Justia Consumer Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Dennis fell behind on his debt to Washington Mutual Bank. LVNV bought the debt and Niagara Credit sent a form collection letter on LVNV’s behalf, stating: “Your account was placed with our collection agency” and that Niagara’s “client” had authorized it to offer a payment plan or a settlement of the debt in full. The letter identifies Washington Mutual as the “original creditor” and LVNV as the “current creditor.” It lists the principal and interest balances of the debt and the last four digits of the account number. Dennis filed a putative class action complaint, claiming violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by “fail[ing] to identify clearly and effectively the name of the creditor to whom the debt was owed,” 15 U.S.C. 1692g(a)(2). The Seventh Circuit affirmed the rejection of the suit on the pleadings, rejecting an argument that listing two entities as “creditor” then stating that Niagara was authorized to make settlement offers on behalf of an unknown client could likely confuse consumers. The defendants’ letter expressly identifies LVNV as the current creditor and meets the Act’s requirement of a written notice containing “the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed.” An unsophisticated consumer will understand that his debt has been purchased by the current creditor; the letter is not abusive or unfair. Section 1692(g)(a)(2) does not require a detailed explanation of the transactions leading to the debt collector’s notice. View "Dennis v. Niagara Credit Solutions, Inc." on Justia Law

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Nationwide Credit sent Horia a letter seeking to collect a debt owed to Gottlieb Hospital. By return mail, Horia disputed the claim. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires a debt collector that notifies a credit agency about the debt to reveal whether the claim is disputed, 15 U.S.C. 1692e(8). Horia claims that Nationwide notified Experian about the debt but not about the dispute, injuring his credit rating and causing him mental distress. Horia previously complained about the same type of violation, based on a different letter that Nationwide sent, attempting to collect a different debt to a different creditor. The suit was settled. Days later Horia filed this second suit. Nationwide cited claim preclusion. The district court dismissed, ruling that Horia has split his claims impermissibly. The Seventh Circuit reversed. The doctrine of bar forecloses repeated suits on the same claim, even if a plaintiff advances a new legal theory or a different kind of injury but applies only to “the same claim.” Federal law defines a “claim” by looking for a single transaction, which usually means all losses arising from the same essential factual allegations. Horia has alleged two transactions. The two claimed debts are owed to different creditors. The wrongs differ—Nationwide could have given proper notice for one debt but not the other—and the injury differs. Each failure to notify could have caused additional harm to credit score or peace of mind. View "Horia v. Nationwide Credit & Collection, Inc." on Justia Law

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Each plaintiff purchased an opaque, seven-ounce box of Fannie May chocolates for $9.99 plus tax. Although the boxes accurately disclosed the weight of the chocolate within and the number of pieces, the boxes were emptier than each had expected. A box of Mint Meltaways contained approximately 33% empty space, and a box of Pixies contained approximately 38% empty space. The plaintiffs filed a putative class action, alleging violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and asserting claims for unjust enrichment and breach of implied contract. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case. The court rejected the district court’s reasoning that the claims were preempted by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C 301–399, but reasoned that the Illinois Act requires proof of actual damage. The plaintiffs never said that the chocolates they received were worth less than the $9.99 they paid for them, or that they could have obtained a better price elsewhere. That is fatal to their effort to show a pecuniary loss. The receipts embody the contract between the parties. State law does not recognize an implied contract in this situation View "Benson v. Fannie May Confections Brands, Inc." on Justia Law

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Around 2009, Saccameno defaulted on her mortgage. U.S. Bank began foreclosure proceedings. She began a Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan under which she was to cure her default over 42 months while maintaining her monthly mortgage payments, 11 U.S.C. 1322(b)(5). In 2011, Ocwen acquired her previous servicer. Ocwen, inexplicably, informed her that she owed $16,000 immediately. Saccameno continued making payments based on her plan. Her statements continued to fluctuate. In 2013, the bankruptcy court issued a notice that Saccameno had completed her payments. Ocwen never responded; the court entered a discharge order. Within days an Ocwen employee mistakenly treated the discharge as a dismissal and reactivated the foreclosure. For about twp years, Saccameno and her attorney faxed her documents many times and spoke to many Ocwen employees. The foreclosure protocol remained open. Ocewen eventually began rejecting her payments. Saccameno sued, citing breach of contract; the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act; the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act; and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (ICFDBPA), citing consent decrees that Ocwen previously had entered with regulatory bodies, concerning inadequate recordkeeping, misapplication of payments, and poor customer service. The jury awarded $500,000 for the breach of contract, FDCPA, and RESPA claims, plus, under ICFDBPA, $12,000 in economic, $70,000 in non-economic, and $3,000,000 in punitive damages. The Seventh Circuit remanded. While the jury was within its rights to punish Ocwen, the amount of the award is excessive. View "Saccameno v. U.S. Bank National Association" on Justia Law

