Sunday, October 31, 2021

Where the Rubber Meets the Road


For the past year, the industry’s attention has been focused on the Debt Collection Rule (the “Rule”), its changes, and the new expectations it will place on debt collectors; but as the rubber meets the road, collection agencies and other debt collectors now are turning their attention to operational impacts and, how to put the Rule into practice.  In doing so, many are now considering how to reconcile the requirements of the Rule with  competing, and sometimes more restrictive or conflicting, state statutes and regulations. 

Reconciling federal and state debt collection rules and statutes is not a new phenomenon for debt collectors.  Both the FDCPA and the Rule recognize that federal law is not the only player in this space.  Thus, both expressly provide that they do not annul, alter, or affect, or exempt any person subject to the FDCPA or the Rule from complying with state law except when those laws are inconsistent with the FDCPA and then only to the extent of the inconsistency.  Importantly, both also recognize that state laws may be more restrictive. Thus, where Section 1006.14 of the Rule may allow 7 call attempts in a 7 day period, some state laws may have more restrictive call frequency limitations.  In those instances, complying with the Rule may save you from an FDCPA violation but it will not save you from a state violation unless you comply with the more restrictive state requirement.

As we near the effective date for the Rule and focus turns to the operational adjustments necessary to comply with the Rule, debt collectors once again should review competing state and federal requirements, identify where one may be more restrictive than the other or where there may be conflict, and adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate for the same.

While this is not meant to be comprehensive, here are a few of the issues debt collectors should be considering:

What changes are being made to the debt collector’s operations because of the Rule? 

One of the first issues compliance department should identify is where is the Rule necessitating changes to policies, procedures, and operations?  Aside from the substantive changes to the debt validation notice, here are a few of the more obvious potential changes to consider:

  • Does the agency intend to use limited-content messages?
  • Has the agency contemplated a name change or use of an assumed name as a result of the Rule? 
  • How do the new call frequency limitations impact the agency’s policies and procedures? 
  • Does the agency intend to make use of electronic communications? 
  • Is the agency making changes to its letter or dialing campaigns as a result of changes brought about by the Rule? 
  • To the extent the agency credit reports, does the Rule impact how and when the agency will credit report?

While these are some of the more obvious impacts, compliance departments should be taking a granular look as well  and identifying other operational changes brought about by the Rule.  For each change identified, compliance departments will then need to review state laws and regulations to determine whether those changes comply with state law. Where state laws are more restrictive, policies and procedures may require further alterations. 

Here is an example. The Rule introduces the concept of limited-content messages.  As suggested by their name, they contain limited content.  In fact, content is limited to a business name for the debt collector (that does not indicate the debt collector is in the debt collection business), a request that the consumer reply to the message, the name or names of one or more natural persons whom the consumer can contact, and a telephone number that the consumer can use to reply to the debt collector.  12 C.F.R. 1006.2(d).  It does not allow, for instance, the agency to identify itself as a debt collector.  Nor does it allow the agency to identify the creditor or the intended recipient of the message?

But how does that mesh with state law?  Not all states define communication to mean conveying information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person.”  In fact, some states don’t define communication at all.  Moreover, some state statutes require the agency identify it as a debt collector and/or the creditor in any calls or oral communications.  In those states, limited-content messages may not be practicable or may carry risk the agency is not willing to take when considering the state’s definition of communication or the state’s content requirements.  

  What about the validation notice?

Section 1006.34 of the Rule implements and interprets section 1692g(a) of the FDCPA and expands the information required in the debt collector’s validation notice. In doing so, it treats state mandated disclosures as “optional” and requires most, but not all, be placed on the back of the validation notice above the tear off section. The exception, time barred debt disclosures, are required to be placed on the front of the notice.  Section 1006.34(d)(3)(iv)(B).  

Agencies should be considering the following questions when finalizing their validation notices and considering their back side disclosures (or “backer”): 

  • Are they collecting in states with state mandated disclosures?  
  • If so, how do the state mandated disclosures compare to those required by the Rule? 
    • Are they consistent with the Rule?
    • Do they require additional information?  
    • Do they require specific language which conflicts with the Rule?  
    • If so, how can you reconcile that conflict and comply with both?

  • Is there an itemization requirement under state law? 
    • Is it consistent with Section 1006.34?

