The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed summary judgment in a recent Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case where the plaintiff alleged that a repossession company demanded payment before she would be allowed to recover personal property left in the vehicle. The Court held that the plaintiff’s testimony did not create a genuine dispute of fact when compared to documentary evidence showing the alleged payment demanded was in fact an administrative fee paid by the lender.
The case, Duncan v. Asset Recovery Specialists, Inc. et al., No. 17-2598 (7th Cir. Oct. 31, 2018), arose after plaintiff Danelle Duncan’s vehicle was repossessed by Asset Recovery Specialists, Inc. (“ARS”). Unable to satisfy the outstanding debt on the loan, Duncan contacted her lender to recover personal property that was left in the vehicle. This led to communications with ARS, during which Duncan alleged the president of ARS informed her she would have to pay $100 before she could retrieve the personal items. Duncan then met with ARS in its offices where she claims she was presented with an “assessment fee” form stating she would have to pay the $100, and that she considered it to be a demand to repay her car loan.
ARS refuted Duncan’s account of events, arguing that the $100 charge was an administrative fee that the lender had already agreed to pay, and that the form she was presented with was simply a receipt for her to sign, acknowledging she had recovered the property. During discovery, the document in question was produced. Entitled “Receipt for Redeeming Personal Property,” the document described the $100 charge as a “Handling Fee” and contained handwritten notes stating that the fee had been billed to the lender.
The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, concluding that Duncan had failed to produce any evidence refuting the document produced by ARS. The district court also held that, even if the money had been demanded, as Duncan alleged, there was no evidence to suggest it was anything other than an administrative fee assessed by ARS.
On appeal, Duncan argued that her testimony was enough to raise a factual question of whether ARS was working on behalf of the lender to collect $100 to apply toward the defaulted loan. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the unrefuted documentary evidence demonstrated the $100 was a handling fee assessed by ARS. Even with Duncan’s testimony, the Court stated “There is no way on this record to view the handling fee as some sort of masked demand for a principal payment … .” The appellate court also held that, even accepting there was some verbal demand for payment from ARS, Duncan’s testimony was not sufficient to create a fact dispute over whether that demand was made on behalf of the lender.
This case highlights the challenges lenders and debt collectors face in lawsuits based solely on plaintiffs’ own testimony and perceptions. While summary judgment was upheld here, the same is not always true in other courts around the country. To that end, the case demonstrates the value of creating and retaining records that unambiguously describe fees assessed for administrative tasks as opposed to regular loan payments. As seen here, there is great benefit to letting the documents speak for themselves.