Judge Partially Grants MTD in FDCPA Case Over Dispute Language in Letter

A District Court judge in Illinois has denied a defendant’s motion to dismiss after it was sued for allegedly violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by only mentioning that a dispute had to be filed in writing but granted the motion on the claim that a reference to obtaining a copy of a judgment and mailing it to the plaintiff violated the statute.

A copy of the ruling in the case of Smith v. Convergent Outsourcing can be accessed by clicking here.

The plaintiff defaulted on a cable bill that was placed with the defendant for collection. The defendant sent the plaintiff a letter, which included a validation notice. Of interest to this case are two parts of that letter. The first is that the letter informed the plaintiff he could dispute the validity of the debt “in writing” and included a P.O. Box address. Second, the letter informed the plaintiff that if he disputed the debt, the defendant would “obtain verification of the debt or obtain a copy of a judgment and mail you a copy of such judgment or verification.”

The plaintiff claimed that by not mentioning that it accepted disputes by mail to its physical address, by fax, by email, or by completing a form on its website that the letter violated Section 1692g(a) of the FDCPA. And by referencing a judgment — one that did not exist — the letter was misleading and violated Section 1692e and 1692f of the FDCPA.

The defendant argued that including all of the other means by which the plaintiff could dispute the debt was gratuitous and that the FDCPA does not require a collector to provide multiple means to submit a dispute. While he conceded that point, Judge Gary Feinerman of the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois nonetheless ruled that the letter made it seem like the only way to dispute the debt was to mail in a notification to the P.O. Box. “Here, it is likewise plausible that an unsophisticated consumer might conclude from Convergent’s letter that mail to the P.O. Box is a necessary condition for submitting a dispute, a message that, if received, would be incorrect — as there were several other available methods — and thereby overshadow the letter’s disclosure,” Judge Feinerman wrote.

On the 1692e and 1692f claims, even a least sophisticated consumer would know that the statutory language — this office will obtain verification of the debt or obtain a copy of a judgment — does not refer to a specific judgment, Judge Feinerman wrote.

“Here, the basic inference from the text is that Convergent would obtain either verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment, depending on which circumstance obtained,” the judge wrote. “That is how ordinary English speakers, sophisticated or not, use the word ‘or.’ Also significant is the use of the phrase ‘a judgment,’ as opposed to ‘the judgment.’ No formal education is needed to understand that the indefinite article ‘a’ leaves unaddressed whether or not a judgment exists.

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