On May 16, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that special counsel using Ohio AG letterhead to collect debts owed to the state is false or misleading in violation of the FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. §1692. Sheriff v. Gillie, No. 15-338 (U.S. May 16, 2016). In a unanimous 8-0 opinion delivered by Justice Ginsburg, the Court opined that its “conclusion is bolstered by the character of the relationship between special counsel and the [AG].” Specifically, the Court determined that, because special counsel acts on behalf of the AG to provide legal services to state clients, a “debtor’s impression that a letter from special counsel is a letter from the [AG’s] Office is scarcely inaccurate.” The Court further opined that, being required by the AG’s office to send debt collection communications, special counsel “create no false impression in doing just what they have been instructed to do.” The Court rejects the Sixth Circuit’s argument that consumers may have concern regarding the letters’ authenticity: [“t]o the extent that consumers may be concerned that the letters are a ‘scam,’ the solution is for special counsel to say more, not less, about their role as agents of the [AG]. Special counsel’s use of the [AG’s] letterhead, furthermore, encourages consumers to use official channels to ensure the legitimacy of the letters, assuaging the very concern the Sixth Circuit identified.” The Court concludes by emphasizing the AG’s authority, as the top law enforcement official, to take punitive action against consumers who owe debts, commenting that §1692e of the FDCPA prohibits collectors from deceiving or misleading consumers, but “it does not protect consumers from fearing the actual consequences of their debts.”
The Court’s opinion does not address the question of whether or not special counsel rank as “state officers” within the meaning of the FDCPA, noting that even if it were to assume as much, arguendo, special counsel’s use of AG letterhead does not offend § 1692e. The Supreme Court remanded the issues surrounding §1692e back to the Sixth Circuit for further consideration.