Yesterday, Judge Amy Totenberg of the Northern District of Georgia issued a very cogent 70-page opinion in the case of the CFPB v. Frederick Hanna & Associates, a large collection law firm with offices in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. The opinion denies Hanna's motion to dismiss in its entirety, and almost completely agrees with the CFPB's legal theory. In doing so, the opinion deals a serious blow to the collection law firm business model.
A brief recap of the case if you haven't been following. A year ago, the CFPB filed suit against the Hanna law firm essentially attacking the big collection law firm business model. Among other things, the CFPB alleged that the firm operated "less like a law firm than a factory" and that attorneys were not "meaningfully involved" in the collection lawsuits they filed. As an example, the CFPB alleged that one attorney in the Hanna firm signed about 138,000 lawsuits between 2009-10. That's 189 lawsuits per day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.
The second CFPB claim was that in filing most of its lawsuits on behalf of debt buyers, the law firm "knew or should have known that many of the affidavits [they filed] were executed by persons who lacked personal knowledge of the facts." The Bureau sued under both the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) for what it alleges were false or misleading and unfair acts and practices.
The opinion allows the Bureau to proceed on all of these claims. Specifically, Judge Totenberg (who incidentally, is Nina Totenberg's sister) found that the Bureau could regulate collection attorneys under the CFPA (the first time any court considered this issue), that the "meaningful involvement doctrine" extends to activities in litigation, and that the Hanna firm might be liable for filing affidavits given to it by its clients if the CFPB can prove its allegations.
The last two points are huge because it means that collection attorneys will have to spend some time reviewing the collection cases they file. (How much time and what constitutes enough "involvement" is up in the air). Nonetheless, this completely up-ends the business model of at least some collection law firms. As Joann Needleman has pointed out at InsideARM, an interlocutory appeal is unlikely to succeed here, so look for the CFPB to file more cases (or enter into consent decrees) with more law firms.