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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

7th Circuit reverses dismissal of FDCPA case involving misleading letters

Courts Seventh Circuit Appellate Debt Collection FDCPA Consumer Finance

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On May 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s order dismissing a suit against a debt collection firm that allegedly sent misleading letters to a debtor. According to the order, the plaintiff defaulted on a credit card debt owed to a bank, which hired the defendant for collection services. The defendant filed a collection action on behalf of the bank and obtained a judgment against the plaintiff. The defendant then sent the plaintiff a letter, referencing the plaintiff’s credit card “account,” describing the amount of the judgment as the “balance due,” and offering to settle that debt for 40 cents on the dollar if the plaintiff made the payment within a specified time frame. The plaintiff did not pay the offered settlement amount by that deadline and ultimately learned that interest on the judgment was increasing daily. The plaintiff then filed suit against the debt collector, alleging that it violated the FDCPA by sending a misleading letter that: (i) described the debt as an “account” even though it was a judgment; (ii) listed two different amounts as the “balance due” (the amount of the judgment and the offered settlement amount); and (iii) did not disclose that the debt was increasing daily. The district court dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiff had failed to allege a concrete injury because he did not allege “that he had the ability to pay the debt owed, that he actually paid other debts instead, or that he took any detrimental step as a result of the alleged confusion.”

On the appeal, the 7th Circuit held that the plaintiff had sufficiently alleged an injury, finding that his allegation that he would have prioritized paying the judgment over other debts “supports the reasonable inference that he had the ability to pay the settlement and that he used his available funds on other debts.” The appellate court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff lacked standing because he was insolvent at all relevant times and could not have paid his credit card debt, finding that this argument raised a factual dispute that should have been resolved with an evidentiary hearing.

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