In Johnson v. Columbia Debt Recovery, a Washington district court awarded each plaintiff $30,000 in emotional distress damages under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), $120 in treble actual damages under the Washington Collection Agency Act (WCAA) and the Washington Consumer Protection Act (WCPA), and $2,000 in statutory damages under the FDCPA.
In its holding, the court emphasized that, even without expert testimony, the plaintiffs’ credible testimony regarding their “stress, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and other forms of general emotional distress” in a “particularly vulnerable time for both plaintiffs, as they were experiencing the joy and challenges of raising a new baby” in response to a debt collector’s “numerous false and misleading statements in an attempt to collect a debt” was sufficient to establish emotional distress damages.
In this case, a bench trial was held on May 25. In its amended findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court held that the defendant attempted to collect on amounts in excess of what was owed on numerous occasions during telephone conversations, in a letter, and through its credit reporting. The court reasoned that the defendant’s erroneous statements to the plaintiffs that “a judgment had been entered for the alleged debt, that plaintiffs’ wages would be garnished, that plaintiffs had been evicted, and that various charges and fees were legitimate” were without any basis. Finding that such conduct violated the FDCPA, the WCAA, and the WCPA, and based on testimony of the plaintiffs, the court awarded each of the plaintiffs $30,000 in emotional distress damages. It emphasized that expert testimony is not a requirement for recovery of such damages, and the plaintiffs’ testimony was sufficient and credible to support its finding. The court also awarded each plaintiff the maximum statutory damages of $1,000 because of the defendant’s “continued refusal to accept that it is liable under the FDCPA despite the court’s prior ruling and the continued adverse credit reporting as to” one of the plaintiffs.
The court also found the plaintiffs suffered actual damages in the amount of $40 in out-of-pocket costs that they “paid for parking and gas” in “consulting with an attorney to determine their legal rights and responsibilities,” and then trebled that amount under the WCAA and WCPA for an award of $120.
Finally, the court awarded the plaintiffs their attorneys’ fees and costs under the FDCPA, WCAA, and WCPA and ordered their counsel to file a petition for fees and costs.
The court’s holding shows the willingness of certain courts to consider the plaintiffs’ testimony regarding their emotional distress damages, even absent expert testimony, when assessing damages under the FDCPA. It also serves as an example of a situation where plaintiffs received a relatively significant award of emotional distress damages, absent proof of concrete or significant monetary damages.