By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
WebRecon offers a similar but expanded service to FDCPA Case Listing Service. Rather than only track FDCPA cases, WebRecon makes an effort to track FCRA, TCPA, and state and local cases, as well. WebRecon is headed by Jack Gordon out of Michigan. Gordon ran his own third-party collection agency for years until a spate of FDCPA lawsuits in 2008 forced him out of business. He is familiar with Cunningham's type.
"This is definitely, if I can use a really strong word, a cesspool," Gordon says. "The overwhelming majority of these suits are not pro se. Now when you're focusing exclusively on pro se, I think you're getting into a little bit of a different area. I've spent time personally on some of the Web sites that a lot of pro se litigants frequent...I would have to say they are far more radicalized element of society, and there's certainly I think reason for concern.
"You're dealing with somebody who's looking for an opportunity. They revel in either getting opportunities or making opportunities to try out everything they're learning online. That's hardly an exaggeration," he says, laughing. "It's really an experience spending time there!"
Gordon may have a personal vendetta against Cunningham types, but so do others who represent the collection industry.
ACA International is the largest trade group representing third-party debt collection agencies. Tom Morgan is the Texas executive director for ACA International and he believes that FDCPA lawsuits will continue to rise as more and more people in this economy can't pay their debts. He views the agencies as a kind of indirect victim in the rising tide of consumer fury and desperation.
"While our members do get filed on from time to time, the FDCPA is so highly technical there are quote, technical, violations that can occur," Morgan says. "You know, somebody makes a mistake. But there's no intent, OK, to defraud people or to violate the law.
"Usually it's settled because the agency says, Uh, we didn't intend to do that. Our collector said the wrong thing and we fess up and say, 'I didn't mean to do it but I did it...
"And this is where some of our members feel aggrieved in that because there's a hyper-technical opportunity for a plaintiff's attorney to come in, it is cheaper to settle than to fight it. And sometimes they'd really like to fight it because they don't believe they are guilty, but it's so costly, so they settle it."
Thomas Stockton is on the executive committee of ACA International and also the founder and chief executive of a local collection agency, CMI. (Cunningham is in the midst of an ongoing legal dispute with CMI, which picked up his outstanding Time Warner debt.)
"In my opinion there are two reasons why there are more suits being filed today," Stockton says. "You've got the Internet sites...And, it's easy to file suit. You can do it on your own. You don't have to have an attorney."
Stockton says, however, that the better question is how many of the suits are successful.
The answer depends on how you define success. Debt collectors point to all the settlements they are forced to make because it's cheaper than fighting a frivolous suit. To Cunningham and other pro se litigants, any payment is a victory.
"Does if make sense to spend $10,000 to win this suit or pay the litigant $500 to settle?" says Stockton. "Depending on the situation, it becomes a business decision at some point."
Cunningham filed his lawsuit against Credit Management, L.P. (CMI) in August 2009, claiming violations in the amount of around $200,000—by far his gutsiest lawsuit yet. The original bill for Time Warner was for $79.84 back while he was living in El Paso. Cunningham admits he may have missed the last payment for the Time Warner bill. Time Warner, rather than validate the bill, sent his account to a collection agency. That was ACS, which Cunningham sued for violating his Texas rights, as well as federal law. ACS closed his account, but the debt wasn't forgiven. Instead, CMI picked it up.
CMI started calling Cunningham's cell phone with an auto-dialer, leaving prerecorded messages to please call them immediately regarding an outstanding bill. Cunningham told them to stop calling his cell phone on the auto-dialer, but they continued, each call a violation of TCPA. As Cunningham disputed the bill, CMI by law is also expected to cease collection efforts. So every call was another violation of FDCPA. Plus, to this day, CMI has not provided Cunningham with anything from Time Warner, he says, either a bill or a letter, verifying that he in fact owes anything, another violation of the law. "I don't really know if I owe it," Cunningham says. "If I do, send me a bill. If they don't want to send me a bill, I don't think I need to pay 'em."
CMI has countersued Cunningham, and even asked the court for a protective order from Cunningham: "Plaintiff Craig Cunningham (herein "Plaintiff") has filed suit against a business, Credit Management, LP (herein "CMI"), and twenty-seven (27) of its employees in their individual capacities," reads the motion for a protective order filed in Northern District of Texas in December 2009. "Defendants move for a protective order to protect Defendants from the annoyance, oppression, undue burden and expense of objecting and responding to improper, repetitive and irrelevant discovery requests."