5th Circuit: Law firm may send debt dispute letters on behalf of clients
On April 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling in favor of defendant credit repair organizations (including a law firm), holding that plaintiff data furnishers failed to provide sufficient evidence supporting their claims of fraud and fraud by nondisclosure. The plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that the defendants were sending dispute letters that appeared to have come directly from the defendants’ debtor clients. Under the FCRA and the FDCPA, the plaintiffs are obligated to investigate disputed debts that come directly from debtors. Letters from law firms, the plaintiffs argued, do not trigger such requirements. According to the plaintiffs, the disputes they were receiving were costing them money to investigate, which they would not have spent if had they known the letters were coming from a law firm. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on their claims of fraud and fraud by non-disclosure and awarded them roughly $2.5 million. The district court ultimately vacated the jury’s verdict, however, explaining that the evidence failed to show that the defendants made any false misrepresentations, material or otherwise, when they signed their clients’ names on letters mailed to the plaintiffs. The law firm defendant “had the legal right to sign its clients’ names on the correspondence it sent on their behalf to data furnishers who reported inaccurate information about the clients’ credit,” the district court wrote.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit determined, among other things, that the plaintiffs did “not provide any precedential support or explanation for their assertion that these facts demonstrate Defendants committed fraud and fraud by non-disclosure beyond the observation that the jury found for them on those claims.” Moreover, the appellate court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the engagement agreements that clients signed with the defendant law firm, which allowed it to send dispute letters on a client’s behalf, were fraudulent because the defendant law firm did not discuss the letters with the consumers first. According to the appellate court, the existence of any such discussion was immaterial because the engagement agreements allowed the defendant law firm to send letters on a client’s behalf. However, the appellate court noted that “[w]hile we do not hold today that there are no situations in which a third party may act fraudulently when it mails dispute letters (and leave for another day what those situations may be), we can safely say that this is not one of them.”