“Accountability Matters” (Update)

Mark Bennett at  Defending People picked up a bit at  Courthouse News Service about debt collection law firm Gurstel Chargo.  Their motto is “accountability matters,” backed up by this insightful and ironic prose.

It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.

— Moliere

If there is such a thing as karma, now is the time for a damn good ass-biting.  The Gurstel firm is apparently overwhelmingly proud of its ability to collect monies, whether due or not and no matter what it has to do to get it.  And so it garnished the exempt income of a fully disabled army veteran, Michael Collier*.

Gurstel Chargo’s response to a disabled veteran trying to recover $6,000 of ungarnishable money that Gurstel Chargo had garnished, after the firm had told a judge that the firm would release the money “right away.”
Right away is what O’Brien told the judge. but right away never came.  Collier subsequently called Gurstel Chargo, requesting the garnishment be lifted as was promised to the judge.  This is what he was told:

Fuck you! Pay us your money! You can’t afford an attorney. You owe us. I hope your wife divorces your ass. If you would have served our country better you would not be a disabled veteran living off social security while the rest of us honest Americans work our ass off. Too bad; you should have died.

Accountability. Isn’t it a wonderful thing? From a legal assistant at the firm came the words “fuck you” to Michael Collier.  But this isn’t merely a story of one bad apple, but of a law firm (note, this is not merely a debt collection agency, but a law firm, subject to the full panoply of ethical considerations and disciplinary rules that apply to us all) built upon a marketing approach that claims to have “developed sophisticated systems and instituted soft-touch collection practices that produce favorable results.”

On the bright side, it appears that not all lawyers are as scummy at O’Brien.

The veteran, Michael Collier, can now, as it turns out, afford a lawyer. Floyd Bybee of Chandler, Arizona, has filed suit against Gurstel Chargo for, among other things, violating the Fair Debt Collections Act. (Complaint.) Gurstel Chargo is being sued in eight other federal cases in Arizona, Minnesota, and Ohio.

Accountability matters. I certainly hope so. What happened here may not be the norm, even within the ranks of one of the scummiest niches of legal practice.  Of course, there was a reason why Congress felt compelled to enact the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, to clean up a cesspool of abuse.  Unfortunately, it leaves it to the least capable and powerless to enforce, making it another promise usually unfulfilled.  And lawyers inclined to abuse people are only too aware of this, taking advantage of people whenever possible.

Which makes it important that when something like this occurs, people know about, particularly about the lawyers and firms that would engage in such conduct.  This is why I add my voice to Bennett’s so you know. Lawyers do a lot of good.  Lawyers also do bad.  The bad must be stopped.

* These are, of course, merely accusations in a complaint by Collier against Gurstel Chargo, though it’s representation to the court that they improperly garnished exempt funds and failure to release them should be easily confirmable.  On the other hand, after Bennett’s post appeared, the firm took down linked pages, forcing Mark to post the cached versions.  Because, you know, law firms regularly take down embarrassing pages from their websites when someone calls them out. All the time. #Marketing101

Update:  It appears that  Gurstel Chargo isn’t thrilled with the attention they’ve received, and has issued a statement on their website:

We learned late last week of the lawsuit filed by Michael Andrew Collier and Kim Collier-Dingman. Gurstel Chargo takes the allegations made in the lawsuit very seriously and we have immediately launched an internal investigation to determine the facts. We are extremely disturbed by the allegations stated in the Complaint, as they are contrary to the policies, practices and values of our firm. We expect that all Gurstel Chargo employees fully comply with all state and federal laws, and we thoroughly train our employees to perform their job in a lawful and respectful manner. Under no circumstances does our firm tolerate the type of conduct alleged in the Complaint.

The Complaint states that the wrongful remarks were made during a telephone call. We have requested from the attorney that filed the Complaint the phone number of the phone that Mr. Collier was allegedly on, an approximate date on which the call occurred, whether the person who made the alleged wrongful comments was male or female, all in order to help us to get to the truth about what occurred. We have been informed by Mr. Collier’s attorney that he is unaware of any of this information. To date, we have discovered no information to substantiate the allegations, but our investigation continues. Should these allegations prove to be true, we will take immediate corrective and disciplinary action. (Emphasis added.)

