Opening Statements

Thou Shalt Not Sue

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Photos courtesy of Hiscrivener
and Getty Images

Mark and Sara Neill were deeply offended when a debt collector contacted them last fall over an unpaid $88 chiropractor’s bill.

But the affront had nothing to do with the debt or the collector’s tactics and everything to do with the debt collector’s letterhead.

In the upper-right-hand corner of the Bullseye Collection Agency’s stationery were the letters WWJD. The Neills, who are from Becker, Minn., said they found the initialism—commonly understood to mean “What would Jesus do?”—both abusive and threatening.

The Neills claimed to have felt so abused and threatened that they filed a class action suit against Bullseye, a small family-owned collection agency in Monticello, Minn., on behalf of themselves and everyone else in the state who had received such a letter from the collection agency during the previous year.

The suit, filed last October in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, alleged that the only possible purpose for using the WWJD was to make recipients think there would be religious consequences for failing to pay an alleged debt. “This is equivalent to a shame tactic and is an attempt to guilt an alleged debtor to pay the debt by portraying the debtor as a sinner who is going to go to hell,” the Neills’ lawyer, Thomas J. Lyons Jr., said in papers filed in connection with the suit.

But in this court battle, the Neills also have found themselves accused of not playing by the Golden Rule.

Lead plaintiff Mark Neill is president of the Bureau of Collection Recovery, based in Eden Prairie, Minn. Neill’s collection agency has 775 debt collectors in offices throughout the United States and in India. His ownership of the competing collection agency was not revealed until the discovery phase of the class action.

The Neills, who paid their $88 bill within a few months of filing the class action, could not be reached for comment. Their lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

While the Neills’ motive for the lawsuit may have come into question, one thing that now seems clear is that they also may have underes­timated Bullseye’s capacity for a fight.

Bullseye owners John and Betty Twardy im­mediately moved to dismiss the case on constitutional grounds, arguing that if any law actually prohibits the benign and courteous use of WWJD, it violates Bullseye’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal protection rights. They also enlisted the pro bono help of the religious rights law firm Liberty Counsel, which is based in Orlando, Fla.

With Liberty Counsel’s help, Bullseye defended its right to use the WWJD initialism on all of its business correspondence—which it says serves as a reminder to act with diligence and respect in an industry otherwise known for ruthlessness and incivility—and also filed a counterclaim against the Neills and the Bureau of Collection Recovery. The counterclaim alleges they had abused the legal process and engaged in a conspiracy to harm Bullseye competitively and to deprive it of its constitutional rights.

Those barbs may have been the WWJD-like reminder that the Neills needed. After the defendants filed the counterclaim this summer, the couple agreed to voluntarily dismiss their case against Bullseye if the defendant would do unto them likewise. The dismissals were filed in court in late July.

“We essentially agreed at that point to turn the other cheek,” says Horatio Mihet, senior litigation counsel for Liberty Counsel.

And that, most likely, is also WJWHD.

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