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Heredia received four collection letters from CMS, a collections firm, and claims that the language in this correspondence violated the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. 1692(e). The Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of the case, finding that Heredia has plausibly alleged that the dunning letter violated the FDCPA. The letters, which proposed a payment plan, stated: “Discover may file a 1099C form” and that “[s]ettling a debt for less than the balance owed may have tax consequences.” Language in a dunning letter violates section 1692e if the creditor used false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of debt. Under section 1692f, a debt collector may not use unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt. Although it is not technically illegal or impossible for Discover to file a 1099C form with the IRS if the amount is under $600, “a collection letter can be literally true” and still misleading. The defendants do not dispute that Discover would never file a 1099C form unless required to do so by law (forgiving $600 or more of principal). In the case of the Heredia letter, Discover would never file a 1099C form because in no circumstances would Discover be forgiving at least $600 in principal. View "Heredia v. Capital Management Services, L.P." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs contracted to sell their condominiums. The Illinois Condominium Property Act requires an owner to give the prospective buyer a copy of the condominium declaration and bylaws, the condominium association’s rules, and other documents. The association’s board must furnish the required documents within 30 days of the owner’s written request; it may charge a reasonable fee. Sudler, which managed plaintiffs' buildings under contracts with the condominium associations, contracted with HomeWiseDocs.com, which assembles the required disclosure documents as PDFs, giving condominium owners almost instantaneous electronic access to the material needed to close a resale transaction. HomeWise charged plaintiffs $240 and $365 for PDFs of the disclosure documents. Plaintiffs filed a proposed class action, alleging violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices and Condominium Acts; aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty; civil conspiracy; and unjust enrichment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Condominium Act does not provide a private right of action, and there is no basis in Illinois law to imply one. Illinois courts have held that charging too much for goods or services is not, alone, an unfair practice under the consumer fraud statute. The complaint does not plead an actionable breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment and conspiracy are not independent causes of action under Illinois law. View "Horist v. Sudler & Co." on Justia Law

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Delta, a collection agency, sent Koehn a letter stating that the “current balance” of Koehn’s debt was $2,034.03. Koehn claimed the letter was misleading under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692 because the phrase “current balance” implied that her balance could grow, even though her account was “static.” Additional interest and fees could no longer be added to the balance. The statute requires a debt collector to state “the amount of the debt,” and section 1692e prohibits more generally “any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal. To state a legally viable claim, Koehn needed to allege plausibly that Delta’s use of the “current balance” phrase “would materially mislead or confuse an unsophisticated consumer.” An unsophisticated consumer is “uninformed, naïve, or trusting,” but nonetheless possesses “reasonable intelligence,” basic knowledge about the financial world, and “is wise enough to read collection notices with added care.” There is nothing inherently misleading in the phrase “current balance.” Delta’s letter contained no directive to call for a “current balance,” nor does it include any language implying that “current balance” means anything other than the balance owed. “The Act is not violated by a dunning letter that is susceptible of an ingenious misreading.” View "Koehn v. Delta Outsource Group, Inc/" on Justia Law

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Brown is the sole owner and operator of a credit-monitoring service. Brown’s websites used a “negative option feature” to attract customers, offering a “free credit report and score” while obscuring in much smaller text that applying for this “free” information automatically enrolled customers in a $29.94 monthly “membership” subscription for Brown’s credit-monitoring service. Customers learned this information only when he sent them a letter after they were automatically enrolled. Brown’s most successful contractor capitalized on the confusion by posting Craigslist advertisements for fake rental properties and telling applicants to get a “free” credit score from Brown’s websites. The FRC sued Brown under the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 53(b). The district judge found that Brown was a principal for his contractor’s fraudulent scheme and that the websites failed to meet certain disclosure requirements in the Restore Online Shopper Confidence Act (ROSCA), 15 U.S.C. 8403. The judge entered a permanent injunction and ordered Brown to pay more than $5 million in restitution to the Commission. The Seventh Circuit affirmed as to liability and the issuance of a permanent injunction but, overruling precedent, vacated the restitution award. Section 13(b) authorizes only restraining orders and injunctions. The FTCA has two detailed remedial provisions that expressly authorize restitution if the Commission follows certain procedures. Adherence yp stare decisis should not allow the Commission to circumvent these elaborate enforcement provisions. View "Federal Trade Commission v. Credit Bureau Center, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs own cats with health problems. Their veterinarians prescribed Hill’s cat food. They purchased this higher-priced cat food from PetSmart stores using their veterinarian’s prescriptions before learning that the Prescription Diet cat food is not materially different from non-prescription cat food and no prescription is necessary. Plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit under the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. The district judge dismissed the claim as lacking the specificity required for a fraud claim and barred by a statutory safe harbor for conduct specifically authorized by a regulatory body (the FDA). The Seventh Circuit reversed. The safe-harbor provision does not apply. Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. 301, pet food intended to treat or prevent disease and marketed as such is considered a drug and requires FDA approval. Without FDA approval, the manufacturer may not sell it in interstate commerce and the product is deemed adulterated and misbranded. FDA guidance recognizes that most pet-food products in this category do not have the required approval and states that it is less likely to initiate an enforcement action if consumers purchase the food through or under the direction of a veterinarian (among other factors). The guidance does not specifically authorize the conduct alleged here, so the safe harbor does not apply. Plaintiffs pleaded the fraud claim with the particularity required by FRCP 9(b). View "Vanzant v. Hill's Pet Nutrition, Inc." on Justia Law

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Attorney Kohn, on behalf of Unifund, filed suit against Burton in Brown County, Wisconsin for failure to make payments on a Citibank credit agreement. In his answer, Burton stated, “I have never had any association with Unifund ... and do not know who you are or what you are talking about, so I strongly dispute this debt.” He asserted counterclaims, alleging that his personal information had been compromised; that Unifund had failed to provide him notice of his right to cure the default before filing suit; and that there was a “Lack of Privity” because he “ha[d] never entered into any contractual or debtor/creditor arrangements” with Unifund. While that action was pending, Burton sued in federal district court, citing the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. 1692–1692p, and the Wisconsin Consumer Act (WCA). The state court dismissed Kohn’s action against Burton on the basis of Burton’s denial that he was the individual who had incurred the underlying debt. The Seventh Circuit affirmed a judgment in favor of Kohn and Unifund, finding that the FDCPA or WCA claims could not proceed because Burton failed to present sufficient evidence that the debt incurred on the Citibank account was for personal, family, or household purposes and therefore a “consumer debt.” View "Burton v. Kohn Law Firm, S.C." on Justia Law