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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

7th Circuit says “time sensitive document” on envelope violates FDCPA

Courts Appellate Seventh Circuit FDCPA CFPB Debt Collection

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On January 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit partially reversed a district court’s dismissal of an action concerning a debt collector’s use of language or symbols other than the collector’s address on an envelope sent to a consumer. According to the opinion, the consumer received a debt collection letter enclosed in an envelope stamped with the words “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” in bold font. The consumer filed a complaint against the defendant asserting various claims under the FDCPA, including that inclusion of “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” on the envelope was a violation of section 1692f(8). The defendant had argued that an exception should be carved out for “benign” language in this instance, and the district court agreed.

As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 7th Circuit invited the CFPB to file an amicus brief on whether there is a benign language exception to section 1692f(8)’s prohibition, and, if so, whether the phrase “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” falls within that exception. The Bureau asserted that there is no benign language exception, and stressed that while section 1692f(8) recognizes that debt collectors may be permitted to include language and symbols on an envelope that facilitate the mailing of an envelope, section 1692f(8), by its own terms, does not allow for benign language. Additionally, the Bureau commented that section 1692f’s prefatory text does not “provide a basis for reading a ‘benign language’ exception into section 1692f(8),” nor does the prefatory text suggest that the prohibition applies only in instances where it may be “‘unfair or unconscionable’” in a general sense. 

The 7th Circuit concluded that section 1692f(8) is clear. Because the language at issue does not fall within the list of exceptions—it is not the debt collector’s name or its address—the inclusion of the phrase “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” is a violation of  section 1692f(8), and the district court erred in dismissing this claim. However, the appellate court agreed with the district court’s dismissal of the consumer’s section 1692e claims that the language used on the envelope and in the body of the letter were false and deceptive.

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