If you live in Massachusetts and you're dealing with a debt collector, or you're facing a collection lawsuit, it's important to know what debt collectors can and can't do. Under Massachusetts law, certain collection tactics are illegal. And, if you do get sued, the creditor often has to provide you with specific information about the debt before it can get a money judgment against you. If the collector doesn't comply with the law, you can raise this noncompliance as a defense to the suit.
Read on to learn about laws protecting Massachusetts consumers from abusive debt collectors and sloppy collection lawsuits.
Similar to the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Massachusetts has a debt collection statute. Under Massachusetts law, collectors are prohibited from communicating with debtors in such a manner as to harass or embarrass the alleged debtor. Prohibited actions include (but are not limited to) communicating with the debtor at an unreasonable hour or unreasonable frequency, and using threats of violence, offensive language, or making threats to take some action which the creditor doesn't take in the usual course of business. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93 § 49).
In addition, the Massachusetts Attorney General has issued debt collection regulations that establish standards defining unfair and deceptive acts and practices in debt collections. These regulations prohibit unfair, deceptive, and unreasonable debt collection practices such as:
Violating these regulations constitutes a violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93.
Different from federal law, Massachusetts' restrictions on debt collection activity applies to all of the following: original creditors (including their lawyers), third-party debt collection agencies, and buyers of delinquent debt who hire third parties, including lawyers, to collect debt on their behalf. (940 Code Mass. Regs. 7.03).
When collection tactics don't work—meaning, you don't pay up—the creditor might file a collection lawsuit against you. If you don't file an answer to the suit within the response period, the plaintiff (the creditor) can get a default judgment against you, meaning you automatically lose the case. Once the plaintiff gets its judgment, it can use all sorts of collection methods against you—like wage garnishment or a bank levy—to get paid.
Creditors typically find it easy to get default judgments because debtors often don't respond to collection lawsuits. But in these kinds of suits, the plaintiff's evidence is frequently flawed. Credit card companies and other creditors sell bad debts to debt purchasers, and paperwork tends to get lost along the way. The new owner of the debt might have trouble proving it owns the debt, calculating exactly how much you owe, or proving some other important aspect of its case.
Massachusetts, unlike some other states, requires the plaintiff to provide specific evidence in collection suits.
Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure 8.1 requires a creditor that's filing a collection lawsuit to:
By requiring the plaintiff to include this information along with the complaint, Massachusetts law ensures that consumers get critical information when facing a collection lawsuit. If any of this information is inaccurate or missing, you likely have grounds to fight the lawsuit.
Arguably the most arduous requirement for the plaintiff is showing the chain of ownership—especially when the debt has been transferred multiple times. Under the rule, the plaintiff must show each bill of sale, assignment, or other document evidencing the transfer of ownership of the debt, beginning with the original creditor, and including a specific reference to your account number. If you're getting sued, you should review the complaint and accompanying documentation carefully to ensure the plaintiff has included proof of every transfer and that each transfer refers specifically to your account. If there isn't a complete chain of ownership leading up to the plaintiff who's suing you, then the plaintiff doesn't have the right (called "standing") to sue you.
Under Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure 55.1, the plaintiff can't get a default judgment unless its lawyer files an affidavit stating:
The plaintiff must serve its request for a default judgment to you. If the plaintiff serves you the information by mailing it to your residential address, it must re-verify your address within three months before asking for the default judgment.
If you're having trouble with an abusive debt collector or facing a collection lawsuit in Massachusetts and you think the plaintiff has failed to meet the requirements discussed in this article, consider talking to a lawyer. A lawyer can advise you what to do in your specific circumstances.