A deceptive-practices lawsuit against Pressler & Pressler, New Jersey’s largest collections firm, can proceed as a class action.
U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden in Newark on Friday certified a class of individuals who allege misrepresentations in a form letter they received from the Parsippany firm.
Pressler has stipulated that the class in Williams v. Pressler & Pressler has 75 members.
Named plaintiffs Natalie Williams and Alan Setneska claim violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s prohibition against false and misleading statements in collecting a debt.
Each was sued for credit-card debt by New Century Financial Services of Whippany, which buys up delinquent accounts. Both filed pro se answers. Williams won dismissal with prejudice while Setneska was hit with a judgment.
The form letter in question, sent after an answer had been filed, offered to settle and said once that was done, proof that the debt was paid would be sent to the court and “to you so that you can advise the credit bureau.”
Class counsel Philip Stern says when he filed the complaint he believed that New Century did not generally report to credit bureaus.
Through depositions of New Century and Pressler, he learned that it does in some instances but not where a debtor disputes the debt or files an answer, as Williams and Setneska had done.
Thus, he sees two misrepresentations: the letter’s implication that the recipient’s credit report contained something about the case or claim and that settling would help improve those reports.
Stern, a Maplewood solo, says there was also deposition testimony that the letter was sent only to pro se debtors and that Pressler could not explain why.
In her ruling, Hayden rejected Pressler’s argument that Setneska would have a conflict as class representative because of the judgment against him, calling it “completely speculative.”
Pressler further opposed certification on the ground that a settlement awaiting court approval in a separate class suit would subsume the class in Williams other than the named plaintiffs, who would be left with their own claims.
The proposed settlement in DeFazio v. Pressler, filed last November, would pay $2,000 each to named plaintiffs Lori DeFazio and Carol Grubb; $35,000 to their lawyer, Joseph Jones of Fairfield; and another $35,000 cy pres sum to Deirdre’s House in Morristown, which aids abused and neglected children.
The remaining members of that class, estimated at more than 100,000, would get nothing in exchange for a broad release.
Pressler and Jones sought to justify the deal on the basis that class members could recover no more than 50 cents anyway because the FDCPA limits damages to the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of net worth.
With Pressler claiming a net worth of $5 million in 2010, recovery would be capped at $50,000 in DeFazio as well as Williams.
Stern objected to the DeFazio settlement, which he says would wipe out his class. It was withdrawn in April.
Jones says recognition of a class in Williams does not affect DeFazio, adding, however, that a new settlement being negotiated in DeFazio might carve out the Williams class.
Pressler’s Mitchell Williamson says the two cases are separate and adds, “the fact that a class is certified doesn’t mean that the allegations have any merit.” •