On August 8, 2019, the Seventh Circuit, in Lavallee v. Med-1 Solutions, LLC, 932 F.3d 1049 (7th Cir. 2019), ruled that emails to consumers from debt collectors containing hyperlinks to information regarding debt, including validation notices, are not “communications” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Therefore, the court held, the emails do not provide consumers with the required validation notices under Section 1692g(a) of the FDCPA. In Lavallee, the consumer plaintiff brought a class action against the debt collector, alleging the email communications sent to the consumer failed to include disclosures required by the FDCPA regarding the amount of the debt, the consumer’s right to dispute the debt, and how to obtain more information about the alleged creditor. The debt collector had sent the consumer two emails, each concerning a separate debt, which did not include any information as to the debt and did not provide validation notices on the face of the emails, but which did provide the required information and disclosures in embedded hyperlinks.
In examining the lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment in the consumer’s favor, and because the disclosure requirements are triggered by an “initial communication” under the FDCPA, the Seventh Circuit first analyzed whether the emails were “communications” under the FDCPA. It concluded they were not. The FDCPA defines “communication” as “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.” Although the emails contained hyperlinks to “secure packages,” which did include information regarding the debt, the emails themselves were silent as to the debts. In fact, the emails only conveyed three pieces of information: the sender’s name, its email address, and the fact that it “has sent … a secure message.”
The Seventh Circuit also analyzed whether the emails contained the required disclosures triggered by an initial communication under Section 1692g of the FDCPA. In determining the emails failed to include the required validation notices, the Court noted that the embedded hyperlinks with the required information were “at best [,]. . . a digital pathway to access the required information.” To the Court, embedded hyperlinks are the equivalent of sending a letter with information as to where to obtain the required disclosures, which is insufficient for compliance with the FDCPA.
With electronic notices being sent more frequently, the Seventh Circuit’s treatment of hyperlinked validation notices can have strong implications for debt collection practices moving forward, especially if the majority of Circuits follow suit.