Where issues arise, debt collectors should consider consulting with counsel to ascertain how best to reconcile those issues.

Finally, In States Where Licensure Is Required, What Additional Impacts are Brought About by the Rule?

Finally, in states where collection agencies are required to be licensed, it is important not to lose sight of regulator-required approvals for amended letters, communications, and scripts.  Collection agencies, therefore, should ensure any such changes are appropriately submitted to the state regulator in a timely fashion.

As the effective date of the Rule rapidly approaches, compliance departments should not lose sight of their state debt collection requirements.  The key is to identify changes, examine those changes for compliance with state law, and adapt as needed before the rubber meets the road.

Crucial Conversations All Debt Collectors Should Have with their Creditors


With the CFPB having decided to leave the effective date of the Debt Collection Rule as November 30th, the push is on for debt collectors to ensure their compliance with the Rule by that date. As debt collectors make the final push towards implementation, there are crucial conversations debt collectors should be having with creditors to ensure a smooth transition.

Referral of the Account.  Debt collectors should be discussing the referral process with their clients to ensure a clear understanding of the amount of the debt and what new or additional information creditors will need to provide for the debt collector to initiate collections. 

As we all know by now, the Rule introduces as a new concept the “itemization date.”  Because the Rule requires the debt collector identify an “itemization date” and provide an itemization of the debt from that itemization date through the validation notice, it’s important both the creditor and the debt collector understand what comprises the balance being sent for collection and upon which “itemization date” it is based. 

Section 1006.34(b) of the Rule allows debt collectors to choose one of five specified reference dates as their “itemization date:”

· the last statement date, which is the date of the last periodic statement or written account statement or invoice provided to the consumer by the creditor;

·  the charge-off date, which is the date the creditor charged off the account;

 ·   the last payment date, which is the date the last payment was applied to the debt; 

 ·   the transaction date, which is the date of the transaction that gave rise to the debt; or

·   the judgment date, which is the date of a final court judgment that determines the amount of the debt owed by the consumer.

 12 C.F.R. 1006.34(b)(3) (effective November 30, 2021).

Selection of an itemization date will necessarily require the debt collector have a clear understanding of how the creditor arrives at the balance and conversely, that the creditor understand that its balance needs to relate back to one of the five itemization dates.  Moreover, the creditor will need to include with the balance an itemization of the interest, fees, payments, and credits which have accrued since the itemization date.

 Communication Channels.  One of the hallmarks of the Rule is its attempt to implement the use of more modern communication channels within the limitations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  The Rule provides for the use of email and text communications and provides specific procedures which, if followed, provide the debt collector with a safe harbor with respect to electronic communications and unintentional third-party electronic communications.  To the extent the creditor or debt collector want to take advantage of these options, a conversation should be had as to how consent from the consumer will be obtained.  One of the options provided is based upon prior communications with the creditor.  For debt collectors who want to take advantage of this option, conversations should be had with creditors to ascertain what notices are being provided to consumers so the debt collector can ascertain their sufficiency for compliance with the Rule. 

Adjust Expectations of the Creditor.  With the introduction of a more robust debt validation notice, creditors should understand that delays are likely in the collection process.  By providing an understanding to the creditor (and adjusting expectations accordingly), creditors are more likely to have a better appreciation of the collection process and the challenges facing debt collectors.  Debt collectors should be examining their adjusted policies and procedure to ascertain what changes might impact or delay their collection efforts.

Here are a couple of examples of changes debt collectors may consider explaining and discussing with their creditor clients.  First, the validation period will be prolonged by the addition of at least five business days to the validation period. See 12 CFR 1006.34(b)(5)  (effective November 30, 2021) (which states that the validation period ends 30 days after receipt and allows the debt collector to assume the consumer received the validation notice any date that is “at least five days (excluding legal public holidays … Saturdays, and Sundays) after the debt collector provides it.  By its very nature, the first communication is now less of a demand for payment and more of a statutorily required notice.  If this impacts the collection processes, consider making creditor clients aware so they can adjust their expectations and have a better understanding of the challenges you (and the rest of the industry) face.  

