Michael J. Wood


A survey of cases where federal courts abstain from hearing cases related to existing state court cases under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) reveals varying approaches and theories underlying those courts’ abstentions. This article attempts to distinguish FDCPA claims related to the validity of the underlying debt from claims arising out of debt collectors’ conduct in collecting a debt, and recommends that federal courts avoid abstaining from the latter. When Congress passed the FDCPA, it intended to provide access to a forum of the consumer’s choice to enforce their rights under the Act by serving as “private attorneys general.” Therefore, consumers must have the option to bring their FDCPA claims in federal court even when there is a pending state court action involving the underlying debt if the state action will not necessarily dispose of the FDCPA claim. The FDCPA bans such practices as making false and deceptive statements, using unconscionable means to collect a debt, and, for example, calling a consumer at her place of employment after being informed that the consumer is not permitted to take personal calls at work. State court litigation over the validity of a debt (e.g., a foreclosure case) does not necessarily impact a dispute over the debt collection activity itself. On the other hand, where a potential FDCPA claim arises out of a debt collector’s prosecution of state court litigation (i.e., consumer never owed a debt at all), federal courts should stay their hand pending the resolution of that claim in order to avoid piecemeal litigation and inconsistent results. This article attempts to more clearly define that line and recommends a consistent approach to abstention doctrine in FDCPA actions.