Elizabeth Dianne McLeod says her husband Stanley pleaded with mortgage debt collectors, explaining that his heart problems were so serious that a helicopter once had to be called in to airlift him to a hospital.
In response, one collector allegedly mocked him, leaving a message on his answering machine, suggesting: "Why don't you have that helicopter pick you up and bring that payment to the office."
Months later, McLeod, 57, was dead and the mortgage servicing company, his widow alleges, is to blame.
Elizabeth Dianne McLeod, of Keystone, Fla., is suing Green Tree Servicing, LLC, for unspecified damages. She claims the firm repeatedly made harassing debt collection phone calls that, she says, ultimately led to her sick husband's death. (Listen to messages McLeod says were left by Green Tree employees on the couple's answering machine here and here.) Stanley McLeod died of problems related to his heart condition in December, 2005.
Green Tree treated her husband "worse than any human deserves to be" treated, she said Monday through her lawyer.
A spokesman for Green Tree, which is based in St. Paul, Minn., declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying that the company does not comment on pending litigation.
The McLeods fell on hard times in 2002, when a heart attack forced Stanley McLeod to leave his job as an alarm technician at a Sears store and instead rely on government disability benefits.
By 2003, the Keystone, Fla., couple, contending with Stanley McLeod's medical bills and a lower income, began sending some of their mortgage payments in late. Each time they did, Green Tree, their mortgage servicing company, would call to demand payment, said McLeod's lawyer, Billy Howard, of the Florida personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan.
By 2005, Howard said, the situation had grown considerably worse: According to the law suit, Green Tree was calling on back-to-back days; placed calls to Stanley's McLeod's neighbor, brother and grandson; and once called at least nine times in one day.
McLeod's outstanding debt, Howard said, was just under $700.
"If somebody tells you they don't have the money in the morning, the only reason you call them back the same day is to harass them," Howard said.
Elizabeth Dianne McLeod said her husband experienced chest pains, spikes in blood pressure and heavy breathing after many of the phone calls.
"The unrelenting calls visibly (were) destroying his body," she said.
Originally filed in 2006, Elizabeth Dianne McLeod's lawsuit could be heard by a court this year after earlier efforts by Green Tree to settle the dispute through arbitration proceedings, Howard said.
Abusive practices by debt collectors are a common complaint among consumers, especially as many recession-battered Americans find themselves behind on mortgage, car or credit card payments and other debts.
Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission reported to Congress that it receives more than 70,000 complaints about debt collectors each year, more than about any other industry.
The trade group for debt collectors, ACA International, said it takes consumer complaints seriously.
"ACA International and its members do not in any way condone any illegal or unethical behavior or tactics," said spokesman John Nemo, who said that Green Tree is not among ACA's 5,000 members.
"We really feel strongly that every consumer deserves to be treated with dignity and respect," he said.
Generally, debt collectors are subject to federal rules under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, enforced by the FTC, which prohibits harassment by debt collectors.
But many mortgage servicing companies -- unlike traditional debt collection agencies -- don't fall under the federal rules, according to Geoff Walsh, a staff attorney with National Consumer Law Center. Some, he said, may be subject to state rules instead. To determine whether a mortgage servicer may have violated a state or federal law, Walsh recommends individuals contact their state attorney general.
Billy Howard, McLeod's lawyer, said Florida state law does ban harassment by companies like Green Tree.
"Our legislature recognizes the need to be protected against banks, creditors, mortgage companies and the like," Howard said.