Secondly, the validation notice’s inclusion of the dispute form (with convenient boxes to be checked) will likely increase the number of disputes and requests for validation that debt collectors receive, as well as the corollary requests for information to creditors.  Creditors will benefit from understanding the anticipated increase in requests for additional information either at the validation/dispute stage or at the  initial forwarding stage.

Thirdly,  credit reporting cannot occur until after the debt collector communicates with the consumer (usually by the debt validation notice) and waits a reasonable period of time to receive a notice of undeliverability (which the Official Interpretation identifies as being 14 days).  To the extent collection agencies are credit reporting and will be changing when they initiate credit reporting, collection agencies should discuss this change with their clients and make any necessary adjustments to the Collection Services Agreement or performance standards that are necessary.

Review Your Collection Services Agreement. Finally, now is a good time to revisit Collection Services Agreements to ensure they are consistent with the Debt Collection Rule, particularly regarding such things as validation and disputes, credit reporting and communication frequency.  To the extent there are inconsistencies, now is the time to have that discussion with your creditors and amend those agreements.

As Joseph Grenny, the author of Crucial Conversations, once said “[a]t the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information.”  Make time to have those crucial conversations with your clients regarding the Rule to ensure a smooth transition.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

District Court Reverses Bankruptcy Court Order Imposing Sanctions on Mortgage Servicer


By: Landon G. Van Winkle


The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina recently reversed an order of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The bankruptcy court order held mortgage servicer Newrez, LLC (“Newrez”) and the holder of the mortgage note at issue in civil contempt for failing to abide by the terms of the individual debtors’ confirmed chapter 11 plan (the “Plan”). Newrez, LLC v. Beckhart, No. 7:20-cv-00192-BO, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125293, at *1 (E.D.N.C. July 6, 2021). The district court found that the nebulous terms of the Plan, coupled with Newrez’s good faith reliance on the advice of counsel in interpreting those terms, was sufficient to establish that Newrez had an objectively reasonable basis for its conduct, thus insulating it from civil contempt sanctions under the rule established in Taggart v. Lorenzen, 139 S. Ct. 1795 (2019).  The court’s reversal emphasizes the benefits to a creditor of securing legal advice when the bankruptcy court orders governing the creditor’s claim are unclear.


The controversy centered around the Plan’s treatment of Newrez’s secured claim. At the time the debtors filed their voluntary chapter 11 case in 2009, they owned a beach house subject to a mortgage with a prepetition arrearage in excess of $22,000, arising from ten months of missed payments. The Plan made no provision for the repayment of the prepetition arrearage, or for the post-petition payments that came due prior to confirmation. It was confirmed over the objection of Newrez’s predecessor in late 2010, and the debtors began making payments under the Plan around the same time. Newrez began servicing the mortgage in 2014, and treated the loan as if it were in default from that time through 2019, based on the significant uncured arrearage. The debtors repeatedly contended that the loan was current based on the terms of the Plan, and challenged Newrez’s determination that it was in default.


In January 2020, the debtors filed a motion in the bankruptcy court seeking to have Newrez and the holder of the loan held in civil contempt for failing to comply with the terms of the Plan, and sought significant sanctions. Following an evidentiary hearing, the bankruptcy court entered an order finding Newrez and the holder in civil contempt, and assessing monetary sanctions in excess of $110,000, consisting largely of lost wages, a loss of a fresh start, and attorneys’ fees. Newrez appealed and the district court reversed.


In analyzing the bankruptcy court’s order, the district court recited the standard for civil contempt clarified by the Supreme Court in Taggart: A creditor may be held in civil contempt for violation of a bankruptcy court’s order if there is no “fair ground of doubt as to whether the order barred the creditor’s conduct.” Taggart, 139 S. Ct. at 1799. Thus, civil contempt is appropriate only where there is “no objectively reasonable basis for concluding that the creditor’s conduct might be lawful.” Id.


In holding that there was a fair ground of doubt as to whether the Plan required Newrez to treat the mortgage as current and not in default, the Court focused on the multiple questions the Plan left unanswered regarding the mortgage:


Nothing in the confirmation order expressly addressed what amount [the debtors] would owe on the loan as of November 25, 2010 or how the $22,836.40 in pre-petition arrearage would be repaid, if at all. Although the order set a due date for the first payment, it offered no guidance on how much that payment would be.


