According to a recent decision from the California Court of Appeal, mortgage lenders and servicers can, at least under certain circumstances, be “debt collectors” under the California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, frequently referred to as the “Rosenthal Act.”.

In the case, plaintiff Edward Davidson filed a putative class action suing his mortgage servicer, Seterus, Inc., after allegedly receiving hundreds of phone calls from employees of Seterus demanding mortgage payments that Davidson had already paid or that were not yet due. The alleged calls included threats to report negative credit information to the credit bureaus and to foreclose on Davidson’s home. The trial court sustained Seterus’s demurrer, dismissing the complaint with prejudice based on the fact that a mortgage servicer may not be considered a debt collector under the Rosenthal Act.

The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling and held that Seterus and its parent company were subject to the Rosenthal Act for these alleged collection activities.

The Court noted that there is a split in authority among federal district courts that have interpreted the Rosenthal Act, that there is no California authority on the issue, and that there is no language specific to whether entities attempting to collect mortgage debt are subject to, or exempt from, the Rosenthal Act. However, in adhering to the general principle that civil statutes enacted for the protection of the public should be broadly construed in favor of protecting the public, the Court held that the definitional language in the Rosenthal Act was sufficiently broad to include mortgage lenders and mortgage servicers. The Court further discussed that collecting on a mortgage is the same as collecting on a consumer debt, which is governed by the Rosenthal Act. The Court also noted that the definition of a “debt collector” under the Rosenthal Act is broader than its counterpart under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which excludes mortgage servicers in certain circumstances.

The Court distinguished the body of case law holding that the foreclosure on a deed of trust does not constitute debt collection activity under the Rosenthal Act. The Court noted that the present action does not involve foreclosure allegations and that it was not deciding whether a mortgage lender or mortgage servicer can be sued under the Rosenthal Act for any activity that the mortgage servicer undertakes with respect to a mortgage. The Court held that this was a different question from the one they were currently addressing: whether a mortgage lender or mortgage servicer may ever be considered a debt collector under the Rosenthal Act, the answer to which is “yes.”

Mortgage lenders and mortgage servicers should evaluate this decision and review their policies and procedures in California to minimize potential liability under the Rosenthal Act.