In Fowler v. Preferred Collection & Mgmt. Servs., No. 8:21-cv-1038-WFJ-AAS (M.D. Fla. May 16, 2022), the court granted in part and denied in part the defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to claims asserted against it under Section 1681s-2(b) of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). In doing so, the court weighed in on whether a consumer who lodged a dispute outside of the statute of limitations period can assert claims based on subsequent, similar disputes within the limitations period.
The defendant, Preferred Collection & Management Services (Preferred Collection), is a third-party debt collector. The plaintiff, Angela Fowler (Fowler), alleged that she reviewed her credit report in May 2019 and discovered that Preferred Collection was reporting that she is responsible for 13 accounts related to medical bills totaling $476. On May 18, 2019, Fowler disputed the reporting with one of the consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), asserting that she never received treatment from the medical provider named on the accounts. Fowler again disputed the reporting of the accounts in January 2021, and the CRA responded that Preferred Collection had verified the accounts as accurate. Subsequently, during discovery, Fowler conceded that she first disputed the reporting of the accounts in October 2017 and that some of the damages she claimed, such as being denied employment due to her credit report in November 2017, were related to the 2017 dispute.
On April 30, 2021, Fowler filed suit, alleging that Preferred Collection failed to conduct reasonable investigations of her May 2019 and January 2021 disputes in violation of Section 1681s-2(b).
In partially granting summary judgment in favor of Preferred Collection, the court noted that the two-year statute of limitations in FCRA Section 1681p applies to Fowler’s claims. Based on this, it held that any claims based on alleged violations or damages occurring before April 30, 2019 were time-barred. But this ruling only eliminated a portion of Fowler’s claims. Although the two disputes that were the focus of the complaint raised the same issues as the 2017 dispute, the claims based on the May 2019 and January 2021 disputes were timely because the court held that each notification of a consumer’s dispute from a CRA to a furnisher creates its own duties and corresponding limitations period. This is an issue on which courts have disagreed in recent years.
In addition to finding that Fowler’s claims were only partially barred by the statute of limitations, the court held that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Preferred Collection satisfied its duty to investigate the May 2019 and January 2021 disputes. After receiving notice of the disputes, Preferred Collection matched its internal records to the demographic information provided by the CRA and verified the accounts as belonging to Fowler. In denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court held that question of fact existed as to whether merely reviewing internal records is sufficient to satisfy Section 1681s-2b’s requirement that furnishers perform “some degree of careful inquiry” after receiving notice of a dispute from a CRA.