A District Court judge has granted a defendant’s motion for summary judgment in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case, ruling that a voicemail it sent out to all its customers a few months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was not a communication in connection with the collection of a debt, even though it included instructions for making payments and a representative of the defendant testified that it hoped customers would make payments after receiving the message.
A copy of the ruling in the case of Hurtser v. Specialized Loan Servicing can be accessed by clicking here.
This case actually started out as a Telephone Consumer Protection Act lawsuit, but the plaintiff amended his complaint to include the FDCPA claim after discovering he provided consent to be contacted on his cell phone.
The plaintiff received a voicemail message in August 2020 from the defendant. The message said:
This message is from Specialized Loan Servicing. During this time of the recently announced national emergency relating to COVID-19, we are contacting you to remind you of alternative methods to receive information about your account, or to make payments. You may make payments via our website at www.sls.net or calling our Payment IVR service at (800) 981-9963. You can receive account information via our website at www.sls.net or through our automated phone system at (800) 315-4757. Thank you.
The plaintiff claims the message violated the FDCPA because it did not mention that the defendant was a debt collector attempting to collect on a debt, and accused the defendant of violating Sections 1692e(11) and 1692f of the FDCPA. The defendant argued that this was an informational message and because it did not demand payment, was not a communication in connection with the collection of a debt. The intention of the voicemail, according to the defendant, was to “convey general information about the alternative methods of contacting” it instead of calling the customer service center. The message was sent to all of the defendant’s customers, regardless of payment status. At the time, call volumes had spiked and hold times had increased, and the defendant said it wanted to “proactively let people know” there were other options to obtain information rather than placing calls.
During a deposition, a representative of the defendant did testify that it hoped customers would use the IVR or website to make payments, but that was not enough to make it a collection call, ruled Judge John A. Ross of the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. “The fact that some of the information conveyed addressed methods for making payments generally does not alter the message’s animating purpose, particularly when it did not mention the character, amount, or status of Plaintiff’s debt or make an explicit demand for payment,” Judge Ross wrote.