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In May, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune set out to answer a question: Which debt collectors were filing the most lawsuits in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic, which has put more than 3 million Texas residents out of work?
To do this, reporters focused on Texas’ 800-plus justice of the peace courts, where most debt claims are filed. The vast majority of the state’s 254 counties don’t post justice records online, but an initial search of records in two large counties that do, home to the cities of Houston and Fort Worth, revealed one of the top filers of debt lawsuits was a small, publicly traded consumer lender called Oportun Inc.
The company had filed thousands of lawsuits against borrowers after they fell behind on payments, including throughout the pandemic. We wanted to know if Oportun was suing in other counties. That required more sleuthing.
Seven of the state’s largest counties — Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend, Harris, Tarrant and Travis — post justice court filings in online databases, which allowed us to search and collect them. But many of the counties where Oportun has retail locations and could have sued borrowers don’t post those records online.
So ProPublica and the Tribune sent public records requests to more than a dozen individual courts in Bexar, Dallas and Hidalgo counties.
Obtaining the records was more time-intensive than analyzing them. For example, Dallas County said for weeks that it was not capable of producing the records requested before it ultimately released them. Its debt claim records, as well as those from Bexar County, home to San Antonio, had never been publicly released although individual filings are viewable in person. Hidalgo County, the state’s seventh largest by population, on the Texas-Mexico border, did not provide any records for this story.
In the end, we obtained 1.45 million court records from 62 justice courts. The data includes every debt claim filed from January 2015 to June 30, 2020, in nine of the 10 largest counties in the state. Those counties are home to more than 50% of the state’s population and about 80% of Oportun’s retail locations.
Details contained in the records varied among the nine counties. Some included defendants’ addresses, others included only their cities of residence and ZIP codes, and records from Collin and El Paso counties had no address information. Bexar provided a separate record for each time a case’s status changed but couldn’t tell us which one was the most recent.
The only common items among these records were individual case numbers, names of plaintiff and defendant, filing date, court location and type of lawsuit. Reporters had to run the data through multiple computer programs to remove any duplicate records and standardize information that was frequently misspelled. For example, Oportun’s name appeared more than 70 ways, from “Oportun Inc” to “Oprtun” to “Zoportun.” (Since matching by plaintiffs’ names is imperfect, we knew from our analysis that the total number of filings for Oportun would produce an undercount of cases.)
Even when the data was clean enough to begin analyzing, it was impossible to paint a complete picture of Oportun’s legal collections activity and overall debt collection in Texas courts during the pandemic. Here’s why.
In many states across the country, small claims lawsuits are filed in county civil courts, where records are much easier to obtain. In Texas, civil courts are required to electronically file cases to a central searchable system. Yet the state’s justice courts are excluded from this requirement, making a complete accounting of debt lawsuits impossible unless the state’s 803 justice courts choose to make their records public.
Texas’ justice courts are required to report top-line caseload statistics to the Office of Court Administration monthly, including how many debt claims cases they heard and the outcomes. But they aren’t required to include detailed case-level information, and there is no penalty if they fail to report or miss their deadlines, according to both OCA and our analysis.
Hidalgo County has repeatedly failed to report complete justice court information to the state for more than three years, with the exception of one justice.
Although we could determine how much Oportun was suing in nine counties, we had no way to know what those lawsuits alleged because most justice courts don’t post actual documents online, including petitions.
In addition to court data, we scrutinized Oportun’s business filings and information the company is required to submit to the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, the state agency that regulates lenders. But citing confidentiality, the agency declined an open records request for Oportun’s annual lending activity reports, which would have given us the total number of loans disbursed. (California’s Department of Business Oversight fulfilled a request for similar reports).
The initial findings we saw in Harris and Tarrant county data continued to hold as we obtained court records from other counties. In eight of the nine counties, Oportun Inc. was a top filer of lawsuits during the pandemic. (In Denton County, where Oportun filed comparatively fewer suits, the company has just one retail location.)
All told, Oportun filed more lawsuits than any other personal loan company and was the second-most litigious company overall during the pandemic and the first six months of the year.
We presented Oportun with a detailed list of the findings of our analysis. In response, it released a one-paragraph statement that defended its record as a “responsible lender” with a high repayment rate and low number of customer complaints.
However in late July, Oportun CEO Raul Vazquez said in a blog post that the company had become the No. 1 filer of small-dollar debt claims in both Texas and California. In that post, he said the company would drop all pending lawsuits, temporarily suspend the filing of new ones and reduce its current filing rate by more than 60%. (The blog post came after the company discovered that reporters from ProPublica and the Tribune, as well as The Guardian, were investigating its debt collection practices in those states.)
An Oportun spokesman said that several thousand Texas cases would be dismissed as a result. Still, our analysis found that Oportun has filed so many lawsuits in the state that it would remain among the most litigious debt collectors even if it filed 60% fewer debt claims.
Texas Tribune data visuals developer Chris Essig reviewed the code and the analysis.
Credit: by Ren Larson and Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, Texas Tribune