What does it mean when you say “hear from you?” Does it mean that the other person can call you? Does it mean they can write you? Does it mean either of those? Or both?
And how something be correct in one part of the country by incorrect in another? Especially, when it’s a precedent involving your own company that is being followed?
Such was the decision facing a federal judge in Pennsylvania, who ruled that a law firm violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by using that language and by inadvertently shortening the 30-day timeframe that an individual has to file a dispute over an alleged debt.
A copy of the ruling in Ronn Homer v. The Law Offices of Frederic I. Weinberg & Associates can be viewed here.
In this case, the law firm sent a letter to the plaintiff, attempting to collect on an unpaid credit card debt. The letter included the following language:
Unless this office hears from you within thirty (30) days after receipt of this letter that you dispute the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, this office will assume the debt is valid. If you notify this office in writing within thirty (30) days of your receipt of this letter that the debt or any portion thereof is disputed, this office will obtain verification of the debt or, if the debt is founded upon a judgment, a copy of the judgment will be obtained and this office will mail to you a copy of such verification or judgment.
Originally, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant violated the FDCPA because it misled the plaintiff about how the dispute the debt and when to do so. In an amended complaint, Homer alleged that the language shortens the window to dispute the debt by saying “unless the office hears from you within 30 days,” meaning that the notice had to be sent and received by the defendant within 30 days instead of that the notice must be sent in within 30 days.
The defendant argued that “hear from you” is a colloquial phrase that does not “alter the meaning” of the 30-day notification requirement.
While acknowledging that a collection letter “need not quote” the FDCPA “verbatim,” the judge in this case said, “the notice must be sufficiently clear and unambiguous to inform the consumer of his rights.”
The judge disagreed with the plaintiff over the “hear from you” phrase, ruling it is not a colloquialism and actually informs the recipient of the letter that the debt could be disputed orally, which is not the case in the Third Circuit, which has ruled that disputes need to be filed in writing. The Second, Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal have ruled that debts can be disputed orally.
What makes this case more confusing is that a ruling in another case, involving the same defendant, ruled that “hear from you” was compliant with the FDCPA.
Wrote the judge in this case: “If courts reading the statutory language interpret it differently, how could the least sophisticated debtor not.”
The letter also required the plaintiff to act sooner than the statute allows, by implying that the dispute notice needed to be received within 30 days, when legal precedent has ruled that the individual must send the notice within 30 days, regardless of how long it takes the collector to receive it.
The defendant in this case lost its motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for summary judgment by the plaintiff was awarded.