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Jerman v. Carlisle

Supreme Court Agrees: Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

The Ruling

The Court began by discussing the underlying principles of the FDCPA: consumer protection against abusive collection practices. It then carefully dissected the language and legislative history of the FDCSPA, compared it to other consumer or borrower protection statutes, and distinguished any FDCCPA bona-fide error provisions from those allowing escape from liability in other statutes. The Court noted distinctions between mistakes of fact and those of law, finding that Congress did not give debt collectors a shield for bona-fide errors of law.

Rejecting the collectors' argument that the ruling would open the floodgates of litigation and damage claims, the court found:"Congress enacted the FDCPA … to eliminate abusive debt collection practices, to ensure that debt collectors who abstain from such practices are not competitively disadvantaged, and to promote consistent state action to protect consumers," wrote the Court. "We do not foresee that our decision today will place unmanageable burdens on lawyers practicing in the debt collection industry."

The issue is important to AARP because older people are particularly vulnerable to the abuses of debt collectors. Collectors attempt to secure payment for debts that can be years old and forgotten (or never incurred at all, but the transactions took place so long ago the consumer is unsure). The effects of debt collection practices are more keenly felt on people on fixed or limited incomes, such as retirees, and current economic conditions, growing debt burdens, and the rising rate of home foreclosures put older people at greater risk. An AARP report notes that more than 684,000 homeowners over age 50 were either delinquent or in foreclosure in December 2007, and that same age group is experiencing the sharpest increase in bankruptcy filings since 1991.

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