ACA International v. Maura Healey, Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, No. 20-10767-RGS (U.S.D.C. Mass.) May 6, 2020.
Among other state measures taken during the COVID-19 emergency, the Attorney General of Massachusetts promulgated measures prohibiting credit and collections agencies from initiating telephone calls or lawsuits to collect debts. Many creditors were exempted from these regulations that operate against entities deemed essential by bank regulators.
The Association of Credit and Collections Professionals (ACA) sought injunctive relief in federal court challenging the regulations on first amendment speech and petition grounds and state law.
The court examined the traditional grounds for injunctive relief in matters concerning protected First Amendment interests, concerning which any infringement presumes irreparable harm: the likelihood that the moving party will succeed on the merits, the balance of equities and the public interest. The court declined to decide claims premised on asserted violations of state law, mindful that precedent limits federal courts’ powers over state officials to matters of federal law.
The intermediate scrutiny applicable to commercial speech gained no favor for the state, as the court could not credit the Attorney General’s unsupported beliefs that citizens would be more vulnerable than otherwise during an emergency or that banning telephone calls would ensure citizens well being or ensure domestic tranquility.
As extant state law regulations already circumscribe creditor activities, and incorporate federal protections, the court could not find a substantial government interest in redundant measures.
Neither could the court justify an outright ban on initiating litigation because some legislative litigation burdens some access to courts. Simply preserving rights until the unknown end of the emergency, particularly when several types of creditors are exempted from the regulations, is not sufficient to justify outright denial of petitionary rights, stating: “[t]he mere fact of an emergency does not increase constitutional power, nor diminish constitutional restrictions.” (Slip op. 25-26).
In balancing the equities, the court observed that debtors have substantial extant protections against unlawful creditor activity, while the emergency regulations could force some creditors out of business, a hardship underscored by medical entities’ dependence on such agencies to recover funds.
The court entered a temporary restraining order enjoining enforcement of the emergency regulations.