APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. George A. O'Toole, Jr., U.S. District Judge]
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Boudin, Circuit Judge.
Before Boudin, Hawkins*fn1 and Dyk, Circuit Judges.
Marilynn Pilalas, a resident of Pembroke, Massachusetts, challenges the district court's grant of summary judgment dismissing claims she brought against the Cadle Company ("Cadle Company") and its corporate sibling CadleRock Joint Venture II, L.P. ("CadleRock") for unlawful debt collection under Massachusetts law; collectively, we refer to them both as "Cadle" where the distinction does not matter. The facts of this case are not seriously at issue and may be summarized briefly.
Some time before 1998, Marilynn Pilalas' husband, Nicholas Pilalas, opened a credit card account with Bank of New York. The account eventually became delinquent and was ultimately purchased by the Cadle Company, which assigned it to a closely related entity, CadleRock. Cadle began telephoning Nicholas Pilalas to demand that he pay what was due. Despite occasional partial payments, he died on December 10, 2002, leaving an unpaid balance of somewhat more than $5,000.
Cadle took the position that Marilynn Pilalas was responsible for the balance, although (according to Marilynn Pilalas) Cadle refused to explain why.*fn2 She paid installments but only sporadically for several years; eventually, in May 2005, CadleRock sued her in Massachusetts state court for "the principal balance of $5,534.28 and accrued interest due through March 7, 2005 of $3,136.93," plus costs and attorney's fees.
After discovery began, CadleRock offered to settle based on an extended payment plan under which Pilalas would pay $4,400.00 in consecutive monthly installments of $100--just over 50 percent of what the company claimed she owed including accrued interest; in addition to the reduced payments, CadleRock sought a release that barred all actions against CadleRock and its affiliated companies for any claims "remotely attributable or related to" the debt. Specifically, the release provided that Pilalas, as the obligor, agree(s) to execute this Release in favor of [Bank of New York Delaware], CadleRock Joint Venture II, L.P. and its affiliates ("Released Parties"), as third-party beneficiaries. Obligor(s), his/her/their, heirs and assigns, for itself, its successors and assigns (as the appropriate case may be), hereby releases, acquits and forever discharges the Released Parties, their agents, servants and employees, and all persons and entities in privity with them or any of them, from any and all claims or causes of action of any kind whatsoever, at common law, statutory or otherwise, which Obligor(s) and those on whose behalf Obligor(s) sign(s) has, have or might have, whether known or unknown, now existing or arising hereafter, directly, indirectly, or remotely attributable or related to the above described Note(s) and/or Judgment(s), this Release being intended and understood to release all present and future claims of any kind which Obligor(s) and those on whose behalf Obligor(s) sign(s) might have against those hereby released, arising from or growing out of any act or omission occurring prior to the date of this Release.
Acting without counsel, Marilynn Pilalas signed the release on August 9, 2005, and a week later she and CadleRock's attorney signed a stipulation of dismissal of the pending state court suit. Over the next two and a half years, Marilynn Pilalas continued making regular payments. She missed a few payments, but largely performed as agreed and did not hear from any of the Cadle entities.
Then, in April 2008, Marilynn Pilalas lost her job. She failed to make a payment that month, and in July, she stopped sending payments entirely. At that point, she had paid 31 of the 44 agreed-upon installments. Again, Marilynn Pilalas heard nothing from the Cadle entities despite her outstanding obligation of $1,300 under the settlement. Indeed, the Cadle entities have not contacted Marilynn Pilalas at all following their August 2005 settlement.
Sixteen months after sending her last payment, on November 16, 2009, Marilynn Pilalas filed a putative class action suit in Massachusetts Superior Court, naming Cadle, CadleRock, their common principal Daniel Cadle, and a host of related entities as defendants. She advanced a series of charges under state law and sought restitution, damages of various kinds including treble damages, declaratory and injunctive relief, and costs and attorneys' fees.
The defendants removed the case to federal court. Marilynn Pilalas' effort to have the matter remanded to state court failed and the defendants were whittled down to the Cadle Company and CadleRock, but the details do not matter as neither is an issue on appeal. The two defendants moved for summary judgment which, accepting the recommendation of the magistrate judge, the district court eventually granted. Marilynn Pilalas now appeals to this court.
We review de novo the issues of law on which this case turns. Velez v. Thermo King de Puerto Rico, Inc., 585 F.3d 441, 446 (1st Cir. 2009). Those issues arise under provisions of Massachusetts law that govern both consumer fraud, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A, § 2 (2010), and debt collection, id. ch. 93, §§ 24-24A, as well as a closely related provision establishing civil remedies for consumer fraud, id. ch. 93A, § 9, specifically including unlawful debt collection, id. ch 93, § 28. Also pertinent are statutes of limitation that govern potential claims. Id. ch. 260, §§ 2A, 5A. A central aspect of the debt collection provisions makes unlawful "debt collection" (as defined in the statute) except when carried out by certain exempted parties. Id. ch. 93, §§ 24-24A.
Marilynn Pilalas' position throughout has been that Cadle engaged in unlawful debt collection and that the release itself was obtained by fraud and illegal debt collection. However, the limitations period under state law is three years for fraud claims, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 2A, and four years for chapter 93A claims, id., § 5A. Marilynn Pilalas filed her complaint on November 16, 2009, so the four-year statute reaches back only to November 2005.
It is quite possible--and we will assume arguendo in Marilynn Pilalas' favor--that Cadle engaged in unlawful debt collection by pursuing Marilynn Pilalas prior to its collection lawsuit and the release that followed. Broadly speaking, the statute, described in more detail below, forbids unlicensed debt collection by anyone whose "principal" business is debt collection and who seeks to collect by use of telephone or mails; it arguably applies as well to anyone seeking to collect a debt in default purchased from the original creditor. Mass. Div. of Banks, Industry Letter Concerning the Massachusetts Debt Collection Statutes, and its Applicability to Debt Buyers, So Called (June 16, 2006).
At the time it sought to collect from Marilynn Pilalas, Cadle (it appears) was neither licensed nor within a statutory exception. It had been sent a cease-and-desist letter for unlicensed debt collection in 2003 and later denied a license. The Cadle Co. v. Mass. Div. of Banks, SUCV2004-0101C, 2006 WL 4119647, at *2 (Mass. Super. Ct. Nov. 17, 2006), aff'd, 888 N.E.2d 385 (Mass. App. Ct. 2008) (table). Ultimately, the attorney general ...