Beckhart, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125293, at *7. Further, the court observed that the terms of the Plan created additional confusion, because the Plan purported to leave the rights of the holder of the mortgage unmodified except as expressly provided in the Plan, but the Plan did not expressly provide for any treatment of the arrearage or post-petition payments. Id.  Similarly, the court found that because Newrez had repeatedly sought and relied upon the advice of outside counsel in conducting itself under the Plan, it had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that its conduct was lawful. Id. at *8-9 (citing Waller v. Sprint Mid Atl. Tel., 77 F. Supp. 2d 716, 722 (E.D.N.C. 1999)). It also found that the same reliance on outside counsel made clear that Newrez had acted in good faith in adopting a reading of the Plan “that seemed consistent with the contractual terms of the loan.” Id. at *8. Because Newrez established both that there was a fair ground of doubt as to whether the Plan prohibited its conduct, and because it had an objectively reasonable basis for acting as it did, the court concluded that the bankruptcy court’s order finding it in contempt “falls far short of the standard required for a finding of civil contempt,” and reversed the order and remanded the matter to the bankruptcy court for further proceedings.


Beckhart showcases the dual benefits to a creditor in seeking competent legal advice where there is any question about the interpretation or effect of bankruptcy court orders on the creditor’s claims. First, relying on the advice of counsel can help establish that a creditor was acting in good faith, which is significant since Taggart did not foreclose the permissibility of holding a creditor in contempt when it acts in bad faith. See Taggart, 139 S. Ct. at 1802 (“Our cases suggest, for example, that civil contempt sanctions may be warranted when a party acts in bad faith.”). Second, acting on the good faith advice of counsel can supply the creditor with an objectively reasonable basis for concluding that its conduct is permitted under the order at issue. This is particularly beneficial where, as in Beckhart, the order is unclear and subject to multiple reasonable interpretations.


 Landon G. Van Winkle is a member of Smith Debnam's Consumer Financial Services Litigation and Compliance and Bankruptcy teams.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Will Hunstein Require a Reset?


By Caren D. Enloe

Last month, the entire ARM industry was caught by surprise when the Eleventh Circuit held that a debt collector’s transmittal of information to a third-party letter vendor violated Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA.  Hunstein v. Preferred Collection and Management Services, Inc., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 11648, 994 F.3d 1341 (11th Cir. 2021).  While the case will continue to be contested in the Eleventh Circuit, collection agencies and others who rely upon third party vendors have been left to contemplate what comes next.  This article will examine the decision, its immediate impacts, and considerations for the industry as it moves toward implementation of the debt collection rule.

A Quick Summary

In Hunstein, the debt collector engaged a third-party vendor to prepare and send its demand letter.  In doing so, the debt collector electronically transmitted certain information to its letter vendor, including: (1) the consumer’s name and address; (2) the balance owed; (3) the name of the creditor; “(4) that the debt concerned his son’s medical treatment;” and (5) his son’s name.  Id., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 11648 at *4.  The consumer sued the debt collector, alleging that the transmittal of that information was a communication in connection with the collection of a debt and violated 15 U.S.C. §1692c(b).  The District Court dismissed the complaint concluding that the transmittal of information did not qualify as a communication ‘in connection with the collection of a[ny] debt.” Id., at *3-4.  On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed and held: (a) that that the plaintiff had standing to sue because the transmittal of the information was an invasion of privacy; and (b) that the transmittal of such information to a letter vendor stated a claim for a violation of Section 1692c(b). In doing so, the Court recognized the impact of its decision, stating

It's not lost on us that our interpretation of § 1692c(b) runs the risk of upsetting the status quo in the debt-collection industry. We presume that, in the ordinary course of business, debt collectors share information about consumers not only with dunning vendors like Compumail, but also with other third-party entities. Our reading of § 1692c(b) may well require debt collectors (at least in the short term) to in-source many of the services that they had previously outsourced, potentially at great cost. We recognize, as well, that those costs may not purchase much in the way of "real" consumer privacy, as we doubt that the Compumails of the world routinely read, care about, or abuse the information that debt collectors transmit to them.



What are the Immediate Impacts of the Decision?


