June 1, 2010 -- A jury has awarded a Texas man more than $1.5 million in a lawsuit over profane voicemail messages allegedly left by a collections agency.
Lawyers for Allen Jones, of Lewisville, Texas, say he was subjected to harassing phone calls from Advanced Call Center Technologies. Employees, lawyers said, used the n-word and the f-word and made racially-charged remarks about Jones, who is black.
In one voicemail message, a collector suggested that Jones "go pick some m*****f****** cotton fields," according to recordings provided by Jones' lawyers.
"It got out of control," Jones, 26, said. "It was horrific."
Dean Siotos, a lawyer for Advanced Call Center Technologies, called the language in the voicemails "indefensible" and said that the calls allegedly placed by ACT employees "must have been in some sort of personal attack unrelated to the business."
"It's not in any way, shape or form consistent with the way ACT's collection deparment attempted to collect debts," he said.
Two ACT employees named in Jones' lawsuit no longer work at the company, Siotos said. He said the company, which has headquarters in Pennsylvania, will wait until an official judgment is entered on the jury verdict before deciding whether to appeal. The jury issued its verdict last Friday.
Jones said that the collection calls took place in August, 2007 and stemmed from an $81 credit card debt. Jones said the he had actually paid off the debt at the time he started receiving calls from ACT, but the collections agents wouldn't stop calling even after he told them the debt was resolved.
The calls came as early as 6:30 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m., said lawyer Dean Malone, who along with Mark Frenkel, represented Jones in the case. In addition to profanity, one of the messages included a sexual message about Jones' wife, Malone said.
"It was just significant, over-the-top harassment," he said. "I've handled hundreds of these cases over the years. This is by far the worst I've ever seen."
After a two-week trial, a jury found ACT and its former employees had violated Texas debt collection rules and awarded Jones $50,000 for mental anguish, $143,000 in attorney's fees and $1.5 million in additional damages. The Jones verdict comes days after another debt collection call made headlines: A New Mexico man is suing Verizon Wireless, alleging that one of its debt collectors threatened to blow his house up over a $308 unpaid bill.
Al Burrows, 45, said Verizon had already given him 90 days to pay up when he received a call from another bill collector.
The second bill collector acknowledged the payment plan, Burrows said, but still pressed for immediate payment.
"I am gonna blow your m*****f****** house up," the bill collector said, according to the lawsuit filed with New Mexico's First Judicial District Court. Listen to Al Burrows' call with a Verizon representative here.
Burrows, who lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, at the time, acknowledged that he owed Verizon Wireless $308 on an account that he had opened on behalf of his stepson, but said he worked out a payment plan as soon as he found out about the debt.
Verizon Wireless Says It Takes Allegations Seriously
A Verizon Wireless spokesman said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation, but added: "I can say the alleged behavior is inappropriate and we take such allegations very seriously."
Burrows, who works as a customer service phone rep for Frontier Airlines, said the message shook him and his wife, forcing him first to change his locks and then to move to another state.
Customer Claims He Moved After Threats
"We were scared," said Burrows, who added that his brother came to stay with them for several weeks after the incident so Burrows' wife wouldn't have to be home alone when he went to work.
When Burrows initially called Verizon to complain about the incident, a customer service representative allegedly accused him of making up the story. Burrows claimed that Verizon so far has not apologized.
"You can't just threaten to kill people and get away with it," he said.
Burrows' attorney said he is seeking "justice" and unspecified damages.
"We want to make sure this never happens again," said James Scherr, an attorney with El Paso, Texas-based Scherr & Legate. "This is the ultimate example of offensive collection efforts that are absolutely unnecessary."
Crossing the Line to Collect Debts
This lawsuit, if permitted to proceed, would force Verizon Wireless to defend itself against accusations sometimes made against third-party debt collectors.
Companies eager to collect on consumer debts cross the line every once in a while.
In 2006, a retired Sears technician, Stan McLeod, died of a heart attack after receiving phone calls from debt collectors. His wife Elizabeth has sued their mortgage servicing company, Green Tree Servicing, for wrongful death and the case is now making its way through the court.
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.
In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission received 88,190 FDCPA complaints about third-party debt collectors, more than about any other industry.
Experts point out that companies like Verizon have strict internal policies that govern interactions with customers.
"At a company like Verizon, if that person was caught doing that they'd be fired on the spot," said Gary Herman, president of debt consolidation company Consolidated Credit.