Friday, April 3, 2015

Allstate Lien & Recovery Corp. v. Stansbury (Ct. of Spec.Appeals)

Filed: October 7, 2014

Opinion by: Kathryn Grill Graeff

Holdings: A fee charged for processing a garageman’s lien is not part of the garageman’s lien per Md. Code, Comm. Law § 16-202 and cannot be included in the amount necessary to redeem a vehicle.

As a result, the jury properly found that including the processing fee in the amount needed to redeem a vehicle violates the Maryland Debt Collection Act (Md. Code, Comm. Law §§ 14-201, et seq.) and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (Md. Code, Comm. Law §§ 13-301, et seq.).

Facts: Plaintiff authorized in writing some needed repairs to his vehicle by the defendant garage, which charged Plaintiff $6,330.37 for the repairs. After Plaintiff failed to timely pay, the Defendant garage and its manager engaged the Defendant lien and recovery company to begin the process of selling Plaintiff’s vehicle in execution of the Defendant garage’s repair lien.

Plaintiff was sent a lien notice which provided that Plaintiff’s vehicle would be sold at public auction to satisfy the garage’s lien unless Plaintiff paid the $6,330.37 costs of repair, plus a storage fee of $300, plus a processing fee of $1,000, for a total of $7,630.37. Plaintiff had not agreed to any storage fees in his written repair authorization. The Defendant lien and recovery company asserted that although the actual costs incurred may vary from lien to lien, the $1,000 fee was its standard charge for collecting debts and was “front-loaded” to become part of the lien. Plaintiff failed to pay the full lien amount claimed, including the $1,000, and Plaintiff’s vehicle was sold at auction for $7,730.

Analysis: The Court determined that the plain language of the garageman’s lien statute, Md. Code, Comm. Law § 16-202, clearly and unambiguously states that a person who provides a service to, or materials for, a vehicle has a “motor vehicle lien” only for those charges incurred for repair or rebuilding, storage, or tires or other parts or accessories. As a result, a processing fee is not included as part of the lien. The Court reviewed the statutory scheme as a whole and held that, although processing fees may be recovered if the vehicle is sold or if judicial proceedings are instituted, the statutory scheme does not suggest that processing fees are part of the lien that may be included as part of the amount the consumer must pay to redeem the vehicle.

The Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act, specifically Md. Code, Comm. Law § 14-202, provides that a debt collector may not “[c]laim, attempt, or threaten to enforce a right with knowledge that the right does not exist.” The Court held that Defendants attempted to enforce a right that did not exist by requiring Plaintiff to pay the $1,000.00 processing fee to redeem the vehicle. Defendants had no right to front-load the processing fee and include those fees as part of the lien. Consequently, the Court held the jury properly found that Defendants violated the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act and, because such a violation constitutes an unfair or deceptive trade practice, Defendants also violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act.

The full opinion is available in PDF.  

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