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Repo trauma ends in settlement for Minn. couple

For Ann and Anthony Bauer, the trauma began in 1998 — all over a debt they never owed. In March they found two answering machine messages over two days from Ford Motor Credit Co. at their home in the small Minnesota town of Caledonia, near the Iowa and Wisconsin borders.

That pair of messages proved to be the start of a series of what the couple’s lawyer calls “abusive and hostile communications” and a pattern of harassment so severe that the Bauers asked their friend, the Houston County sheriff, to intervene on their behalf.

A lawsuit by the Bauers against Ford Credit was settled this month, just before the case was scheduled for trial.

After the first calls, Ford Credit wrote to them on March 20 alleging a past-due account, according to court documents. Three days later, another warning letter advised: “Your account with Ford Credit is SERIOUSLY past due.”

Things got worse. On March 23, Ford Credit called Caledonia High School, where Ann Bauer works. It was the first of five calls to her employer.

On March 30, Ford Credit sent a pre-repossession letter. More letters and more calls followed, including calls to neighbors and family.

Then on Aug. 8, Ford Credit’s repo agent came to their house to pick up a 1992 Plymouth Laser financed by Ford Credit. The agent left only when the sheriff turned him away, a federal judge said.

All in all, there were more than 30 contacts in an effort to collect on a defaulted loan, the Bauers contend.

The problem? It wasn’t the Bauers’ debt. And they didn’t know the borrower, Nadine Jackson, although their suit alleges Ford Credit asserted to them and to other people that Anthony Bauer was married to, divorced from or otherwise connected to Jackson.

Rumors of unrest

“Ford’s actions caused many rumors around the small town of Caledonia concerning marital and financial problems and resulted in psychological harm requiring treatment,” the Bauers’ lawyer, Paul Sortland of Minneapolis, said in court papers. “These facts clearly show that the actions of Ford Credit, its employees and agents constitutes a series of reprehensible conduct, amounting to highly offensive behavior.”

Ford Credit denied any liability or wrongdoing. U.S. District Judge David Doty initially dismissed the Bauers’ defamation and invasion of privacy suit but later did a U-turn and allowed their privacy claim to proceed to trial.

There was enough evidence for a jury to conclude Ford Credit’s conduct violated the Bauers’ privacy rights, Doty concluded.

“A reasonable person should expect that a company charged with collecting on a delinquent account would display a certain degree of persistence when the person on the other end of the telephone denies responsibility for a debt.” But, the judge continued, the Bauers repeatedly advised Ford Credit of its error and asked it to correct its records. It enlisted the help of the local sheriff, the postmaster and a lawyer, “all of whom attempted to set Ford Credit straight.”

In addition, every neighbor and relative contacted told Ford Credit that its information about Anthony Bauer and Nadine Jackson was wrong.

Reason to desist

“Under these circumstances, where Ford Credit received multiple and highly reliable confirmations of the inaccuracy of its records, a reasonable person could regard its continued persistence, culminating in a repossession attempt at the plaintiffs’ home, as highly offensive conduct,” Doty said.

The trial was scheduled to take place this month in federal court in Minneapolis.

Sortland said the agreement prevents him and his clients from discussing the case or the settlement itself, including the amount.

Before the settlement was reached, he said, “This case is significant. If Ford Credit prevails, it will show that there are really no reliable safeguards against harassing and abusive conduct like this.”

The sheriff, Michael Lee, also declined to discuss the case.

Ford Credit spokesman Dan Jarvis said in a brief statement: “The parties reached a mutually satisfactory resolution with respect to the claims asserted in the litigation.”

You can reach Eric Freedman at freedma5@msu.edu

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