11th Circuit: An implicit threat of litigation is enough to assert a FDCPA claim
On April 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part a district court’s order dismissing a plaintiff’s action alleging a debt collector violated the FDCPA when attempting to collect on a time-barred debt. According to the opinion, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit asserting a debt collector (i) violated the FDCPA’s prohibition on “false, deceptive or misleading” practices under section 1692e; (ii) violated the FDCPA’s prohibition on “unfair or unconscionable” practices under section 1692f by attempting to collect on a time-barred debt; and (iii) violated Florida state collection laws. The district court dismissed the FDCPA claims, concluding that the law allows for collectors to seek “voluntary repayment of…time-barred debt so long as the debt collector does not initiate or threaten legal action,” and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state law claims once it dismissed the FDCPA claims.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the section 1692f claim, rejecting the argument that attempts to collect on time-barred debt are generally unconscionable or unfair under the law. As for the claim under section 1692e, the 11th Circuit concluded the collection letter could plausibly be misleading or deceptive to the “least sophisticated consumer.” Specifically, the 11th Circuit noted that, “as a general matter, a creditor can seek voluntary payment of a time-barred debt,” but the “right to seek repayment does not confer a right to mislead” and one must only “reasonably infer an implicit threat” of litigation to state a claim under section 1692e. The 11th Circuit concluded that the letter’s offer to “resolve” the debt at a discount—“combined with a deadline” to accept the offer—is a “warning” that the offer may not be renewed, and that a lack of disclosure that the debt is time barred could “plausibly deceive or mislead an unsophisticated consumer as to the legal status of the debt, even in the absence of an express threat of litigation.” In reversing the dismissal of the claim under section 1692e, the appellate court also reinstated the state law claim and remanded the case back to district court.