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Massachusetts Prohibits Certain Credit and Debt Collection Practices During COVID-19 Emergency

April 02, 2020
Please read our May 7, 2020, LawFlash, Massachusetts Ban on Certain Debt Collection Practices Blocked on First Amendment Grounds, for recent developments on the ban.

The Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General issued an emergency rule on April 1 to prevent unfair and deceptive collection practices during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. The rule temporarily prohibits some debt collectors from initiating or threatening collection lawsuits, acting on vehicle repossession, and taking steps toward wage garnishment – among other restrictions.

The rule was issued under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act M.G.L. c. 93A concerning certain practices by creditors and debt collectors. COVID-19 has caused substantial economic and medical hardship to Massachusetts residents, many of whom have been required to stay at home, have lost employment or income, or are dealing with severe and prolonged illness or illness of family members. According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, the emergency rule was necessary to preserve the public health, safety, and general welfare of Massachusetts residents by preventing unfair and deceptive collection procedures during the State of Emergency declared by Governor Charlie Baker. Except where there is a conflict with existing rules, the emergency rule supplements and does not supersede existing rules governing practices by creditors and debt collectors.

The rule provides that until the earlier of 30 days following expiration of the Massachusetts State of Emergency, or June 25, 2020 (the “Rule Period”), it is an unfair or deceptive act or practice for any creditor, including a debt collector, to

  • initiate, file, or threaten to file any new collection lawsuit;
  • initiate, threaten to initiate, or act upon any legal or equitable remedy for the garnishment, seizure, attachment, or withholding of wages, earnings, property or funds for the payment of a debt to a creditor;
  • initiate, threaten to initiate, or act upon any legal or equitable remedy for the repossession of any vehicle;
  • apply for, cause to be served, enforce, or threaten to apply for, cause to be served or enforce any capias warrant;
  • visit or threaten to visit the household of a debtor at any time;
  • visit or threaten to visit the place of employment of a debtor at any time; and
  • confront or communicate in person with a debtor regarding the collection of a debt in any public place at any time.

The above restrictions do not apply to telephone, gas, and electric utility companies regulated by Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 164 and the Department of Public Utilities or the Department of Telecommunications and Cable.

The rule also provides that during the Rule Period it is an unfair or deceptive act or practice for a debt collector to call any debtor by telephone, either in person or by recorded message, except in response to a request made by the debtor. This restriction does not apply to communications solely to inform a debtor of a rescheduled court appearance date, or to discuss a convenient date for a rescheduled court appearance.

The prohibitions on visits to a debtor’s household and on telephone calls do not apply to attempts to collect a mortgage secured by real property or debt owing by a tenant to an owner.

Violation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act can result in the recovery of triple damages and attorney fees by a private party or a civil penalty and reasonable attorney fees and costs of investigation on the part of the attorney general.

For additional information on this rule and other guidance from the Massachusetts Attorney General concerning COVID-19, please review the Resources During COVID-19 guide.

Coronavirus COVID-19 Task Force

For our clients, we have formed a multidisciplinary Coronavirus COVID-19 Task Force to help guide you through the broad scope of legal issues brought on by this public health challenge. We also have launched a resource page to help keep you on top of developments as they unfold. If you would like to receive a daily digest of all new updates to the page, please subscribe now to receive our COVID-19 alerts.

Contacts

If you have any questions or would like more information on the issues discussed in this LawFlash, please contact any of the following Morgan Lewis lawyers:

Boston
Laurie A. Cerveny
David C. Boch
Daniel J. Ball