A push for more proof in debt-collection lawsuits

Consumer advocates cheer as Maryland's highest court considers a change in rules

  • The state's highest court will consider a change in the rules to make clear that debt buyers -- companies purchasing old, charged-off credit-card accounts and other debts -- have to prove their cases if they're asking judges to enter a judgment against a no-show defendant. One of the strong proponents of such a change is Peter Holland, who oversees a University of Maryland law school clinic that specializes in defending consumers sued over debts.
The state's highest court will consider a change in the… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
July 24, 2011|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Marquis Jones doesn't believe she owes money on a credit-card account that a debt-buying company sued to collect from her.

More importantly, though, the firm never proved she did.

But because the Severn woman wasn't given notice of the lawsuit — the company's process server claimed her nonexistent "wife" accepted the summons — she wasn't in court to point this out. So an Anne Arundel County judge approved a $992 judgment against her last fall.

The scene has been repeated in courtrooms throughout Maryland and across the country. Companies that buy past-due consumer debts and sue to collect have won judgments against Marylanders even though, advocates and regulators say, the documentation to prove those cases often has been very thin.

"This is a $100 billion-dollar-a-year industry … the sale of 'accounts receivable,' " said Peter A. Holland, who runs a University of Maryland law school clinic that specializes in debt cases. "It's created a crisis in our small-claims courts. There's tens of thousands of cases filed without proof just in Maryland. Nationwide, it's in the tens of millions."

Debt buyers say problems are unusual. But as nationwide pressure for reform has mounted, an industry group has begun to call for original creditors to hang on to defaulted-account information longer.

Now Maryland's highest court is about to consider a change in the rules that would make it clear that debt buyers cannot expect a judgment against a no-show defendant without presenting sufficient evidence to back up their claims.

A court committee recommended the move in June at the urging of the Maryland Attorney General's Office and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The chief judge of Maryland's District Court, where almost all these cases are filed, believes reform is urgently needed. Judge Ben C. Clyburn said small-claims courts sign off on more than 200,000 judgments in contract cases each year. Probably two-thirds, he said, are debt-collection matters.

Clyburn said some debt-buying companies have treated the courts as an extension of their collections offices, counting on the fact that unsophisticated consumers won't stand up for themselves and judges — hearing no defense — will sign off on claims without realizing they're deficient.

"They're just playing the odds," Clyburn said. When Marylanders do contest the lawsuits, he said, "generally these debt collectors have dismissed the cases because they know if they go to trial, then they can't provide the necessary evidence of their claim."

When debt buyers purchase defaulted accounts from credit-card firms and other creditors, they pay a cut-rate price for what usually amounts to "only minimal information regarding each debt and debtor," the Maryland Court of Appeals' rules committee concluded.

They then swear in affidavits that the information is accurate, though they frequently don't pay to acquire documents — such as signed agreements or a list of purchases — to verify the details in the databases they have purchased, the attorney general's office said.

Consumer attorneys, regulators and other officials — here and elsewhere — say these are not minor matters. Consumers, they say, have been sued twice on the same debt by different debt buyers. They've been sued on debts discharged through bankruptcy. They've been sued on debts they'd already paid off. And some have been sued for debts incurred by other people with similar names.

Wanda Brown, a federal attorney from St. Mary's County, says a debt buyer sued her in April over a credit card she never had.

"I spoke with somebody and I asked, 'What is this debt?' " said Brown, 44. "They said, 'Well, we don't have any other information. We only buy the name and the amount of the debt.' "

Brown said she was never served notice of the suit — the affidavit claiming she had been served describes her as black, where she's white. A letter from a debt solutions company shortly before the court date clued her in. A judge scheduled a trial for August after she showed up to object.

Nancy Hall, who filed for bankruptcy after her husband died and she was unable to find work, was sued by a debt buyer for $8,200 in the late stages of her case last year — in violation of bankruptcy law.

This spring a different debt buyer sent the Anne Arundel County woman a letter demanding she pay up on another debt discharged by the bankruptcy court.

"I thought this was all taken care of," Hall said. "The court says it's over. Why can't they keep track of all of this?"

A trade group for debt buyers, DBA International, says such problems are the exception.

"It is very easy to paint the little-known debt buying industry negatively," the group said in a statement. "But the work that our members do on a daily basis is a vital part of the American credit economy."

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