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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

7th Circuit: Collection letter tax filing language may violate the FDCPA

Courts FDCPA Debt Collection Seventh Circuit Appellate

Courts

On November 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of an action against a debt collector, concluding that tax consequence language in a debt collection letter may violate the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the debt collector sent a consumer four collection letters with at least one letter stating in part that “[s]ettling a debt for less than the balance owed may have tax consequences and [the creditor] may file a 1099C form.” The consumer filed an action against the debt collector alleging that the language violated the FDCPA because the creditor is not obligated to file a 1099C with the IRS unless it has forgiven at least $600 in principal. The consumer also claimed that the creditor at issue would never file a 1099C unless it was legally obligated to do so, and as applied to the consumer’s debt at issue, none of the settlement options offered in the dunning letter would have reached the $600 threshold. The district court granted the debt collector’s motion to dismiss the action and the consumer appealed.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit focused on the letter’s reference to the possible 1099C filing. The court noted that “it is impermissible for a creditor to make a ‘may’ statement about something that is illegal or impossible,” and while it is not technically illegal or impossible for the creditor to file a 1099C form for amounts less than $600, the debt collector did not dispute that the creditor “would never file a 1099C form with the IRS unless required to do so by law.” The court observed that the “language of a collection letter can be literally true and still be misleading in a way that violates the Act.” Thus, the consumer plausibly alleged that “it is, in fact, misleading to state that [the creditor] may file a Form 1099C, when it never would.” And because questions as to whether specific statements are deceptive or misleading are “almost always questions of fact,” the appellate court reversed the dismissal and remanded the case back to district court for further proceedings.

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