FDCPA and Discharge Injunction Not Incompatible

Posted by NCBRC - May 26, 2017

An FDCPA claim based on efforts to collect a debt discharged in bankruptcy is not precluded by the Code’s discharge injunction. Barnhill v. FirstPoint, Inc., No.15-892 (M.D. N.C. May 17, 2017).

Lara Barnhill filed a class action complaint in district court alleging that FirstPoint, Inc. and FirstPoint Collection Resources made efforts to collect a debt after her debt had been discharged in chapter 7 bankruptcy in violation of the FDCPA, North Carolina Collection Agency Act (NCCAA). The complaint also made a claim for injunctive relief. FirstPoint moved to dismiss under section 12(b)(1) and (6) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim.

FirstPoint argued that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the FDCPA and NCCAA claims because both consumer protection laws are preempted by the Bankruptcy Code’s discharge injunction. FirstPoint further argued that Ms. Barnhill failed to allege injury-in-fact and therefore lacked Article III standing.

With respect to the FDCPA, the district court noted that one federal law does not preempt another but that, where they deal with same subject matter one may repeal the other either by express direction by Congress or by implication if the two statutes are irreconcilable.

The Fourth Circuit has not decided the issue of FDCPA and Code compatibility, but the district court agreed with other courts finding that an action based on post-discharge collection efforts may be sustained under both statutes simultaneously [though, in this case, Ms. Barnhill did not include a claim based on violation of the discharge injunction]. The court specifically discussed Garfield v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 811 F.3d 86, 89 (2d Cir. 2016), where the Second Circuit distinguished between actions under the FDCPA brought for conduct occurring while the bankruptcy case was open and cases in which the conduct occurred post-discharge. The Garfield court was persuaded that the Code and the FDCPA were compatible in the latter instance in part because, unlike automatic stay violations, the Code does not create a cause of action for violations of the discharge injunction. Furthermore, because the same conduct underlies both causes of action, a creditor can avoid violations of both the FDCPA and the Code by not trying to collect a discharged debt.

Turning to whether the Code preempts the NCCAA, the court explored the doctrines of field preemption, where Congress specifies that a federal law supplants state authority in a particular field, and conflict preemption, where a state law must yield to a federal law with which it actually conflicts. Where states traditionally have the power to create and enforce consumer protection laws, a court will find field preemption only where Congress has made clear that such preemption was its purpose. Because no such indication is found in the Bankruptcy Code, the court turned to whether the NCCAA was preempted as conflicting with the Code. To find such preemption, the Fourth Circuit looks to “whether it is impossible to comply with both the state and federal law or whether the state law presents an obstacle to the accomplishment of the purposes of the federal law.” The court found no such conflict. Violation of the NCCAA was based on the allegation that FirstPoint had attempted to collect an uncollectible debt. The fact that the debt was rendered uncollectible due to bankruptcy discharge, was irrelevant.

The court thus concluded that neither the FDCPA nor the NCCAA claims were preempted or precluded by the Bankruptcy Code.

FirstPoint next argued that Ms. Barnhill had not suffered any “concrete and particularized” injury-in-fact and therefore had no Article III standing to bring this action. While cautioning that generally mere violation of a statute does not satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement in the absence of evidence of its effect on the plaintiff, a “majority of courts have held that FDCPA violations, like the ones asserted in this case, are substantive violations and thus produce ‘concrete injuries’ sufficient to satisfy Article III’s requirement of injury-in-fact.” Furthermore, Ms. Barnhill alleged particularized injury in the form of emotional distress and harm to her credit rating. The court concluded that her allegations were sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss.

Having found that subject matter jurisdiction survived the 12(b)(1) motion, the court turned to whether the complaint stated a claim for purposes of Rule 12(b)(6). To state a claim for violation of the FDCPA, a plaintiff must show that 1) she has been the object of collection activity, 2) by a debt collector, 3) engaging in conduct that violates the FDCPA.  Here, FirstPoint, Inc. drew a distinction between itself and FirstPoint Collection Resources, arguing that unlike its counterpart, FirstPoint, Inc. is not a debt collector, and cannot be held vicariously liable for the conduct of FirstPoint Collection Resources.

Rejecting this argument, the court noted that Ms. Barnhill alleged that both FirstPoint, Inc. and FirstPoint Collection Resources, were debt collectors and that both made efforts to collect the discharged debt. These allegations were sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. The fact that FirstPoint, Inc. did not hold a state license to collect debts was not relevant to the inquiry as licensure is not necessary to a finding of an FDCPA violation. As to the conduct giving rise to the FDCPA claim, the court found it was enough that Ms. Barnhill alleged that she received a phone call from the defendants informing her that her discharged debt was owing and in collection and that it was affecting her credit.

For the same reasons, the complaint stated a claim under the NCCAA. The fact that the state law does require a permit for debt collectors did not defeat this claim as the court found that a debt collector acting in violation of the licensing law could still violate the NCCAA.

Finally, the defendants argued that injunctive relief is not available under either the FDCPA or the NCCAA and that claim should, therefore, be dismissed. Without deciding whether the relief sought was available, the court granted the motion to dismiss to the extent that the claim for injunctive relief was presented as a cause of action rather than as a form of remedy.

Barnhill MD NC opinion May 2017

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