Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), the Seventh Circuit ruled that a debt collector may freely communicate with a debtor's lawyer about a debt owed, regardless of the FDCPA's prohibition against speaking directly to a debtor about the debt. Tinsley v. Integrity Financial Partners, Inc., Case No. 10-2045.

Plaintiff Christopher Tinsley (Tinsley) retained a lawyer to handle a debt collection pursued by Defendant Integrity Financial Partners, Inc. (Integrity). Tinsley's lawyer notified Integrity that Tinsley was represented by counsel and to "direct all future communications to our office." Integrity did not subsequently communicate directly with Tinsley, but did communicate with Tinsley's counsel about the debt.

Section 1692c(c) of the FDCPA precludes debt collectors from communicating with consumer debtors once the debtor "notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay the debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease future communications with the consumer." 15 U.S.C. 1962c(c). In the district court and on appeal, Tinsley asserted that Integrity's communications with his lawyer violated the FDCPA because his lawyer falls within the statutes definition of "consumer." The district court disagreed and granted summary judgment for Integrity. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

First, the Seventh Circuit rejected Tinsley's argument that notice to Tinsley's lawyer, as Tinsley's agent, should be treated as notice to Tinsley. A complete reading of section 1962c, not just an isolated reading of subsection (c), "provides valuable context" that Tinsley ignored. Indeed, if Tinsley's argument were correct, the Court found, the FDCPA would prohibit debt collectors from communicating with debtors' lawyers after notice under section 1962c(c).

Immediately below is the entire text of Section 1962c. If you simply insert the word "attorney" or "lawyer" for the word "consumer" in subsections (b) and (c), as the Seventh Circuit found, "Tinsley's argument makes hash of them."

  1. Communication with the consumer generally

Without the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector or the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction, a debt collector may not communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt—

  1. at any unusual time or place or a time or place known or which should be known to be inconvenient to the consumer. In the absence of knowledge of circumstances to the contrary, a debt collector shall assume that the convenient time for communicating with a consumer is after 8 o’clock antemeridian and before 9 o’clock postmeridian, local time at the consumer’s location;
  2. if the debt collector knows the consumer is represented by an attorney with respect to such debt and has knowledge of, or can readily ascertain, such attorney’s name and address, unless the attorney fails to respond within a reasonable period of time to a communication from the debt collector or unless the attorney consents to direct communication with the consumer; or
  3. at the consumer’s place of employment if the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer’s employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication.
  1. Communication with third parties

Except as provided in section 1692b of this title, without the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector, or the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction, or as reasonably necessary to effectuate a postjudgment judicial remedy, a debt collector may not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer, his attorney, a consumer reporting agency if otherwise permitted by law, the creditor, the attorney of the creditor, or the attorney of the debt collector.

  1. Ceasing communication

If a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate further with the consumer with respect to such debt, except—

  1. to advise the consumer that the debt collector’s further efforts are being terminated;
  2. to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor may invoke specified remedies which are ordinarily invoked by such debt collector or creditor; or
  3. where applicable, to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor intends to invoke a specified remedy.

If such notice from the consumer is made by mail, notification shall be complete upon receipt.  

  1. “Consumer” defined

For the purpose of this section, the term “consumer” includes the consumer’s spouse, parent (if the consumer is a minor), guardian, executor, or administrator.

Second, the FDCPA's express definition of "consumer" does not include a consumer's attorney. Specifically, under section 1962c(d), the term consumer "includes the consumer’s spouse, parent (if the consumer is a minor), guardian, executor, or administrator." Plainly, the Court found, it says nothing about lawyers.

After rejecting Tinsley's arguments, the Seventh Circuit found that Integrity merely did what Tinsley's lawyer requested by directing further communications to the office of his attorney. This, the Court held, did not violate the FDCPA.