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Russell v. Absolute Collection Servs., Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

August 15, 2014

DIANE RUSSELL, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
ABSOLUTE COLLECTION SERVICES, INC., Defendant -- Appellant, and CHARLTON CLARKSON, Defendant

Argued April 11, 2014

Page 386

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 387

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, at Greensboro. (1:09-cv-00515-WO-WWD). William L. Osteen, Jr., Chief District Judge.

ARGUED:

Sean T. Partrick, YATES, MCLAMB & WEYHER, LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Deepak Gupta, GUPTA BECK PLLC, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Allison J. Becker, Jennifer D. Maldonado, YATES, MCLAMB & WEYHER, LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Joanne Faulkner, New Haven, Connecticut; Suzanne R. Begnoche, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before MOTZ, DIAZ, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges. Judge Floyd wrote the opinion, in which Judge Motz and Judge Diaz joined.

OPINION

Page 388

FLOYD, Circuit Judge:

Diane Russell was the target of a dunning campaign waged by Absolute Collection Services, Inc. (Absolute Collection), wherein Absolute Collection made repeated collection demands to Russell for a debt that she incurred in 2008. Within one month of receiving Absolute Collection's first collection letter, Russell paid the outstanding bill in full. Although the collection letter instructed Russell to send payment for the debt to Absolute Collection, she instead paid the creditor directly and notified Absolute Collection of her payment during two telephone conversations with collection agents. Yet, over the next few months, Absolute Collection continued sending Russell demand letters falsely asserting that the already-paid debt remained due and threatening to report it to credit bureaus as " past due."

Russell filed suit against Absolute Collection in federal district court in North Carolina, alleging that Absolute Collection's conduct violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1692-1692p, and the North Carolina Collection Agency Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-70-1 et seq., by, inter alia, falsely reporting the status of the debt and threatening to report the paid-off debt to credit bureaus as " past due." Following a five-day jury trial, the district court granted Russell's motion for judgment as a matter of law with respect to certain claims under the FDCPA and allowed the state claims to go to the jury, which found in favor of Russell and awarded to her $37,501.00.

Absolute Collection now appeals the district court's orders (1) denying Absolute Collection's motion for judgment as a matter of law; (2) granting Russell's motion for judgment as a matter of law; (3) excluding certain evidence relevant to Absolute Collection's bona-fide-error defense; and (4) denying Absolute Collection's post-trial motions. We reject each of Absolute Collection's challenges and affirm the district court's judgment in its entirety.

I.

A.

We begin with the salient portions of the FDCPA's statutory framework and then survey the factual and procedural history before turning to the merits of Absolute Collection's claims. Congress enacted the FDCPA " to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors." 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). To effectuate this purpose, the FDCPA regulates interactions between consumers and debt collectors by imposing affirmative statutory obligations

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upon debt collectors and proscribing certain abusive conduct. See, e.g., id. § 1692b (setting forth debt collectors' obligations when acquiring location information about consumers); id. § 1692d (prohibiting " any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person" ); Clark v. Absolute Collection Serv., Inc., 741 F.3d 487, 490-91 (4th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (explaining obligations triggered by a debtor's oral dispute under § 1692g(a)(3)). As relevant here, the FDCPA makes it unlawful for debt collectors to make false or deceptive statements in the course of their collection activities. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692e.

Debt collectors that violate the FDCPA are liable to the debtor for actual damages, costs, and reasonable attorney's fees. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(1), (a)(3). The FDCPA also provides the potential for statutory damages up to $1,000 subject to the district court's discretion. Id. § 1692k(a)(2)(A). A debtor generally is not required to show an intentional or knowing violation on the part of the debt collector to recover damages under the FDCPA. Warren v. Sessoms & Rogers, P.A., 676 F.3d 365, 375 (4th Cir. 2012) (" [T]he FDCPA 'imposes liability without proof of an intentional violation.'" (quoting Allen ex rel. Martin v. LaSalle Bank, N.A., 629 F.3d 364, 368 (3d Cir. 2011))). The statute, however, excludes from liability violations that were the result of bona fide errors. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(c). To qualify for the bona-fide-error defense, a defendant is required to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that (1) it unintentionally violated the FDCPA; (2) the violation resulted from a bona fide error; and (3) it maintained procedures reasonably adapted to avoid the violation. Id.

B.

This appeal has its genesis in a $501 medical bill. After Diane Russell failed to remit payment for medical services rendered to her husband, Sandhills Emergency Physicians (Sandhills) enlisted Absolute Collection to recover the outstanding $501 balance. On December 8, 2008, Absolute Collection sent Russell an initial collection letter advising her that Sandhills " authorized us to extend to you a courtesy which allows you thirty (30) days in order to pay the balance on your account and prevent further, more serious collection activity." Absolute Collection followed its initial demand letter with five telephone calls to Russell over the next couple of weeks. ...


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