Mortgage Statements Not Attempts to Collect a Debt

Posted by NCBRC - February 9, 2023

Where statements sent by the mortgage servicer listed the higher, pre-modification amount due, but specifically stated they were not an attempt to collect a debt and did not include an amount in potential late fees, the bankruptcy court erred in finding the statements were in violation of the automatic stay. Freedom Mortgage Corp. v. Dean, No. 22-1469 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 26, 2023).

The debtors had a mortgage with Roundpoint Mortgage Servicing obligating them to monthly payments of $2,102.32. They filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy after falling behind on the payments. Roundpoint and the debtors agreed on a trial mortgage modification which was approved by the court and which lowered their monthly payments to $1,927.15. Freedom Mortgage Corporation then took over the mortgage from Roundpoint. Freedom began sending the debtors monthly statements listing the amount due according to the pre-modification mortgage terms. With each statement, Freedom included a payment coupon. Despite notifications by the debtors’ counsel that the amount listed was incorrect, Freedom did not lower it to the modified amount until after the bankruptcy court permanently confirmed the modification. The court then ordered Freedom to show cause why it should not be sanctioned for violating the automatic stay.

In response, Freedom argued that it was obligated under the Truth in Lending Act to send out monthly statements and that the statements it sent conformed to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Form H-30(F) and were therefore moored in a “safe harbor.” The bankruptcy court rejected Freedom’s arguments and found its monthly statements were an attempt to collect a debt in violation of the stay. The court sanctioned Freedom in the amount of $15,060.00 representing the costs associated with the mortgage statements and the sanctions hearing.

Freedom appealed to the district court.

The district court rejected Freedom’s “Chevron defense” where it urged the court to adopt the CFPB’s interpretation of bankruptcy’s automatic stay. The court found that defense applies only to agencies interpreting laws which they are charged with administering. Here, the CFPB is not charged with administering the bankruptcy code. Therefore, Freedom’s use of the Form H-30(F) did not insulate it from the requirements of the automatic stay.

Nonetheless, the court found the statements were not an effort to collect on the debt. Though it found no direct precedent, the court analogized the Eleventh Circuit’s interpretation of what constitutes a collection activity under the FDCPA. In Daniels v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc., 34 F. 4th 1260 (11th Cir. 2022), the circuit court first noted that a statement’s compliance with TILA did not necessarily make it in compliance with bankruptcy’s section 362. The court went on to set forth four criteria for determining if a statement is an attempt to collect a debt: 1) if the statement contains language to the effect that it is collecting a debt, 2) if the statement requests payment by a certain date, 3) if there is a late fee listed in the statement terms, and 4) if there is history between the parties suggesting that the statement is intended to collect a debt.

Applying those criteria to the case before it, the court found the statements explicitly indicated that they were not intended to collect a debt. The statements instructed the debtors to make their monthly payments to the trustee if required by the bankruptcy plan. To the extent the inclusion of payment coupons with the statements could suggest an attempt to collect, the court found the language to the contrary in the body of the statement overrode that suggestion.

Though the statements included payment dates, they specifically listed $0 as the late fee throughout the entire bankruptcy proceeding.

As to the fourth element, the court found that because Freedom took over the mortgage after the debtors filed for bankruptcy, there was no history to create expectations. Therefore, the fourth element was neutral.

Based on these findings, the court found the statements were not an attempt to collect a debt in violation of the automatic stay. The court cautioned that had the statements included a late fee, that, in combination with the incorrect amount due, might have led to affirmation of the bankruptcy court’s finding.

The court reversed.

Dean MD Fla Jan 2023


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