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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

California appellate court overturns ruling for collector that stapled note to summons

Courts State Issues California Appellate FDCPA Class Action Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Debt Collection


On August 23, the California Sixth Appellate District overturned summary judgment in favor of a collector (defendant) that was sued for FDCPA and the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act violations. According to the court, the plaintiff incurred an unpaid medical debt, which was referred to the defendant for collection. The defendant sent the plaintiff eight letters; however, the plaintiff was allegedly not aware that the hospital assigned the debt to a debt collector and did not pay the debt. The defendant filed a collection suit against the plaintiff, seeking to recover the unpaid medical debt. The defendant stapled a typewritten note to the summons, which read, “If you have any questions regarding this matter, please contact: []” in English and Spanish. The plaintiff filed a complaint, accusing the defendant of violating the FDCPA and the Rosenthal Act, alleging that “it was unlawful for [the defendant] to send the attachment with the summons and the complaint because the attachment appeared to be a message from the court and did not contain language disclosing that it was sent by a debt collector.” The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the communication was lawful, and denied the plaintiff’s cross-request for summary judgment.

On the appeal, the defendant argued that "the attachment is not a ‘communication’ within the meaning of either statute, on the theory that the attachment itself says nothing about the debt." However, the appellate court wrote that the note was not sent “in a vacuum: The attachment, summons, and complaint comprised a collection of documents delivered by a process server—personally to [the plaintiff’s] girlfriend and then by mail to [the plaintiff].” The appellate court further noted that the reference to “this matter” in the note “unmistakably signified the litigation initiated by the accompanying complaint pleading [the plaintiff’s] indebtedness and the amount and source of indebtedness in a common count cause of action.” With regard to whether the note was a communication in connection with the collection of a debt, the appellate court noted that it “fail[ed] to conceive of any subject other than debt collection [the defendant] might think the communication was in connection with. The message in the attachment refers to the existence of a debt, conveys information regarding the debt, and serves the purpose of debt collection by enticing the recipient to contact the debt collector.” The appellate court concluded that “[b]y omitting the mandatory disclosure that this attachment was from [the defendant], a debt collector, [the defendant] made it reasonably likely that the least sophisticated consumer would believe the suggestion to call [the defendant] was from the court that issued the summons to which the suggestion was affixed. [The defendant’s] communication was therefore deceptive.”