It’s important to note a couple of things regarding Hunstein and its immediate impact.  First and foremost, it’s not over.  While the decision has precedential value in the Eleventh Circuit, the battle rages on.  The debt collector is petitioning for an en banc review which, if granted, will give the industry an opportunity to change the Court’s mind.  Moreover, the collection agency has the support of the industry and several trade associations and other interested parties intend to file amicus briefs in support of the collection agency’s position.  While that petition is pending (it’s due to be filed in late May), lower courts in the Eleventh Circuit will likely encounter copycat suits and will have the choice to follow Hunstein or to stay the case pending the outcome of Hunstein. 


Secondly, while the opinion may be binding in the Eleventh Circuit, that’s not the case in other circuits.  In other jurisdictions, the case would only constitute “persuasive” authority, meaning courts may consider it but are not bound by it. Debt collectors need to expect copycat cases to continue popping up in other jurisdictions as the consumer bar tries to leverage this legal theory and the ARM industry pushes back seeking a different result in other jurisdictions.


Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the Court’s ruling simply means that the complaint’s allegations were enough to state a claim.  It does not mean that the consumer is entitled to a judgment for damages or will ultimately prevail.



What Does this Mean Regarding Collection Agencies’ Current Use of Third Party Vendors?


For now, Hunstein calls into question the sharing of certain consumer specific communications with third-party vendors.  But are all third-party vendors created equal for purposes of Hunstein?  The answer is likely no. Compliance teams therefore will need to assess their third-party vendor relationships and assess each one under the microscope of Hunstein.  In doing so, it’s important to remember that the Court in Hunstein was concerned that the information transmitted to the letter vendor rose to the level of being a communication “in connection with the collection of a debt.”  That information included not only the consumer’s name and address but also the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor and the nature of the debt. 


Moving forward, compliance teams will need to review and assess the specific information shared with each of their third party vendors and ascertain whether it rises to the same level as Hunstein such that it would be considered a communication in connection with the collection of a debt.  Communications with, for instance, a third-party company scrubbing for location information may not require the sharing of the same level of information as that provided to a letter vendor and therefore may carry a lesser risk.  Similarly, working with a letter vendor to set up a form letter does not require the conveyance of any information specific to a consumer and likely would not meet the same scrutiny.  For now, compliance departments will have to assess the risk associated with each of its third-party vendors by reviewing the information shared with each and ascertain whether it rises to the level of a communication. Depending upon their level of risk tolerance and the amount of information conveyed, debt collectors may consider bringing some backroom services back inhouse for the time being.


How Does Hunstein Align With or Impact the Debt Collection Rule?


Interestingly, the CFPB’s views do not appear to align with those of the Eleventh Circuit.  The CFPB has always understood and contemplated the use of third-party vendors.  As early as 2012, the CFPB recognized that the use of service providers “is often an appropriate business decision.”  CFPB Bulletin 2012-03; see also CFPB Bulletin 2016-02.  The CFPB went as far as to say that “[s]upervised…nonbanks may outsource certain functions to service providers due to resource constraints… or relay on expertise from service providers that would not otherwise be available without significant investment.”  Id.  Consistent with this, the CFPB set forth guidelines for vendor risk management to protect consumers from harm and ensure vendors are complying with federal consumer financial law.  In setting out these guidelines, the CFPB, however, was quick to point out that “the mere fact that a supervised… [entity] enters into a business relationship with a service provider does not absolve the supervised…[entity] of responsibility for complying with Federal consumer financial law to avoid consumer harm.”  Id. at p. 3. 


All of this aligns with the CFPB’s views of third-party vendors in the context of the Debt Collection Rule (the “Rule”).  The CFPB expressly contemplated and seemingly endorsed the use of third-party vendors in the final version of the Rule. 


The Rule in fact discusses and contemplates the use of data vendors for skip tracing, as well as for letters.  With respect to letter vendors, the CFPB is aware of the prevalence of the practice.  Its Operations Study undertaken during the formulation of the Rule noted that 85% of debt collectors surveyed used letter vendors.  In its in its Section by Section Analysis of the debt validation provisions, the CFPB contemplated this practice continuing when it stated that the costs associated with reformatting validation notices and understanding the requirements could reasonably be borne by debt collectors and their vendors.  Carrying this further, the Rule expressly allows debt collectors to include a vendor’s mailing address if that is an address at which the debt collector accepts disputed and requests for original-creditor information. See Section 1006.34(c)(2)(i) and Comment 34(c)(2)(i)-2. 


