Patrick Lunsford

A federal jury in New Mexico has awarded a plaintiff $1.26 million in a case that accused a collection law firm of twice attempting to garnish her wages for a debt she did not owe, according to an article in the Albuquerque Journal.

Rob Treinen, the attorney for plaintiff Lucinda Yazzie, told the paper that the jury handed down their ruling on Friday against The Law Offices of Farrell & Sandlin and Target National Bank, who was named as a co-defendant in the suit.

This is a very interesting case that sends a strong message about litigation and skip tracing processes in the ARM industry.

The case stretches back to December 2006 when Target National Bank assigned the past due credit card account of Yazzie to Farrell & Sandlin. When Yazzie was initially contacted, she insisted that she had never had a Target credit card and that there was another person in her area with the same name. Yazzie said that she frequently got calls from other creditors attempting to find the other person.

But the law firm filed a suit in April 2007 anyway and got a garnishment order. When they presented the order to Yazzie’s employer, the business insisted that they had the wrong person. The garnishment writ was then dropped.

The process played out again two years later when Farrell & Sandlin won another garnishment order for the same account. This time, Yazzie’s employer not only formally denied the request, but followed up with phone calls, leading to a hearing where both Yazzies were due to show up as well as the collection law firm, which did not appear. The second garnishment order stayed in force until Yazzie filed her own suit against the law firm in March 2010, claiming violations of the FDCPA and other consumer statutes.

During the legal process, it was discovered that Target Bank had indeed supplied Farrell & Sandlin with the correct name, address and Social Security number of the true debtor, not the Lucinda Yazzie named in their garnishment actions. But a former employee of the law firm shortly after receiving the account changed the SSN in the company’s system to that of the Yazzie named in the suit. The firm claimed that this went against company policy and entered a bona fide error defense, which was rejected.

The jury awarded Yazzie $161,000 in actual damages for emotional distress and $1.1 million in punitive damages. Although Target’s attempts to be dismissed from the lawsuit were unsuccessful, the judge noted that the company did not err in the assignment of the account. It is not known what Target’s liability is in the case.

A message with Farrell & Sandlin left by the Albuquerque Journal was not returned Friday. Likewise, insideARM.com’s attempts to contact the firm over the weekend were not successful. The ruling is not yet available for review, so I would suspect the ARM industry will be reading it carefully when it is out there. An important caveat to remember: all of the above information is coming from one source, the plaintiff’s attorney (in addition to some earlier filings that were obtained by insideARM.com).


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