an opportunity to cast their Vote to correct a manifest injustice after a diabolical opinion by the Chief Judge et al.https://t.co/39UBrKo6Vg pic.twitter.com/N6UXsfcAv0
— LawsInTexas (@lawsintexasusa) April 15, 2021
Oppong next argues that the District Court erred in making a factual finding that Wells Fargo never attempted to collect on the debt. He asserts that Wells Fargo attempted to collect on the debt when it substituted itself as the plaintiff in the foreclosure action on July 24, 2001, and that Wells Fargo violated the FDCPA when it failed to provide Oppong with validation of the debt within five days of its initial communication.
Even assuming that Wells Fargo’s substitution in the foreclosure action could somehow be described as an attempt to collect on the debt, § 1692g did not require an additional validation notice from Wells Fargo because, as we have already discussed, the requisite validation notice regarding the same debt had already been issued in the foreclosure complaint more than one year earlier.
See Senftle v. Landau, 390 F.Supp.2d 463, 473 (D.Md. 2005); Nichols v. Byrd, 435 F.Supp.2d 1101, 1106 (D.Nev. 2006).
The Ninth Circuit Holds That Subsequent Debt Collectors Must Send FDCPA Validation-of-Debt Notices
Jul 29, 2016
The Ninth Circuit recently construed the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) provision that requires a debt collector to send a validation-of-debt notice within five days of “the initial communication” with a consumer regarding the collection of a debt. In Hernandez v. Williams, Zinman & Parham P.C., the Court addressed the question of whether “the initial communication” refers only to the very first communication sent to a consumer regarding the debt or to the first communication sent by each debt collector that seeks to collect on the debt. The question has divided district courts, and the Ninth Circuit is the first federal court of appeals to provide an answer in a published opinion. In doing so, the Court held that the FDCPA requires each debt collector to send a debt validation notice containing specific disclosures within five days of that collector’s first communication with the consumer regarding the collection of the debt, regardless of whether a prior debt collector had sent a notice regarding the same debt.
The Proceedings Below
The Hernandez action arose from a loan obtained by the plaintiff to finance the purchase of an automobile. When the plaintiff stopped making payments on the loan, a debt collector sent a letter to the plaintiff seeking to collect on the debt. The debt collector later retained a law firm to assist with the collection efforts. The law firm sent the plaintiff a collection letter but did not provide a full validation-of-debt notice. On that basis, the plaintiff filed suit against the law firm alleging violation of the FDCPA § 1692g.
The law firm asserted that it was not required to provide a validation-of-debt notice because the initial debt collector’s letter to the plaintiff was the “initial communication” with respect to the debt at issue and, therefore, the sole communication triggering § 1692g(a)’s requirements. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the law firm.
The Ninth Circuit’s Decision
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that under § 1692g(a), each and every debt collector must provide a debt validation notice to the subject consumer. The Ninth Circuit agreed, holding that “although the sentence in § 1692g(a) in which the phrase ‘the initial communication’ appears is ambiguous when read in isolation, when the sentence is read in the context of the FDCPA as a whole and in light of the statute’s remedial purpose, it is clear that the validation notice requirement applies to each debt collector that attempts to collect a debt.”
The Ninth Circuit noted that although the statute refers to “the initial communication,” which suggests that there may be only one initial communication, the statute also refers to “a debt collector,” which suggests that Congress may have intended to impose the validation-of-debt notice requirement on any debt collector subject to FDCPA requirements. The Court concluded that only the latter interpretation is consistent with the rest of the statutory text and avoids creating substantial loopholes that would undermine the protections the statute provides. The Court further held that interpreting “the initial communication” to refer to the first communication by any debt collector is consistent with the FDCPA’s declared purpose of protecting consumers from abusive debt collection practices, and that the FDCPA must be liberally construed in favor of the consumer in order to effectuate this goal.
Although it ruled that review of external interpretative sources was not necessary, the Court noted that a Senate Report discussing § 1692g(a) provided that “[a]fter initially contacting a consumer, a debt collector must sen[d] him or her written notice” with the required information. The Ninth Circuit stated that “[a]lthough the Senate Report does not expressly define the meaning of ‘the initial communication,’ its discussion of § 1692g’s purpose extinguishes any doubt that Congress intended the validation notice provision to protect consumers throughout the entire lifecycle of a debt.” The Court further noted that both the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”), which has rulemaking authority under the FDCPA, and the Federal Trade Commission, which shares concurrent authority with the CFPB to enforce the FDCPA, asserted in an amicus brief that § 1692g requires all debt collectors to send a validation-of-debt notice. The Court, however, ruled that it need not defer to agency interpretation because the statute as a whole was unambiguous with respect to the question presented.
The Ninth Circuit has now held that the reference in § 1692g to “the initial communication” refers to the first communication by each and every debt collector that seeks to collect on a debt. As noted above, however, two other federal courts of appeal have reached a contrary conclusion (albeit in unpublished rulings), and several district courts in other circuits have likewise refused to extend the validation-of-debt notice requirement of § 1692g to subsequent debt collectors.
Thus, it is possible a circuit split may develop with respect to the issue. Nevertheless, in light of the Hernandez decision, debt collectors who conduct business within Ninth Circuit jurisdictions now must comply with its holding, even if a prior debt collector has already sent the consumer a validation-of-debt notice concerning the debt.