Shifty, disingenuous and, to the extent it reflects the culture of Gurstel Chargo, damning. Or, to put it another way, what one might expect.

10 comments on ““Accountability Matters” (Update)

  1. Mark W. Bennett

    I guess maybe it’s time for someone to take a look at the allegations in the other 31 federal lawsuits (23 of them resolved) against Gurstel Chargo to see if there’s a pattern contrary to the firm’s protestations.

  2. Sam Glover

    I once tried to come up with a rough estimate of the number of open cases Gurstel handles during a year. My best guess is tens of thousands on the low end, handled by a handful of lawyers and a bigger handful of assistants. Debt collectors make high-volume bankruptcy lawyers look like they are taking their time with each case.

    That doesn’t have anything to do with this sort of egregious abuse, but I’m guessing mistakes attributable to having more files than a lawyer can possibly handle competently would figure prominently in the other 31.

    Violations — of laws, ethics, and good sense — are inevitable with that kind of volume.

    The problems aren’t isolated to a few FDCPA lawsuits, though. By my estimates, debt collection lawsuits make up about 40% of the total in Minnesota state court. And since lawsuits don’t have to be filed here, the actual total may be much higher. With that kind of volume, the courts are making mistakes, too. Sitting in on default hearings is a sickening experience. It’s seeing the courts at their lowest: little more than a rubber stamp for lawsuits, many of which wouldn’t survive a decent lawyer’s summary judgment motion.

  3. SHG

    This is probably a tough concept to swallow, but if volume exceeds the ability to practice without violating law and ethics, then it’s too high. No excuses.

  4. Todd Murray

    I have it on pretty good (though unconfirmed) authority that the numbers are much, much higher than Sam estimates. I believe that Gurstel has opened over 300,000 new collection files since March of 2009. Now that’s spread across 4 states, but I think both Sam and Scott’s points still stand.

  5. George B

    What!?!?! Are you mad? Demanding “law and ethics” should interfere with good old American greed???

    Are you some kind of pinko hippy?

  6. ShelbyC

    Let’s not forget that Gurstel Chargo claims it would never behave in this manner. It’s quite possible that the allegations are a complete fabrication by the plaintiff. Perhaps Gurstel Chargo will be able to produce records showing that they released the funds as ordered right after the hearing. I mean, surely Gurstel Chargo’s defense isn’t “Well, sure, we stole his money, but you have our word that we didn’t steal it as rudely as he alleges.”

  7. Amy Rotenberg

    IMPORTANT UPDATE: Mr. Collier and Ms. Dingham voluntarily dismissed their federal lawsuit against Gurstel Chargo, with prejudice, and fully retracted all allegations of wrongful debt collection practices.

    In a stipulation filed with the court July 30, 2013, and signed by the plaintiffs themselves, Mr. Collier and Ms. Dingman acknowledge that Gurstel Chargo performed no action in violation of the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”] and that the telephone call referred to in the Complaint and that was the central subject of the lawsuit was not made by Gurstel Chargo, any employee or affiliate of Gurstel Chargo or anyone acting on behalf of Gurstel Chargo. The plaintiffs received nothing as a result of their lawsuit.

    The outrageous allegations of this lawsuit created significant negative publicity that wrongly disparaged the Gurstel Chargo firm and its dedicated professional team. When the lawsuit was first filed in October 2012, Gurstel Chargo promptly investigated and within less than 30 days made clear in both its court filings and public statements that there was no evidence in its telephone database or elsewhere that anyone affiliated with Gurstel Chargo ever made the alleged phone call. The plaintiffs’ stipulation to the court now admits the same. See the Stipulation and court order at the link below.


    [Ed. Note: Link permitted, despite rules, at my invitation.]

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