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Supreme Court: Debt collection law does not apply to purchased loans

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that Santander Consumer USA Inc. is not a debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, ruling that a "debt collector" is a party that collects payment for debt it does not own.

The original complaint, Henson V. Santander, alleged that Santander Consumer sought to collect on defaulted loans it had purchased from another company in ways that violated the act. In his first opinion on the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that debt collectors regulated by the act must be third parties rather than the direct owner of the debt in question.

The borrowers argued that the debt is owed to the entity that originated it — in this case, CitiFinancial Auto — but due to the entity that acquired the debt.

Consumer groups have held that the act's protections should be extended to all collection of debt, since there is a record of consumer harm coming from first-party collection of debt, Compass Point analyst Isaac Boltansky wrote in a research note following the decision.

The unanimous decision "lessens the potential liability associated with debt buying operations," Boltansky wrote.

In February, the New Mexico Attorney General, along with the attorneys general of 27 other states and the District of Columbia, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the company that "regularly attempts to collect defaulted debt" is a debt collector under the act.