N.J. Judge Grants MTD in FDCPA Case Even Though Letter Lacked ‘Clarity’

While noting that several instances of a collection letter lacked clarity, a District Court judge in New Jersey nonetheless granted a defendant’s motion to dismiss a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case, ruling that even a least sophisticated consumer would be able to ascertain the identity of the original creditor and that disputes needed to be filed in writing in order to be legitimate.

A copy of the ruling in the case of Hughes v. Certified Credit & Collection Bureau can be accessed by clicking here.

The plaintiff received a collection letter from the defendant in regard to an unpaid healthcare debt. In the top-right corner of the letter was a table of information, including the phone number for the defendant, the date the letter was sent, the name and account number of the patient, the date of service, and a line that said, “Re: Morristown Medical Ctr 20p” and a line at the bottom of the letter that said “Client: Morristown Medical Cts 20p.” The letter also included a statement that said, “Unless you notify this office within 30 days after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of the debt or any portion thereof, this office will assume this debt is valid. If you notify this office in writing within 30 days from receiving this notice, this office will: …”

The plaintiff filed suit, claiming the letter violated Sections 1692g(a)(2), 1692e, and 1692f of the FDCPA because it did not unambiguously identify the name of the creditor to whom the debt was owed and did not specifically instruct the plaintiff that disputes had to be filed in writing.

While Judge Michael A. Shipp of the District Court for the District of New Jersey was not a fan of how the letter was structured and written, he ultimately found that even a least sophisticated consumer could read the letter in its entirety and figure out what was going on.

“The letter provides the name of the creditor on top on the ‘RE:’ line,” Judge Shipp wrote. “The letter repeats the creditor at the bottom of the letter on the ‘CLIENT:’ line. The letter references no other parties aside from Defendant Bureau and the creditor … Thus, although Defendants’ letter lacks clarity, the Court concludes that it sufficiently identifies the creditor.”

The judge also took issue with the plaintiff’s argument that a least sophisticated consumer might be so inclined to notify the defendant without ever verifying or disputing the underlying debt.

“To be fair, Defendants’ letter could have conveyed the statutory requirements more clearly,” Judge Shipp wrote. “But, although Defendants’ letter lacks clarity, the Court finds penalizing Defendants for splitting one sentence into two a step too far. That’s especially so considering the multiple cases from this District interpreting the same language and finding no ambiguity.”

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