How Hunstein will impact the Debt Collection Rule remains to be seen.  When it published the Rule, the CFPB clearly did not see the use of letter vendors as violating Section 1692c and it will be interesting to see (although unlikely) if they submit an amicus brief taking a position either way.  While the CFPB has already proposed pushing back the Rule’s effective date until January 2022, there is nothing thus far that would indicate they will push it back further.




Hunstein has opened Pandora’s box and the industry’s use of third-party vendors will now have be defended through the courts.  In the interim, compliance departments should be discussing their tolerance for risk and reviewing their use of other third- party vendors and the amount of information shared to ascertain whether they run similar risks.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Supreme Court Weighs in on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act


By: Caren D. Enloe

On April 1, 2021, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that in order to qualify as an automated telephone dialing system under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (the “TCPA”), a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator or to produce a telephone number using a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator.  Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, 592 U.S. __, 41 S. Ct. 1163, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 1742 (Apr. 1, 2021).  The decision will have significant ramifications on TCPA litigation nationwide.

Historical Background

The TCPA was passed in 1991 to address the “proliferation of intrusive, nuisance calls” from telemarketers. In doing so, the TCPA prohibited, with limited exceptions, calls made using an automated telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) or “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.” Id. §227(a)(1).   For years, parties have debated what constitutes an ATDS.  In 2015, a split FCC issued an Omnibus Declaratory Ruling and Order in which it broadly interpreted an ATDS to include dialing equipment that generally has the capacity to store or produce, and dial random or sequential numbers (and thus meets the TCPA’s definition of “autodialer”) even if it is not presently used for that purpose, including when the caller is calling a set list of consumers.  In the Matter of Rules & Regulations Implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, Declaratory Ruling & Order, 30 FCC Rcd, 7961 (2015).  The FCC 2015 Order rejected any “present use” or current capacity test and held that capacity of an autodialer is not limited to its current configuration and includes its potential functionalities even if it currently lacks the requisite software. Thus, the FCC affirmed that “dialing equipment that has the capacity to store or produce, and dial random or sequential numbers… [is an autodialer] even if it is not presently used for that purpose.” FCC 2015 Order at ¶ 10 (emphasis supplied).  The Order further confirmed the majority’s focus on whether the equipment can dial without human intervention and whether it can “dial thousands of numbers in a short period of time”.  Id. at ¶ 17.  In 2018, the D.C. Circuit set aside the FCC’s interpretation, calling it an “eye-popping sweep.”  ACA International v. Federal Communications Commission, 885 F.3d 687, 697 (D.C. Cir. 2018).  Since then, the definition of an ATDS has been rigorously debated in the courts, creating a split.  See Dominguez v. Yahoo, Inc., 894 F.3d 116 (3rd Cir. 2018) (SMS Service did not qualify as an ATDS because it did not have the present capacity to function as an ATDS); but see Marks v. Crunch San Diego, 904 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2019) (holding that the statutory definition of ATDS includes a device that stores telephone numbers to be called, whether or not those numbers have been generated by a random or sequential number generator).

Factual Background

Enter Noah Duguid who received several text messages from Facebook notifying him that someone was attempting to access his Facebook account from an unknown device or browser.  Duguid, who did not have an account with Facebook and had not provided his phone number or consent to be contacted by Facebook, brought a putative class action alleging violations of the TCPA.  Facebook moved to dismiss arguing that Duguid had failed to allege that the numbers were randomly or sequentially generated.  The trial court agreed and dismissed.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed and in keeping with its prior decision in Marks, held that an ATDS does not have to use a random or sequential generator to store numbers – it only has to have the capacity to “store numbers to be called” and “to dial such numbers automatically.” Duguid v. Facebook, Inc., 926 F. 3d 1146, 1151 (2019).  The Supreme Court granted Facebook’s petition for certiorari on a single issue: whether the definition of ATDS in the TCPA encompasses any device that can “store” and “automatically dial” telephone numbers, even if the device does not “us[e] a random or sequential number generator.”

