Judge Grants MTD in FDCPA Case Over Communication Language

If you’re about as old as I am, you may remember the TV show, “Cheers,” specifically mail carrier Cliff Claven, who, in a famous episode, appeared on Jeopardy! and, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it, had one of the best all-time final jeopardy answers in history. A District Court judge in Utah has granted a defendant’s motion to dismiss in a case that I will describe as Claven-esque because the plaintiff accused the defendant of violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by not being specific enough about all the ways that she could make arrangements to pay a debt.

A copy of the ruling in the case of Chadwick v. Bonneville Billing & Collections can be accessed by clicking here.

The plaintiff received a collection letter from the defendant that included the following statement:

Notice of Unpaid Judgment
According to our records, the judgment entered against you remains unpaid. At this time, Bonneville Collections is allowing you to make the decision to either come into our office, or call to make arrangements on this judgment. Failure to do so may result in additional collection activity.

The plaintiff filed suit, alleging the letter violated Sections 1692e(5) and 1692e(10) of the FDCPA by making statements that were allegedly false, deceptive, or misleading.

First, the plaintiff argued that the phrase “may result in additional collection activity” violated the FDCPA because there are circumstances in which the defendant could not lawfully continue to collect even if a recipient did not respond as requested, such as if the debt were paid by mail of if a request to cease communication were made.

I’ll let Judge Ted Stewart of the District Court for the District of Utah take it from here.

“No one, not even the least sophisticated consumer, could reasonably read this letter as threatening to continue collection measures after the recipient paid the debt or requested cessation of collection activities,” Judge Stewart wrote. “The letter is silent about any such scenario. The only scenario before Bonneville was an unpaid debt and an unresponsive debtor, so further collection activities were both lawful and likely. Bonneville’s failure to reassure the recipient that it would not commit an unlawful act if circumstances changed was not a threat, let alone a false one.”

Next, the plaintiff argued that because the defendant only listed two ways it could be contacted – either by coming into the office or placing a phone call – that no other communication options were allowed. Why couldn’t she pay by check or some other method? Again, I give you Judge Stewart:

“Chadwick stretches the letter’s meaning beyond reason,” he writes. “The letter does not purport to provide an exhaustive list of all steps the recipient might take regarding the debt. The letter itself suggests two other possibilities when it instructs the recipient to write the account number on payments or correspondence. The statement about continuing collections activities if the recipient fails to come to the office or call obviously means only that Bonneville intends to continue collection efforts until the recipient pays. Certainly a recipient might have unanswered questions about his or her options upon receipt of the letter—’Are there other methods to pay the debt or stop collections activities?’—but this does not render the letter false or deceptive.”

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