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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

District court: Initial debt collection communication via email does not violate FDCPA

Courts FDCPA E-SIGN Act Debt Collection CFPB

Courts

On May 19, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a debt collector’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit with prejudice brought by a plaintiff alleging violations of the Electronic Signatures in Global Commerce (E-SIGN) Act and the FDCPA. The defendant sent an email to the plaintiff attempting to collect an unpaid debt that contained a validation notice. The plaintiff argued that the email violated the E-SIGN Act because she did not consent to receive email from the defendant, and that it also violated the FDCPA “because the email referred to ‘send[ing]’ a copy of the verification of the debt whereas § 1692g(a)(4) specifies that a copy of the verification will be ‘mailed.’” Among other arguments, the plaintiff claimed that the email’s subject line, which stated “This needs your attention,” violated the FDCPA because it did not convey that the message was seeking to collect a debt, and that she received several more emails during the validation period, which confused her and “overshadowed” the validation notice in the initial communication.

The court disagreed, stating that because there are “no express restrictions” within the FDCPA about how the initial communication must be made, allowing it to be made electronically is a “reasonable argument.” Specifically, the court noted that the CFPB has recognized that certain communication technologies such as email did not exist when the FDCPA was passed, and referred to the Bureau’s commentary on its proposed debt collection rule that stated “a validation notice as part of an initial communication can be conveyed via email.” [Emphasis in the original.] The court also determined that the plaintiff lacked standing with respect to her claim that the initial email’s subject line violated the FDCPA since she opened the email and clicked on the link. Furthermore, the court noted that using the word “send” instead of “mailed” in the initial communication would not have confused the least sophisticated debtor because the “debtor, if concerned about getting a verification of debt via email, could always ask for a copy to be sent via physical mail instead.”

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