A Chicago federal judge has given the green light for a case to be litigated as a class action suit against a national collection agency, which allegedly violated federal law by charging debtors with improper fees in an attempt to collect debts owed to Six Flags.

U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman issued the ruling Aug. 30 ruling, granting class action status to a suit brought by Illinois man Joseph Bernal against National Recovery Agency (NRA), which is based in Harrisburg, Penn. NRA operates a nationwide debt collection service. 

On Feb. 3, Bernal filed for a class action suit against NRA, alleging NRA violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. 

Bernal said NRA sent him a letter dated Feb. 17, 2015 telling him he owed a Six Flags amusement park $267. The letter also demanded Bernal pay a flat 16 percent collection fee of $43. Bernal asserted NRA had no right to tack on the fee, and in trying to claim it, allegedly breached the Collection Practices Act, which prohibits “false, deceptive or misleading” statements and “unfair or unconscionable means” to collect a debt. 

Bernal noted such a fee can be imposed under the Collection Practices Act, but only if the fee is part of the agreement between the debtor and creditor. Bernal denied there was any agreement to this effect between him and Six Flags, attaching a copy of his agreement, as an exhibit, to his suit. 

Bernal requested permission his suit be pursued as a class action, by including any other Illinois citizens who received an identical NRA letter for a delinquent bill allegedly owed to Six Flags. Bernal said he believes there are at least 35 such people. NRA said it sent 1,096 collection letters in the same form to other Illinois residents around the time Bernal received his letter. 

NRA contested Bernal’s request for class action status, but Judge Feinerman found none of NRA’s arguments persuasive. 

Feinerman said NRA failed to show any potential class action participants had agreements with Six Flags that authorized collection fees, or any agreements were made in jurisdictions where the law allows such fees. 

NRA also questioned the standing of potential class members to engage in the suit, but Feinerman pointed out Bernal, as the person bringing the suit, is the only participant whose standing can be disputed – and he clearly has standing. 

“NRA does not challenge Bernal’s standing, and nor could it,” Feinerman observed. 

Feinerman similarly dismissed NRA’s other contentions, such as that the putative class was too broad and there were not enough possible members to warrant class action. The judge said the case can be “resolved on a classwide basis, without any individual variation.” 

Overall, in giving the go-ahead for the class action suit, Feinerman concluded NRA’s arguments were “meritless” and separate suits against NRA, instead of a class action, “would make no sense.” 

Feinerman also granted Bernal’s request that Bernal’s counsel – Philipps & Philipps, of southwest suburban Palos Hills – be allowed to represent the class. 

A status hearing is set for Sept. 22. NRA is defended by the Chicago firm of Rock, Fusco & Connelly, and by Olson Law Group, of Ann Arbor, Mich.

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