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Summary Judgment Stands for Consumer Class Alleging Unfair Debt Collection Practices, Seventh Circuit Rules

In a consumer protection and debt collection case, the Seventh Circuit has decided that a Wisconsin trial court was correct to grant summary judgment to a class of Cingular Wireless customers. Seeger v. AFNI, Inc., No. 07-4083 (7th Cir. December 8, 2008). The Cingular (now AT&T) customers had sued AFNI, Inc., a debt collector for Cingular, alleging it was charging a collection fee that consumers hadn’t agreed to and that was not permissible under Wisconsin law. Responding to a summary judgment motion by a certified class of consumers, the trial court found that AFNI violated both the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Wisconsin Consumer Act.

The plaintiffs were Cingular customers in Wisconsin. Each had signed a contract agreeing to pay the fees of a collection agency. They fell behind in their payments and eventually received letters from debt collector AFNI, which had bought their debt from Cingular, saying they owed a collection fee of 15% of the original debt. A second letter included the 15% fee in its total balance due. The plaintiffs sued, saying neither the contracts nor Wisconsin law allowed a separate collection fee for the owner of the debt (as opposed to a third-party debt collector). The trial court granted summary judgment to AFNI on one state claim and to the plaintiffs on another state claim, as well as the FDCPA. AFNI appealed.

The appeals court first rejected AFNI’s argument that its debt collection practices fall under Wisconsin laws allowing wronged parties to collect damages for breach of contract. If it could prove this, the court wrote, it would also need to prove that the 15% fee reflected its actual costs. However, the court pointed out that AFNI presented no evidence that would prove this, and general debt collection industry practices don’t support any such assumption.

AFNI next argued that it is entitled to collect fees as Cingular’s assignee, since customers signed contracts with Cingular agreeing to pay fees charged by a third party. The district court found that the contracts authorize a collection fee only when Cingular uses a third party, not when Cingular does the collection work itself. AFNI argued that it could collect the fee as a reimbursement if it had paid that fee to Cingular. But as the appeals court pointed out, it did not pay such a fee, and no evidence in the record shows that AFNI’s fee could be considered a referral fee authorized by the contract.

Finally, the court considered whether AFNI’s violation of the law could be considered a bona fide error under the FDCPA, which removes liability when a debt collector broke the law unintentionally. One requirement of the bona fide error defense, the Seventh wrote, is that the debt collector have reasonable procedures in place to avoid a violation. It concluded that AFNI had no such procedures, pointing out that AFNI an employee’s own deposition shows it wasn’t aware of the distinction between collecting its own debt and collecting on behalf of a client. In fact, the court wrote, “applying the bona fide error defense here would essentially reward a business’s ignorance of the law.” Thus, it upheld the trial court’s summary judgment decision on both the FDCPA and the Wisconsin claim.

DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle has an active practice defending individuals who are victims of abusive, illegal or unfair practices by debt collectors, including violations of Illinois and other state consumer protection statutes as well as violations of the FDCPA. Based near Wheaton, Illinois, and Chicago, we have successfully represented consumers in Illinois and throughout the nation. To speak with us about a potential case against an abusive debt collector, you can contact us online for a free consultation.