3rd Circuit Rules Debt Collection Letter Violates The FDCPA Because It Can Be Reasonably Read To Have Two Or More Different Meanings, One Of Which Is Inaccurate
- March 15, 2013
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By: Robert J. Nahoum
Consumer Ray Caprio filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the District of New Jersey against debt collector Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group, LLC claiming that a debt collection letter he received violated Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) because it could confuse “the least sophisticated consumer” into taking two different courses of action. The letter stated:
If we can answer any questions, or if you feel you do not owe this amount, please call us toll free at 800-984-9115 or write us at the above address. This is an attempt to collect a debt. Any information obtained will be used for that purpose. (NOTICE: SEE REVERSE SIDE FOR IMPORTANT INFORMATION.)
On the back of the of the debt collection letter, the debt collector had provided the following mandatory disclosures:
This is an attempt to collect a debt from a debt collection agency. Any information obtained will be used for that purpose.
Pursuant to Sec. 809 of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, unless you notify this office within 30 days after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, this office will assume this debt is valid. If you notify this office in writing within 30 days from receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, this office will: obtain verification of the debt or obtain a copy of a judgement [sic] and mail you a copy of such judgement [sic] or verification. If you request this office in writing within 30 days after receiving this notice, this office will provide you with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.
Mr. Caprio argued that consumers might be confused about what path to take – that the “please call to dispute the debt” phrase on the front of the letter suggests that disputes can be made by phone while the caution on the back rightly instructs that debt disputes must be in writing.
The District Court disagreed with Mr. Caprio and ruled that the “please call” phrase, when read in the context of the entire debt collection letter, would not confuse the “least sophisticated debtor.”
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Court’s ruling and concluded that the debt collection letter was deceptive because “it can be reasonably read to have two or more different meanings, one of which is inaccurate.”
In making its ruling, the appellate court noted that “it is not our responsibility to decide whether the debtor or the debt collector offers ‘a more appropriate reading’ of a debt collection letter. We instead must interpret the document from the perspective of ‘least sophisticated debtor.’” For that reason, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the language on the front of the debt collection letter could be confusing as argued by Mr. Caprio.
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