The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in a consolidated appeal of four separate cases, recently affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of four separate cases for failure to state claims under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). In Gruber v. Creditors’ Protection Service, Inc., Nos. 13-2084, 13-2164, 13-2297 and 13-2351, __ F.3d __ (7th Cir., Jan. 23, 2014), the appellate court considered whether a minor deviation from the statutory language of FDCPA Section 1692g(a)(4) in collection notices resulted in a violation of the FDCPA.
Section 1692g(a)(4) requires debt collectors to provide consumers a “statement that if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment against the consumer and a copy of such verification or judgment will be mailed to the consumer by the debt collector.” In the four cases presented, the notices failed to include the phrase “…that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed….“ The consumer plaintiffs contended that this omission created risks that an unsophisticated consumer who may wish to exercise his or her rights would fail to properly do so, and may be misled to request verification instead of to dispute the debt.
The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, finding, as a matter of law, that the debt collectors’ notices complied with FDCPA Section 1692g(a)(4), notwithstanding the omitted clause, and “treat[ing] a request for verification as a dispute within the meaning of [FDCPA].”
In addition, one of the debt collection notices included the following statement (which is not set forth in the FDCPA) immediately above the statutorily-mandated language: “We believe you want to pay your just debt.” The plaintiff in that case argued that the use of the words “just debt” implied that judgment was already obtained against the consumer and could improperly dissuade a consumer from disputing or requesting validation of a debt, in violation of the FDCPA.
The Court of Appeals ruled against this argument, finding that the “just debt” clause is neutral in effect and does not direct the consumer to take any action.