Calif. Appeals Court Overturns Ruling in Favor of Collector That Stapled Note to Summons

This is one of those “no good deed goes unpunished” type of stories. A California Appeals Court has overturned a summary judgment ruling in favor of a collector that was sued for violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by stapling a note to a court-provided summons, informing the individual to call the agency if he had any questions, ruling that the “communication” was materially deceptive or misleading to the least sophisticated consumer.

A copy of the ruling in the case of Scott v. Credit Consulting Services can be accessed by clicking here.

The defendant filed a collection lawsuit against the plaintiff, seeking to recover an unpaid healthcare debt. The defendant stapled a typewritten note to the summons, which read, “If you have any questions regarding this matter, please contact: Credit Consulting Services, Inc., 201 John Street, Suite E, Salinas, CA 93901, 831-424-0606; outside 831 area code 1-800-679-6888” in English and Spanish.

The plaintiff filed a complaint of his own, accusing the defendant of violating the FDCPA and Rosenthal FDCPA because it appeared as though the attached message was from the court and did not contain language that it was sent by a collector. After certifying a class, a state court judge granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the communication was lawful.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the attached note was not a communication under the FDCPA because the note didn’t mention anything about the debt. But, the Appeals Court noted, the note was not sent “in a vacuum: The attachment, summons, and complaint comprised a collection of documents delivered by a process server — personally” to the plaintiff’s girlfriend and by mail to the plaintiff himself. By mentioning “this matter” in the note, the defendant “unmistakably signified” that it referred to the litigation that accompanied the note.

Next, the Appeals Court tackled whether the note was a communication in connection with the collection of a debt, and the Court failed “fail to conceive of any subject other than debt collection CCS might think the communication was in connection with. The message in the attachment refers to the existence of a debt, conveys information regarding the debt, and serves the purpose of debt collection by enticing the recipient to contact the debt collector.”

The defendant finally attempted to argue that even a least sophisticated consumer would recognize that the note was coming from the collector. “By omitting the mandatory disclosure that this attachment was from CCS, a debt collector, CCS made it reasonably likely that the least sophisticated consumer would believe the suggestion to call CCS was from the court that issued the summons to which the suggestion was affixed,” the Appeals Court wrote. “CSS’s communication was therefore deceptive.”

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