A prominent U.S. debt collection agency is going to have cough up $83 million to a Missouri woman they fraudulently pursued for a credit card debt of just $1,000.
According to KCUR, Portfolio Recovery Associates LLC, which is one of the biggest debt buyers in the country, acted maliciously in suing the woman, Maria Guadalupe Mejia, when the actual holder of the debt was a man with a similar-sounding name.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Joel P. Fahnestock denied the company’s appeals against the ruling after it failed to hand over requested information in the case.
After hearing evidence for five days, the jury determined the company owed $250,000 for violating the Fair Debt and Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), and awarded Mejia punitive damages of $82,990,000 for malicious prosecution.
“This company has gained a reputation for take no prisoners, ‘If you mess with us we’re going to take you all the way, you’re going to have to spend a lot of money on this litigation, you’re going to have to go all the way to trial,’” said Gina Chiala, one of Mejia lawyers. “And so, among consumer lawyers, they are known to be very aggressive in litigation and to not stop; even when they’re wrong, they’re just not going to stop.”
Michael McKeon, the company’s spokesman, slammed the verdict as “outlandish” and said it “defied all common sense.”
“We hope and expect the judge will set aside this inappropriate award and we plan to file motions to make that request formally in the near term,” he said. “Any fair reading of the facts of this case makes plain that a verdict of this size is not justice by any means, and cannot stand.”
Chiala said that Mejia, who lives in the Northeast part of Kansas City, worked for 15 years at a dry cleaners shop on Independence Avenue that recently closed, leaving her out of work.
Mejia broke down in tears after the jury handed down its verdict, she said.
“She’s been so afraid through this whole thing,” Chiala said. “A lot of it has been difficult for her to understand. It’s been very confusing. They just really scared the heck out of her.”
Chiala said the credit-card debt in question was actually owed by a Kansas City, Kan., resident with a similar but not identical name. But even after Mejia told Portfolio Recovery that it had the wrong person, it persisted in trying to collect the debt from her, Chiala said.
“They denied it was clear that they had the wrong person,” she said.
McKeon said that as soon as the company realized they had the wrong person, the case was dropped.
“Obviously those are facts that could have been contested at trial, but we didn’t get an opportunity to do that,” he said.
“It wasn’t her debt, it wasn’t her credit card account, it wasn’t anyone she knew,” Chiala said. “They had sued the wrong person.”
Instead of dismissing the case, Portfolio Recovery continued the suit for 15 months. After failing to comply with several requests to turn over information related to Mejia’s case, the judge found the company liable for both malicious prosecution and FDCPA violations.