On June 27, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a $1 million settlement with the largest debt collection law firm in the state to resolve allegations that the firm engaged in unfair and unlawful debt collection practices. According to a lawsuit filed by the Attorney General’s office in 2015, the firm began filing tens of thousands of debt collection lawsuits each year beginning in 2011, at times targeting the wrong consumers or filing claims based on unsubstantiated debts. The firm also allegedly demanded payment from consumers who relied on social security or other exempt income, despite being provided evidence that the income was exempt from court-ordered collection. Under the terms of the settlement, the company is required to reform its debt collection practices by adhering to guidelines including the following:
- The firm is required to obtain and review “original account-level documentation” prior to initiating a collection to determine whether a consumer is obligated to pay the debt such as, among others, (i) an authenticated bill of sale reflecting the transferred ownership of debt; (ii) original documents reflecting the charge-off balance; (iii) contractual terms and conditions; and (iv) original consumer signed documents showing proof the account was opened;
- The firm is prohibited from engaging in threatening actions to collect on a debt initiated on behalf of a collector or debt buyer, and is further restrained from commencing a collection suit without possessing a final judgment or execution against the consumer, or acceptable account-level documentation;
- The firm cannot initiate a collection suit against a consumer until an attorney listed on the company in the collection suit has reviewed the pertinent information and made the determination that the debt owed is not subject to bankruptcy proceedings and certifies in writing that the collection suit is in compliance.
The settlement terms also stipulate that the firm must comply with collection terms and restrictions concerning exempt and protected income, must adhere to time-barred debt collection restrictions, is enjoined from using false and misleading affidavits to collect debts, and must submit enhanced compliance reporting to AG Healey for review. Additionally, the firm previously paid $1 million to the state to be used in one or more of the following ways: (i) as payments to consumers; (ii) to assist with final judgment facilitation; (iii) to be added to the state’s general fund and/or the Local Consumer Aid Fund; and (iv) to fund programs that “address the negative effect of unfair and deceptive practices related to debt collection.”