WASHINGTON – Markets are racked by turmoil, and there are signs the booming U.S. economy could slow down later this year. Yet the Supreme Court is reckoning with the lingering fallout from the financial crisis that rocked the global economy a decade ago.
The top court on Monday attempted to resolve a legal question that could have broad ramifications on hundreds of thousands of Americans who are foreclosed on without a judicial process each year. A key issue in the matter is who or what can be considered a "debt collector."
The justices were divided, but not into clear ideological zones. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Republican-appointed conservatives who are typically business friendly, were among the most skeptical questioners of the respondent in the case, a law firm working on behalf of Wells Fargo.
To be sure, there are ideological divides at issue. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who announced a formal step toward a bid for the presidency last month, took a public stance on behalf of the petitioner in the case.
Warren, alongside potential 2020 contender Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; and a slate of other liberal lawmakers, filed a brief outlining what they believed was Congress's intent in drafting the law at issue.
On the other side was the Trump administration, which dispatched the solicitor general, as well as powerful business interests including the Chamber of Commerce and associations representing bankers.
The case centers on Dennis Obduskey, a Colorado man who defaulted on his $329,940 home loan in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis. The question in the case is whether Obduskey is entitled to legal protections for debtors provided by Congress in 1977, or whether the foreclosure is exempt because it is Obduskey's home, and not money, that is at stake.
Obduskey obtained his home loan from a company called the Magnus Financial Corporation in 2007. Like many other Americans, he defaulted on the loan in 2009.
The bank then attempted to foreclose on Obduskey for six years, to no avail. Finally, in 2015, Wells Fargo retained a law firm — McCarthy & Holthus — to handle the foreclosure proceedings. But, as of the latest briefs in the case, Obduskey's home has yet to be sold.
The question of whether a law firm seeking to foreclose on a property is a debt collector is one that could affect millions of Americans. In 2016, about 200,000 homes were lost to foreclosure in states that permit lenders to foreclose on a property without going to court. Business groups have argued that these so-called non-judicial foreclosures are more efficient and fair to borrowers. Progressives say borrowers are entitled to more protections.
Obduskey's attorney, Daniel Geyser, argued that McCarthy & Holthus is a debt collector and therefore required to comply with certain procedural protections contained in the 1977 Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That law was passed to prevent debt collectors from engaging in abusive or predatory practices.
But Kannok Shanmugam, the attorney for the respondent in the case, argued that the FDCPA does not apply because, he said, the firm is not a debt collector. Shanmugam argued that Congress has long made a distinction between those collecting debts and those who seek to enforce security interests, or collect property that is owed without demanding payment.
The court is expected to issue a ruling by late June.