Alert April 15, 2014

Pennsylvania Federal Court Rules on Debt Collector’s Alleged Violations of FDCPA

The United States Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a motion to dismiss a borrower’s claim that a debt collection letter failed to provide adequate notice of her right to dispute the validity of the debt. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires, among other things, that debt collectors notify consumers that they have a 30-day period to dispute the debt in writing. While the letter sent by the debt collector included the required 30-day notice period by which to dispute the debt, the borrower alleged that the FDCPA notice was not “prominent and conspicuous” because it was in smaller text on the back page of the letter and was “overshadowed” by the other information in the letter.

The Court, which in its opinion included an image of both the front and back pages of the letter, found that the notice was not prominently displayed as a matter of law. Considering the case under a “least sophisticated consumer” standard, which is the standard adopted by the Third Circuit and cited in the opinion, the Court declined to rule that placing a notice on the back of the letter in smaller text was enough, standing alone, to violate the FDCPA. But, the Court nonetheless ruled that the content concerning debt and repayment demand, which implied that the borrower could dispute her debt by calling the debt collector, overshadowed the content of the notice concerning the debtor’s rights, which discussed disputing the debt “in writing.” The Court analyzed Third Circuit precedent (e.g., Caprio v. Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group, LLC, 709 F.3d 142 (3d Cir. 2013)) to consider similar letters that advised debtors to call the debt collector and presented some tension with the FDCPA’s requirement that the borrower dispute the debt “in writing.” In analyzing the letter challenged by the borrower as violative of the FDCPA, the Court ruled the prominent statement that “[i]f necessary, you may contact our client directly at” a given telephone number, would lead the “least sophisticated consumer” to conclude that a telephone call would be an adequate means of disputing her debt. And, the Court ruled, the more specific, less prominent language on the back of the letter about disputing the debt in writing did not “salvage the received message.” Of note, the Court called for “[m]ore explicit regulation” that does not require courts to engage in “mind-reading the ‘least sophisticated debtor’ (or Congress).”