West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals makes clear that third parties may not sue under the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act for collection attempts
On May 17, 2017, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision that affirmed a trial court’s order granting summary judgment to a collector in a lawsuit brought by a third party over collection calls made to her home that were intended to reach another person living there. In Young v. EOS CCA, No. 16-0151 (May 17, 2017), the court ruled that the plaintiff, Edith Young, was not a “consumer” under the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Collection Act, W. Va. Code §§ 46A-1-101 et seq. (“WVCCPA”), and therefore could not bring claims under the WVCCPA.
The lawsuit stemmed from calls received on Young’s home telephone. The caller ID device on that telephone showed that the calls were being placed by EOS CCA, a collection agency. Young assumed the calls were meant for her, and she brought a lawsuit against EOS CCA, alleging claims under the WVCCPA based on her assertion that she had told EOS CCA that she was represented by an attorney, but that EOS CCA continued to call her. She also alleged claims for negligence, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
EOS CCA retained Spilman Thomas & Battle to represent it in the lawsuit and attacked the allegation she had told it that she was represented by an attorney. When we were able to prove that she never told EOS CCA about an attorney, Young attempted to keep her WVCCPA claims alive by alleging that the collection calls were harassment under that statute because she did not owe any debt to EOS CCA. We were able to prove the calls EOS CCA made to the home telephone were made in an attempt to reach another person who lived there and who owed a debt it was trying to collect.
EOS CCA filed a motion asking the trial court to grant EOS CCA summary judgment on Young’s WVCCPA because she did not qualify as a consumer under that statute. In order to assert a WVCCPA claim, the plaintiff must be a consumer, and consumer is defined as someone who owes or is alleged to owe “any claim,” which is defined elsewhere in the statute as “any debt.” EOS CCA argued that Young was not a consumer because she did not owe the debt EOS CCA was trying to collect. At the time it made that argument, there was no mandatory authority in the state courts in West Virginia that the plaintiff bringing a WVCCPA must owe the debt at issue. EOS CCA relied on the 2006 decision from a West Virginia federal court in Payne v. Green Tree Servicing, LLC, No. 2:05-cv-00293 (S.D.W. Va. March 7, 2006). In the Payne case, the plaintiff did not owe the debt at issue, but argued that she could assert WVCCPA claims because she owed debts to other creditors. Spilman Thomas & Battle represented Green Tree Servicing, LLC in that case and argued the plaintiff could not assert WVCCPA claims because she did not owe the debt at issue. The court in Payne agreed and granted Green Tree Servicing LLC judgment on those claims. We believed the court in Young should follow suit.
Young countered that argument by presenting evidence that she owed some unrelated debts to other creditors that had nothing to do with EOS CCA’s calls or the lawsuits. She argued the fact that she owed those debts meant that she owed “any claim” or “any debt.” Young focused on the word “any” in the statute, and argued that EOS CCA could not dispute that she owed a debt to another creditor. Thus, she owed “any debt.” In essence, she argued that, if she owed a debt to anyone, she was a consumer with respect to everyone. The trial court disagreed with this argument and granted EOS CCA summary judgment.
Young appealed and again argued the phrase “any claim” in the WVCCPA must be given its ordinary and usual meaning. When doing so, the fact that she owed any claim (which under the WVCCPA was later defined as any debt) meant that she met the criteria for being a consumer entitled to sue under the WVCCPA. On March 17, 2017, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision disagreeing with her. It resolved the issue with clear language: “[Ms. Young’s] attempt to cast herself as a ‘consumer’ under the [WVCCPA] fails because the statutes at issue are clear that the individual seeking civil recovery must owe or allegedly owe the debt at the center of the collection activity.” Relying on the Payne court’s decision, it explained that “[w]hile the legislature may have wanted to prohibit excessive calls to those who were not ‘consumers’ as defined by the [WVCCPA], it also wanted to limit recovery under the [WVCCA] to actual ‘consumers’ because ‘consumers’ are the class of people most likely to be harmed by violations of the WVCCPA.” Thus, it held that Young could not assert WVCCPA claims and the trial court was correct to grant EOS CCA summary judgment. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is the highest state court in West Virginia, and its decision resolves the issue for future cases.
The Young decision is important because, although Green Tree Servicing, LLC prevailed in the Payne case, and we were successful in getting a West Virginia federal district court to rule that non-consumers could not sue under the WVCCPA, there was no decision that was mandatory on state trial courts in West Virginia confronted with the issue. The vast majority of WVCCPA cases are filed in those state trial courts. Even after the Payne decision, non-consumers still filed WVCCPA claims in those courts. Many of those courts did not follow the Payne decision and allowed those cases to proceed. The Young decision is mandatory on those courts, and that decision should stop non-consumers from seeking to assert WVCCPA claims in state courts in West Virginia in the future.
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