What is “meaningful involvement?”
For those of you involved in the audit process, you began hearing this phrase in the last two months. As an office, we heard it when Fred was discussing new challenges to the office. Okay, great, but what does it actually mean? In some ways, it sounds like a question posed by Dr. Phil to couples having relationship issues. “Billy Bob, are you meaningfully involved with your wife, Emma Jean?” For the more philosophical, it’s like the question posed by Aquinas: how many angels can fit on the point of a needle? However, the best way to think about meaningful involvement is this: meaningful involvement is to the law what quality time is to the family.
Where did the phrase come from? As with most things in the FDCPA, it came from a case involving bad facts. The case that first used the phrase “meaningful involvement” involved a part-time attorney who sent 270,000 letters out in a single year where his signature was stamped, not signed, on each one. The court felt it wasn’t possible for the attorney to review that many files working 20 hours a week. However, a ruling against a bad firm creates a standard everyone has to follow. Now, twenty years later, the federal government and class-action lawyers are trying to make a standard created to address letters sent by a semi-retired lawyer to complaints individually reviewed and signed by attorneys.
This summer, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) completed a year-long investigation of a major collection firm. Even though the complaint doesn’t list a single file where a mistake was made, they claimed it was enough to simply say attorneys weren’t “meaningfully involved” because they didn’t spend enough time on the complaints.
This is where the guesswork about angels and needles comes in: How much time is enough? Who knows? Each case is different. Even though the firm has all scrubs we have and proved they were performed, the CFPB seems to believe that unless an attorney does the scrub herself on each case, the scrubs don’t count as part of the complaint preparation process. And the CFPB also conveniently forgets that attorneys are overseen by the State of Illinois. Attorneys who file cases that are improper can be banned from practicing law forever.
Here at Blitt and Gaines, our staff of 15 attorneys have always followed the ethical rules of our practice. Well before the CFPB was active, for each stage of the process, from the demand letter to releases of judgment, our attorneys have had checklists for each type of pleading. Once the pleading is signed, it is recorded in CLS.
Put simply, the CFPB and class action lawyers want to make it as hard as possible to collect for our clients. It’s our job to continue to practice the right way and demonstrate how our industry really works. In other words, while we may not be hanging out with angels on the needle, we are performing our jobs the way a legal professional should. But now let’s think about something more interesting: how many attorneys can fit on top of a gavel?