Putative class action plaintiffs recently prevailed on appeal in a case involving mortgage servicing fees charged to Maryland borrowers. In doing so, the opinion opens the door for FDCPA liability for all mortgage servicing activity and other collection activity in Maryland, even if such activity is otherwise exempt from FDCPA liability.
The Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act
The case is a putative class action challenging certain fees charged by the borrowers’ mortgage servicer in the ordinary course of business. Among other claims, the plaintiffs alleged that the servicer violated the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act (MCDCA). Specifically, the MCDCA prohibits a “collector” from “engag[ing] in any conduct that violates §§ 804 through 812 of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.” The plaintiffs alleged that the attempt to collect certain mortgage servicing fees violated the FDCPA’s proscription for a “debt collector” to engage in “[t]he collection of any amount (including any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law.”
The MCDCA applies to any “collector,” defined as any “person collecting or attempting to collect an alleged debt arising out of a consumer transaction.” The FDCPA, on the other hand, uses the term “debt collector” which is defined with several limitations and exceptions, including for debt that was not in default when obtained. Despite the narrower scope of the FDCPA, plaintiffs in the case argued that a servicer could engage in conduct that violated the FDCPA, and thereby be in violation of the MCDCA, even if the servicer was not a “debt collector” subject to the FDCPA.
The district court dismissed the case before considering class certification, determining that the servicer was not a “collector” under the MCDCA and, likewise, was not a “debt collector” under the FDCPA.
The Fourth Circuit’s Decision
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings, finding that the servicer was a collector under the MCDCA. Critically, the court determined that the servicer could be held liable for engaging in conduct that violated the FDCPA, even if it was not actually subject to the FDCPA. The court reasoned that even though the FDCPA only applies to “debt collectors” and, even though the MCDCA, in turn, only prohibits conduct that violates the FDCPA, an entity could still be in violation of the MCDCA even if it was not engaging in debt collection under the FDCPA. The court concluded that “[t]he MCDCA’s broader definition controls here, as it is not displaced by the federal definition.” The court stated that the MCDCA only incorporated the FDCPA’s “substantive provisions” contained in §§ 804 through 812, thus the FDCPA’s applicable definitions and exemptions, contained in §§ 803, 818 were to be disregarded in determining if a violation of the FDCPA occurred for purposes of the Maryland law.
This decision subjects several otherwise exempt and excluded actors to potential liability for FDCPA violations via the MCDCA within Maryland. In addition to mortgage servicers, who are typically exempt from the FDCPA under normal circumstances, the FDCPA contains a number of other exemptions including for entities collecting their owns debts, process servers, and certain nonprofit organizations performing credit counseling. Under the reasoning of the Fourth Circuit’s decision, all of these actors could now potentially be held liable under the MCDCA for FDCPA violations within Maryland. Furthermore, all such actors arguably need to comply with the strictures of the FDCPA in communicating with consumers. This would include restrictions on the timing, frequency, and format of communications with consumers that do not apply to communications outside the scope of the FDCPA. On February 15, 2022, the court denied a Motion for Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc, thus finalizing the decision.
Following this decision, recent legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly may delay foreclosure proceedings in Maryland. On February 3, 2022 a delegate introduced HB 803, which would allow borrowers to file counterclaims in response to foreclosure proceedings, would make additional procedural requirements applicable to such actions, and would prevent a foreclosure from proceeding if a borrower files such a counterclaim. Under the Fourth Circuit’s decision, servicers could experience increased MCDCA challenges alleging violations of the FDCPA that would otherwise not apply, and, combined with the additional procedural requirements and delays contemplated by HB 803, foreclosure proceedings could face significant delays as a result.
While some state laws offer state remedies for a violation of federal law, we are unaware of any case that has interpreted such a law to expand the scope of liability under the incorporated federal law. While states can and have adopted consumer statutes that are more expansive than federal law, it remains to be seen if other courts will now interpret simple incorporation of federal law as something more expansive as well.