Business of Law

9th Circuit Says Law Firm Must Pay $311K to Man From Whom It Sought to Collect Less Than $10K


Corrected: An attorney representing a Montana consumer was jubilant today over news that a $311,000 verdict for his client, who was initially pro se in a collection case brought by a law firm over an old credit card debt of less than $5,000, had been upheld by a federal appeals court.

The amount that the defendant law firm must pay Timothy McCullough includes a $1,000 statutory penalty under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, $250,000 for emotional distress and $60,000 in punitive damages, according to a Billings Gazette article today about the appellate court ruling and an earlier Gazette article about the federal jury verdict in the case.

It was upheld today by a special panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that included former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“It was a complete victory for Tim. I’m just absolutely tickled,” said attorney John Heenan of Billings today, after the appellate court decision was issued. “We knew we had a good case. But it just went on forever.”

Courthouse News Service provides additional details about the debt-collection case that sparked the federal litigation.

Neither article includes any comment from the defendant law firm, Johnson Rodenburg & Lauinger, which is based in North Dakota, and a call by the ABA Journal late Friday to the phone number listed for the law firm did not receive an immediate response.

A call by the ABA Journal to Heenan’s law office in Billings also did not receive an immediate response. However, a Heenan Law Firm blog post in 2009, when the jury made the $311,000 award, says it is “one of the highest ever in a debt collection harassment trial.”

The articles say McCullough, who has a brain injury and is on disability, initially defended himself successfully, pro se, in state-court litigation brought in Yellowstone County by CACV of Colorado, after it bought his credit card debt from a bank.

But then he was sued a second time over the same debt, this time by Johnson Rodenburg. The law firm sought $9,800, including $6,000 in attorney’s fees and interest. After this case also was dismissed, again on statute-of-limitation grounds, McCullough brought the FDCPA suit in federal court.

Updated to correct McCullough’s name in one reference.

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