The Court’s Holding

In a unanimous decision by Justice Sotamayor, the Court  reversed.  In doing so, the Court first examined the text of the statute in the context  of conventional rules of grammar and punctuation.  The Court concluded that the qualifying phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” applies to both verbs – store and produce.  Slip Op. at 5. Simply put, “Congress’ definition of an autodialer requires that in all cases, whether storing or producing numbers to be called, the equipment in question must use a random or sequential number generator.”  Id. at 7. 

The Court went on to examine the definition in the statutory context and likewise concluded that it likewise affirmed their conclusion.  The Court noted that the other prohibitions within the TCPA target a unique type of telemarketing equipment that risks dialing emergency lines or tying up all sequentially numbered lines of a single entity.  “[E]xpanding the definition of an autodialer to encompass any equipment that merely stores and dials telephone numbers would take a chainsaw to these nuanced problems when Congress meant to use a scalpel.” Id. at 8.  The Court additionally found problematic a definition which would encompass all modern-day cell phones as autodialers. Id. at 9.

The Decision’s Impact

The impact of the decision remains to be seen, but it will not eliminate TCPA litigation which has proven itself to be a profitable business for the consumer bar.  A number of cases were stayed pending the outcome of Facebook. While many of the cases may be resolved by the Court’s decision.  Others will not be.  See, e.g., McEwen v. National Rifle Assoc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 72133 (D. Me. Apr. 14, 2021) (dismissing four of six claims and allowing the remaining two to proceed forward).  Cases involving automated messages, automated voices and the Do Not Call List will continue forward as they are not impacted by the Court’s decision.  Additionally, it is likely that consumer litigants will continue to poke holes in the definition of an ATDS by examining the boundaries of capacity and the role of human intervention. Finally, with a Democratic majority, it would not be surprising to see Congress revisit the TCPA in response to the Court’s decision.

Friday, April 23, 2021

District Court Judge Expresses “Judicial Displeasure” with Language in Validation Notice, Finds Plausible Claim for § 1692g(a)(2) Violation, but not § 1692g(a)(1)


By: Landon G. Van Winkle


The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey recently expressed “judicial displeasure” with the language in a collection letter when it granted in part and denied in part a debt collector’s motion to dismiss a putative FDCPA class action for failure to state a claim. Hopkins v. Advanced Call Ctr. Techs., LLC, No. Civ. No. 20-06733 (KM)(ESK), 2021 WL 1291736, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67732, at *18 (D.N.J. Apr. 7, 2021).  The plaintiff received a collection letter from the defendant Advanced Call Center Technologies, LLC (“ACCT”), seeking to collect a credit card debt owed to Synchrony Bank for a JCPenney store card. Id. at *1–2.

The letter disclosed that the “total account balance” was $347.48, and that the “amount now due” was $175.00. Id. at *1. It further advised:

“If the Amount Now Due is paid to Synchrony Bank and your account is brought up to date, we will stop our collection activity. All payments should be made directly to Synchrony Bank using the enclosed envelope. Do not send payments to this office.”

 Id. at *2. Finally, it contained a detachable payment slip instructing the plaintiff to mail his payment to “Synchrony Bank/JCPenney Credit Services.” Id.

The plaintiff alleged that the letter was “confusing” as it purportedly failed to contain the amount of the debt owed and the name of the creditor to whom the debt was owed in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(1) and (2), respectively. Id. at *2. The plaintiff also claimed that the letter’s purported failure to identify the creditor was both a false, deceptive, or misleading representation and an unfair or unconscionable means to attempt to collect a debt, and thus violated § 1692e and § 1692f, respectively. Id. at *15–16. The plaintiff sought to represent a class of similarly situated consumers, and also sought relief against two officers of ACCT personally. Id. at *1.

