Jerman v. Carlisle

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation130 S.Ct. 1605,559 U.S. 573,176 L.Ed.2d 519
Docket NumberNo. 08–1200.,08–1200.
PartiesKaren L. JERMAN, Petitioner, v. CARLISLE, McNELLIE, RINI, KRAMER & ULRICH LPA, et al.
Decision Date21 April 2010

559 U.S. 573
130 S.Ct. 1605
176 L.Ed.2d 519

Karen L. JERMAN, Petitioner,

No. 08–1200.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Jan. 13, 2010.
Decided April 21, 2010.

Kevin K. Russell, Bethesda, MD, for petitioner, by William M. Jay, for United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioner.

George S. Coakley, Cleveland, OH, for respondents.

George S. Coakley, Counsel of Record, Clifford C. Masch, Brian D. Sullivan, Martin T. Galvin, James O'Connor, Reminger Co., L.P.A., Cleveland, OH, for respondents.

Stephen R. Felson, Cincinnati, OH, Edward Icove, Icove Legal Group, Ltd., Cleveland, OH, Kevin K. Russell, Counsel of Record, Amy Howe, Howe & Russell, P.C., Bethesda, MD, Pamela S. Karlan, Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford Law School, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Stanford, CA, for petitioner.


Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

559 U.S. 576

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA or Act) imposes civil liability on “debt collector[s]” for certain prohibited debt collection practices. Section 813(c) of the Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(c), provides that a debt collector is not liable in an action brought under the Act if she can show “the violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error.” This case presents

559 U.S. 577

the question whether the “bona fide error” defense in § 1692k(c) applies to a violation resulting from a debt collector's mistaken interpretation of the legal requirements of the FDCPA. We conclude it does not.



Congress enacted the FDCPA in 1977, 91 Stat. 874, 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. 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). The Act regulates interactions between consumer debtors and “debt collector[s],” defined to include any person who “regularly collects ... debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” §§ 1692a(5), (6). Among other things, the Act prohibits debt collectors from making false representations as to a debt's character, amount, or legal status, § 1692e(2)(A); communicating with consumers at an “unusual time or place” likely to be inconvenient

130 S.Ct. 1609

to the consumer, § 1692c(a)(1); or using obscene or profane language or violence or the threat thereof, §§ 1692d(1), (2). See generally §§ 1692b–1692j; Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 292–293, 115 S.Ct. 1489, 131 L.Ed.2d 395 (1995).

The Act is enforced through administrative action and private lawsuits. With some exceptions not relevant here, violations of the FDCPA are deemed to be unfair or deceptive acts or practices under the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), 15 U.S.C. § 41 et seq., and are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). See § 1692l. As a result, a debt collector who acts with “actual knowledge or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances that such act is [prohibited under the FDCPA]” is subject to civil penalties of up to $16,000 per day. §§ 45(m)(1)(A), (C); 74 Fed.Reg. 858 (2009) (amending 16 CFR § 1.98(d)).

559 U.S. 578

The FDCPA also provides that “any debt collector who fails to comply with any provision of th[e][Act] with respect to any person is liable to such person.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a). Successful plaintiffs are entitled to “ actual damage [s],” plus costs and “a reasonable attorney's fee as determined by the court.” Ibid. A court may also award “additional damages,” subject to a statutory cap of $1,000 for individual actions, or, for class actions, “the lesser of $500,000 or 1 per centum of the net worth of the debt collector.” § 1692k(a)(2). In awarding additional damages, the court must consider “the frequency and persistence of [the debt collector's] noncompliance,” “the nature of such noncompliance,” and “the extent to which such noncompliance was intentional.” § 1692k(b).

The Act contains two exceptions to provisions imposing liability on debt collectors. Section 1692k(c), at issue here, provides that

“[a] debt collector may not be held liable in any action brought under [the FDCPA] if the debt collector shows by a preponderance of evidence that the violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error.”

The Act also states that none of its provisions imposing liability shall apply to “any act done or omitted in good faith in conformity with any advisory opinion of the [Federal Trade] Commission.” § 1692k(e).


Respondents in this case are a law firm, Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer & Ulrich, L.P.A., and one of its attorneys, Adrienne S. Foster (collectively Carlisle). In April 2006, Carlisle filed a complaint in Ohio state court on behalf of a client, Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. Carlisle sought foreclosure of a mortgage held by Countrywide in real property owned by petitioner Karen L. Jerman. The complaint included

559 U.S. 579

a “Notice,” later served on Jerman, stating that the mortgage debt would be assumed to be valid unless Jerman disputed it in writing. Jerman's lawyer sent a letter disputing the debt, and Carlisle sought verification from Countrywide. When Countrywide acknowledged that Jerman had, in fact, already paid the debt in full, Carlisle withdrew the foreclosure lawsuit.

Jerman then filed her own lawsuit seeking class certification and damages under the FDCPA, contending that Carlisle violated § 1692g by stating that her debt would be assumed valid unless she disputed it in writing.1 While acknowledging

130 S.Ct. 1610

a division of authority on the question, the District Court held that Carlisle had violated § 1692g by requiring Jerman to dispute the debt in writing. 464 F.Supp.2d 720, 722–725 (N.D.Ohio 2006).2 The court ultimately granted summary judgment to Carlisle, however, concluding that § 1692k(c) shielded it from liability because the violation was not intentional, resulted from a bona fide error, and occurred despite the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error. 502 F.Supp.2d 686, 695–697 (N.D.Ohio 2007). The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. 538 F.3d 469 (2008). Acknowledging that the

559 U.S. 580

Courts of Appeals are divided regarding the scope of the bona fide error defense, and that the “majority view is that the defense is available for clerical and factual errors only,” the Sixth Circuit nonetheless held that § 1692k(c) extends to “mistakes of law.” Id., at 473–476 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court of Appeals found “nothing unusual” about attorney debt collectors maintaining “procedures” within the meaning of § 1692k(c) to avoid mistakes of law. Id., at 476. Noting that a parallel bona fide error defense in the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), 15 U.S.C. § 1640(c), expressly excludes legal errors, the court observed that Congress has amended the FDCPA several times since 1977 without excluding mistakes of law from § 1692k(c). 538 F.3d, at 476.3

We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict of authority as to the scope of the FDCPA's bona fide error defense,4

559 U.S. 581
130 S.Ct. 1611

557 U.S. ––––, 129 S.Ct. 2863, 174 L.Ed.2d 575 (2009), and now reverse the judgment of the Sixth Circuit.



The parties disagree about whether a “violation” resulting from a debt collector's misinterpretation of the legal requirements of the FDCPA can ever be “not intentional” under § 1692k(c). Jerman contends that when a debt collector intentionally commits the act giving rise to the violation (here, sending a notice that included the “in writing” language), a misunderstanding about what the Act requires cannot render the violation “not intentional,” given the general rule that mistake or ignorance of law is no defense. Carlisle and the dissent, in contrast, argue that nothing in the statutory text excludes legal errors from the category of “bona fide error[s]” covered by § 1692k(c) and note that the Act refers not to an unintentional “act” but rather an unintentional “violation.” The latter term, they contend, evinces Congress' intent to impose liability only when a party knows its conduct is unlawful. Carlisle urges us, therefore, to read § 1692k(c) to encompass “all types of error,” including mistakes of law. Brief for Respondents 7.

We decline to adopt the expansive reading of § 1692k(c) that Carlisle proposes. We have long recognized the “common maxim, familiar to all minds, that ignorance of the law will not excuse any person, either civilly or criminally.” Barlow v. United...

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