The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey recently dismissed a class action suit against a collection agency based on alleged violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. In its opinion, which can be found here, the Court held that a single collection letter, which included two telephone numbers and an invitation for the debtor to call with any questions or concerns, followed by language instructing the debtor to submit any disputes as to the debt or amount owed in writing within 30 days, did not violate § 1692g or § 1692e of the FDCPA.
On October 7, 2017, class plaintiff Frank Riccio received a letter from Credit Collection Services (“CCS”), a third-party collection agency. The letter stated that, if Riccio had any questions, concerns, or simply needed personal assistance, he should contact the collection agency at one of two telephone numbers listed in the letter. Immediately following that paragraph, the letter provided the required initial validation language, including the statement that any disputes as to the validity of the debt would have to be submitted in writing within 30 days.
Riccio alleged that CCS violated § 1692g for using unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect a debt, and § 1692e for making false, deceptive, or misleading representations or means in connection with the collection of the debt. Specifically, he contended that the paragraph inviting the debtor to contact CCS over the phone overshadowed and contradicted the statutorily-required validation language instructing the debtor to submit any disputes in writing within 30 days, and failed to effectively inform him of what he must do in order to dispute the alleged debt. CCS subsequently moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that Riccio failed to state a plausible claim for relief under the FDCPA.
The Court held that, under the least sophisticated debtor standard, the CCS letter did not instruct or suggest an alternative method of disputing the debt beyond what the letter sets forth in the validation notice. Under this standard, the presumption is that the debtor has a basic level of understanding and willingness to read with care, and the least sophisticated debtor is bound to read collection notices in their entirety.
The Court further noted that a collection letter is deceptive when it can be reasonably read to have two or more different meanings, one of which is inaccurate. The Court found that the language in the letter inviting the debtor to call with any questions or concerns did not contradict or overshadow the language immediately after, which instructed the consumer to submit any disputes regarding the validity of the debt in writing within 30 days. Because a least sophisticated debtor must read the collection notice in its entirety, and the only language in the letter regarding disputes instructed the debtor to submit any disputes in writing within 30 days, there was no confusion or overshadowing of the statutorily-required language in CSS’s letter. Further, the Court held that the language used in the CCS letter was not a false representation or deceptive because the language could not reasonably be interpreted to have two or more different meanings, one of which is incorrect.