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7th Circuit Denies Debt Collector’s Bid For Arbitration

Link: Smith v. GC Services Limited Partnership, No. 18-1361 (7th Cir. 2018).

In an FDCPA case filed by Philipps & Philipps, Ltd., in July 2016, the defendants waited to demand arbitration until March of 2017—but filed nothing with the court. It wasn’t until August of 2017, once the class had been certified and another motion to dismiss denied, that the defendants brought their motion to compel arbitration.

The District Court for Southern District of Indiana held that the arbitration clause could not be invoked by GC Services based on an agency theory or equitable estoppel, and that in any event GC Services had waived its right to invoke the clause by waiting so long to bring it to the court’s attention.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed:

Smith does not contend that GC Services expressly waived any right to arbitrate. The question is whether we should infer that forfeiture occurred, which requires us to “determine that, considering the totality of the circumstances, a party acted inconsistently with the right to arbitrate.”

The panel went on to find that GC Services did not act diligently because the company did not mention the arbitration agreement in its answer, provided an inadequate explanation for the five-month delay in seeking arbitration after learning of the agreement, and prejudiced Smith by (unsuccessfully) engaging in motions practice.

The panel also found that this would prejudice the Plaintiff since he had already obtained victory on legal points and that allowing arbitration would undo those victories:

“GC Services’ motion to dismiss framed an integral—perhaps dispositive—issue: whether 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(3) requires that debts be disputed in writing. The Third Circuit has held that a written dispute is required; the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits have held that no writing requirement exists. Compare Graziano v. Harrison, 950 F.2d 107, 112 (3d Cir. 1991), with Clark, 741 F.3d at 490-91Hooks v. Forman, Holt, Eliades & Ravin, LLC, 717 F.3d 282, 285-87 (2d Cir. 2013)Camacho v. Bridgeport Fin., Inc., 430 F.3d 1078, 1080-82 (9th Cir. 2005). District courts within the Seventh Circuit have decided the issue both ways. See, e.g., Jolly v. Shapiro, 237 F. Supp. 2d 888, 895 (N.D. Ill. 2002) (finding a writing requirement); Campbell v. Hall, 624 F. Supp. 2d 991, 1000 (N.D. Ind. 2009) (finding no writing requirement) . . .

“[T]he district court’s determination that Smith was prejudiced when GC Services sought arbitration after Smith had defeated a motion to dismiss, obtained class certification, and litigated several discovery issues was not erroneous. In essence, GC Services sought to erase Smith’s successes—including her victory on the pivotal legal issue of whether § 1692g(a)(3) contains a writing requirement . . . “

The Court concluded with an apt warning to defense counsel in other cases:

This attempt to “play heads I win, tails you lose” is “the worst possible reason for delay.” Cabinetree, 50 F.3d at 391

Posted in FDCPA

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