When Anne Sessions, 85, of Lane County, Ore., fell behind in her credit card payments, she said an aggressive debt collector harassed her to the point of calling the police with a phony claim she threatened to commit suicide, costing her $1,055 in medical bills. Now she is suing for $250,000 over the incident, which led to an involuntary hospital visit.
Sessions fell behind on her credit card payments in 2010 after unanticipated financial setbacks, potentially facing foreclosure. As she survived on a fixed income from Social Security and a "very modest" pension, she was strapped.
Wells Fargo began calling Sessions "numerous times" and threatened legal action if she did not make payments, the suit said. She tried to explain that she did not have the money to pay the account and still provide for her basic needs, but "the words and tone of the collection calls were intended to, and did, make plaintiff feel like a deadbeat when, in fact, she had always paid her bills until experiencing financial difficulties, as so many others have during this time," according to the complaint, filed in Multnomah County Court on Feb. 3.
Sessions says she worked out a payment plan with Wells Fargo, and the calls had stopped until February 2011, when a Wells Fargo employee called her on a Sunday.
As that employee "continued to badger her," Sessions told him "that such harassment was bad policy, and 'could have serious consequences' including leading people to abandon their homes or even potentially committing suicide."
Throughout the conversation," she told him she was concerned about other people who might be enduring the same kind of harassment she was facing," according to the suit.
The employee "immediately seized on" her statement and "began engaging in a highly inappropriate line of questioning," the suit states.
He then asked if she was considering suicide, to which she replied, "of course not." But the employee asked, "'But ... if you did, how would you do it -- hurt yourself?"
She responded that she currently "had no intention whatsoever of committing suicide, but that, in the abstract, she might consider it some years down the road, if, for instance, she was diagnosed with a terminal disease."
But the employee "continued to ask [Sessions] additional inappropriate questions about how she might kill herself."
Sessions said she told the employee she "intended to continue to pay [Wells Fargo] once per month as agreed until she had funds to fully catch up on the three payments that were in arrears," but the employee was "offended and angered" because she would not give him a specific date.
Within 30 minutes of the call, Sessions said three police officers arrived at her home and told her that the employee had called 911 and reported she had made "multiple suicide threats" during the collection call, requesting police be sent to her home.
The police then "forcibly" took her to the local hospital emergency room, "over her objections," then told the hospital personnel that she was suicidal.
She was held at the hospital for "several hours," and seen by a doctor and the hospital's crisis staff. She was released after they reported they felt "strongly" she was not a threat to herself or others, the suit states.
One week later, she received a bill from the hospital for $712, and a few days later $343 for physician charges. Without medical or other insurance, she now owed $1,055 for the unnecessary hospital visit, in addition to her credit card debt.
When she called Wells Fargo to complain, she asked to speak to the same employee and his co-worker told her he was not there.
When Sessions told the co-worker about the 911 call, "the employee laughed loudly and plaintiff could hear her calling out something like 'Hey Chuck ... that woman you called the police on got taken to the hospital by the police,'" according to the suit.
Sessions said she heard "loud laughter in the collections center and the female employee proceeded to congratulate defendant Gajewski on how effective his call had been in a way that [Sessions] was certain to hear."
She said the incident caused her extreme anxiety, embarrassment, depression, feelings of worthlessness, and loss of sleep, among other effects, causing non-economic damages in the amount of $250,000.
Chris Flamm, executive director of Clarke Balcom Law in Portland, which represents her, said Sessions is a vulnerable person who debt collectors take advantage of.
"Creditors and debt collectors use harassment to collect money," Flamm said. "People don't know they have rights but they do. We file complaints against debt collectors and creditors when they break the law, and harassment like this is against the law."
Debt collectors generate more complaints to the Federal Trade Commission than any other industry, according to the government agency. In 2010, there were 144,159 filings against collection companies, the second largest category of complaints to the FTC. There were 250,854 identity theft -related complaints in 2010, or 19 percent of all complaints.
Lisa Westermann, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said the company cannot discuss the specific details of the pending lawsuit.
"What we can tell you is that team members are instructed to report suicide or other violent type threats to the police department," Westermann said. "At that point, the situation is between the customer and the police department."
"If that's their policy, that's their policy," Flamm said in response. "Ms. Sessions did not make a suicide threat."
Flam said Sessions is "outraged" by what happened to her and hopes it does not happen to other people.