ACCT moved to dismiss all four claims, as well as the claim against the officers personally, for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Id. Judge McNulty began with the first § 1692g(a)(1) claim, that the letter allegedly failed to inform the plaintiff of the amount of the debt. Id. at *4. In rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the “amount now due” was ambiguous, the Court reasoned that “[t]he phrase ‘Now Due,’ even to an unsophisticated consumer, simply means that the debt collector is willing to accept less than the total balance of the debt to bring the account to a current status.” Id. at *4–5 (quoting Reynolds v. Encore Receivable Management, Civ. No. 17-2207, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83902, at*14 (D.N.J. May 18, 2018)). The Court reinforced its conclusion that the amount due now was not ambiguous because the letter contained an explanation of the action ACCT would take if the “amount due now” was paid to Synchrony (the account would be current and it would stop collection activity). Id. at *5. While Judge McNulty felt “constrained by the case law to grant the motion to dismiss” as to the § 1692g(a)(1) claim, he nevertheless could not “close this discussion . . . without expressing some judicial displeasure at the creditor’s seeming reluctance to just come out and say what it means . . . .” Id. at *6. The Court suggested that the following language would have made the letter more straightforward:

“The total balance is $347.48. If you pay $175 now, we’ll stop collection activities, but you will still owe us the remaining balance of $172.48. ($347.48 minus $175 equals $172.48.) We’ll bill you for that remaining balance later.”

Id. at *6. The Court expressed further frustration at what it perceived was debt collectors’ “insistence on going right up to the line,” which it saw as producing “seemingly endless litigation, flyspecking the precise wording of collection letters, in cases which have come to take up a disproportionate share of the federal docket.” Id.

The Court then turned to the plaintiff’s § 1692g(a)(2) claim, which is based on the statutory requirement that a validation notice contain “the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(2). The Court declined to dismiss this claim because “the [l]etter mentions ACCT, JCPenney, JCPenney Credit Services, and Synchrony Bank, but does not specify which entity is owed the money.” Id. at *7. As the Court explained:

“[W]hen the Letter gets to payment, it says that the amount due must be paid to Synchrony Bank. But who is Synchrony Bank and what do they have to do with my JCPenney card? Finally, the detachable payment slip is addressed to ‘Synchrony Bank/JCPenney Credit Services’ with one PO Box number. Are Synchrony and JCPenney Credit Services the same thing? Related? A joint venture? Just PO Box buddies? The Letter does not say, which means that a consumer cannot discern who owns the debt.”


Id. at *8-9. The Court similarly declined to dismiss the § 1692e and § 1692f claims, reasoning that the failure to identify the creditor to whom the debt was owed could also constitute a violation of one or both of those statutes, and that it was too early in the case to rule out the apparently plausible claims. Id. at 15–16. Finally, the Court held that the complaint plausibly alleged that the two officers named individually as defendants had exercised control over the actions of ACCT and thus could be held liable, relying on Police v. Nat’l Tax Funding, L.P., 255 F.3d 379, 405 n.29 (3d Cir. 2000) for the proposition that general partners of a partnership can be liable for the partnership’s FDCPA violations, and noting that other courts in the Third Circuit had expanded the notion to other entities beyond general partnerships. Id. at *16–17.

While it may be true, as observed by Judge McNulty, that there are a disproportionate number of FDCPA cases occupying the federal docket, it is not clear that this deluge of litigation is solely attributable to debt collectors “going right up to the line.” Id. at 6. In fact, it bears observing that the language suggested by the Court as the appropriate language for ACCT to “say what it means” and avoid any confusion under § 1692g(a)(1) might have actually created a separate violation of the FDCPA under § 1692g(a)(2). Specifically, using the pronoun “we” in lieu of the identity of the debt collector or the original creditor raises ambiguity about who will “stop collection activities” and to whom the “remaining balance” would still be owed. Perhaps ironically, this same ambiguity was sharply at issue in the Court’s analysis of the plaintiff’s § 1692g(a)(2) claim, which it declined to dismiss. Under the Court’s preferred verbiage, the language would be ambiguous because the letter was sent by ACCT, but instructed the plaintiff to remit payment to Synchrony Bank (thus under these facts, if the plaintiff made the payment, ACCT would have stopped collection activities, but the remaining balance would have been owed to Synchrony Bank, not to ACCT). One thing appears likely, however: As long as consumers can maintain federal lawsuits with a prospective recovery of $1,000 in statutory damages plus attorneys’ fees simply because they were “confused” by a collection letter, the “seemingly endless litigation” over the FDCPA is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future, particularly where, as here “flyspecking the precise wording of collection letters” reveals the practical difficulties in drafting collection letter language that both adequately informs the consumer of his or her rights without running afoul of the FDCPA.

Landon Van Winkle is an attorney in the firm's Consumer Financial Services Litigation and Compliance group.