On August 11, a split Maryland Court of Appeals held that “a law firm that engages in debt collection activities on behalf of a client, including the preparation of a promissory note containing a confessed judgment clause and the filing of a confessed judgment complaint to collect a consumer debt, is not subject to the Maryland Consumer Loan Law [(MCLL)].” A putative class action challenging the law firm’s debt collection practices was filed in Maryland state court in 2018. According to the opinion, several homeowners associations and condominium regimes (collectively, “HOAs”) retained the law firm to help them draft and negotiate promissory notes memorializing repayment terms of delinquent assessments. These promissory notes, the opinion said, included confessed judgment clauses that were later used against homeowners who defaulted on their obligations. The suit was removed to federal court and was later stayed while the Maryland Court of Appeals weighed in on whether the law firm was subject to the MCLL. Loans made under the MCLL by an unlicensed entity render the loans void and unenforceable, the opinion said.
Class members claimed that the law firm is in the business of making loans and that the promissory notes are subject to the MCLL and “constitute ‘loans’ because they are an extension of credit enabling the homeowners to pay delinquent debt to the HOAs.” Because neither the law firm nor the HOAs are licensed to make loans the promissory notes are void and unenforceable, class members argued. The law firm countered that it (and the HOAs) are not obligated to be licensed because they are not lenders that “engage in the business of making loans” as provided in the MCLL.
On appeal, the majority concluded that there is no evidence that the state legislature intended to require HOAs to be licensed “in order to exercise their statutory right to collect delinquent assessments or charges, including entering into payment plans for the repayment of past-due assessments.” Moreover, in order to qualify for a license, an applicant “must demonstrate, among other things, that its ‘business will promote the convenience and advantage of the community in which the place of business will be located’”—criteria that does not apply to an HOA or a law firm, the opinion stated. Additionally, applying class members’ interpretation would lead to “illogical and unreasonable results that are inconsistent with common sense,” the opinion read, adding that “[t]o hold that the MCLL covers all transactions involving any small loan or extension of credit—without regard to whether the lender is ‘in the business of making loans’—would cast a broad net over businesses that are not currently licensed under the MCLL.”
The dissenting judge countered that the law firm should be subject to the MCC because to determine otherwise would allow law firms to engage in the business of making loans in the form of new extensions of credit with confessed judgment clauses and would “create a gap in the Maryland Consumer Loan Law that the General Assembly did not intend.”
This content originally appeared in the InfoBytes blog, a collection of news and alerts covering legal and regulatory developments for the financial services industry. To read more or have the InfoBytes weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox, please visit infobytesblog.com.