5th Circuit: Conveying information about a debt collector is different from conveying information about a debt
On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a consumer’s FDCPA claims against a collection agency, concluding that “conveying information about a debt collector is not the same as conveying information about a debt.” According to the opinion, the collection agency (defendant) attempted to contact the plaintiff via telephone concerning an unpaid debt. When the plaintiff failed to answer the call, the defendant contacted the plaintiff’s sister and asked to speak to the plaintiff. During the call, a representative working for the defendant provided her own name and that of the collection agency, and provided her number so the plaintiff could return the call. The plaintiff filed suit, alleging the defendant violated FDCPA § 1692c(b) when the representative left a message with the plaintiff’s sister and asked her to have the plaintiff contact the defendant. Under § 1692c(b), a debt collector “‘may not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer’ or certain other prescribed parties to the debt ‘without the prior consent of the consumer.’” An exception is provided under § 1692b for a debt collector who communicates with a third party to acquire location information about the consumer. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, which the plaintiff appealed, arguing that the defendant’s conduct “went beyond the scope of a permissible call for the purposes of obtaining location information.”
On appeal, the 5th Circuit first reviewed whether the call violated Section 1692c(b). The appellate court noted that it was first called to address the “threshold issue” as to “whether the alleged conversation qualifies as a ‘communication’” as defined by the FDCPA. Under § 1692a(2), a “communication” refers to “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.” In this instance, the appellate court wrote, there was nothing in the call between the defendant and the plaintiff’s sister that conveyed information regarding the existence of a debt. “[T]o indirectly convey information regarding a debt, a conversation or message would need to, at the very least, imply that a debt existed. Knowing the name of a debt collector does not imply the existence of a debt.” The 5th Circuit further concluded, among other things, that “[e]ven if the average consumer recognized the company’s name and identified it as a debt collector, receiving a phone call from a debt collector does not suggest any information about an underlying debt.” As such, the 5th Circuit determined the plaintiff failed to adequately plead facts suggesting a plausible violation of the FDCPA.