A recent decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals highlights the importance of consistency in correspondence from a debt collection agency to debtors. The case involved the language in a collection notice that was sent to a debtor regarding monies owed for medical expenses. See Caprio v. Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group, LLC, 709 F.3d 142 (3rd Cir. 2013). The front of the collection notice stated:
If we can answer any questions, or if you feel you do not owe this amount, please call us toll free at 800-984-9115 or write us at the above address. This is an attempt to collect a debt. Any information obtained will be used for that purposes. (NOTICE: SEE REVERSE SIDE FOR IMPORTANT INFORMATION.)
The reverse side of the collection notice, however, had the following disclosure:
This is an attempt to collect a debt from a debt collection agency. Any information obtained will be used for that purpose.
Pursuant to Sec. 809 of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, unless you notify this office within 30 days after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this 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 that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, this office will: obtain verification of the debt or obtain a copy of a judgment [sic] and mail you a copy of such judgment [sic] or verification. If you request this office in writing within 30 days after receiving this notice, this office will provide you with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.
The debtor asserted that inconsistencies between the front and back of the collection notice constituted a violation of the FDCPA based on the “least sophisticated debtor” standard. Although the District Court rejected this argument, the Court of Appeals held that the use of “please call” on the front of the collection notice was confusing in light of the language on the back of the collection notice setting forth the standard for disputing the validity of a debt under the FDCPA—that all disputes as to the validity of the debt must be in writing. Thus, the Court of Appeals found that the language was confusing because the least sophisticated debtor could conclude that he had successfully challenged the validity of the debt by merely making a telephone call.
In light of this decision, collection agencies should review their correspondence to debtors to ensure that it accurately conveys to debtors their rights under the least sophisticated consumer standard.