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On November 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of an action against a debt collector, concluding that tax consequence language in a debt collection letter may violate the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the debt collector sent a consumer four collection letters with at least one letter stating in part that “[s]ettling a debt for less than the balance owed may have tax consequences and [the creditor] may file a 1099C form.” The consumer filed an action against the debt collector alleging that the language violated the FDCPA because the creditor is not obligated to file a 1099C with the IRS unless it has forgiven at least $600 in principal. The consumer also claimed that the creditor at issue would never file a 1099C unless it was legally obligated to do so, and as applied to the consumer’s debt at issue, none of the settlement options offered in the dunning letter would have reached the $600 threshold. The district court granted the debt collector’s motion to dismiss the action and the consumer appealed.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit focused on the letter’s reference to the possible 1099C filing. The court noted that “it is impermissible for a creditor to make a ‘may’ statement about something that is illegal or impossible,” and while it is not technically illegal or impossible for the creditor to file a 1099C form for amounts less than $600, the debt collector did not dispute that the creditor “would never file a 1099C form with the IRS unless required to do so by law.” The court observed that the “language of a collection letter can be literally true and still be misleading in a way that violates the Act.” Thus, the consumer plausibly alleged that “it is, in fact, misleading to state that [the creditor] may file a Form 1099C, when it never would.” And because questions as to whether specific statements are deceptive or misleading are “almost always questions of fact,” the appellate court reversed the dismissal and remanded the case back to district court for further proceedings.
On September 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of an action against a debt collection agency for allegedly violating the FDCPA by referring to the amount owed as a “current balance” in a letter—even though it was static and not going to change. According to the opinion, the plaintiff contended that “current balance” falsely implied that the balance might increase in the future, which, she argued, was a violation of the FDCPA’s prohibition on false, deceptive, or misleading representations connected to the collection of a debt. By implying that the amount owed might increase if not paid, the plaintiff argued, the debt collector allegedly misled debtors into giving static debts greater priority. The district court granted the debt collector’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, ruling “that no significant fraction of the population would be misled” by the letter’s use of the “current balance” phrase. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the phrase would confuse an unsophisticated consumer.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit determined that there is nothing inherently misleading about the reference and stated that, not only did the debt collector’s letter not contain a directive for a debtor to call for a current balance, it also failed to include language implying that a “current balance” means anything other than the balance owed. “It takes an ingenious misreading of this letter to find it misleading,” the appellate court concluded. “Dunning letters can comply with the [FDCPA] without answering all possible questions about the future. A lawyer’s ability to identify a question that a dunning letter does not expressly answer (‘Is it possible the balance might increase?’) does not show the letter is misleading, even if a speculative guess to answer the question might be wrong.”
On September 5, the CFPB filed an amicus brief in a case on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit concerning a debt collector’s use of language or symbols other than the collector’s address on an envelope sent to a consumer. Under section 1692f(8) of the FDCPA, debt collectors are barred from using any language or symbol other than the collector’s address on any envelope sent to the consumer, “except that a debt collector may use his business name if such name does not indicate that he is in the debt collection business.” In the case at issue, a consumer received a debt collection letter enclosed in an envelope stamped with the words “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” in bold font. The consumer filed a complaint against the defendant asserting various claims under the FDCPA, including that inclusion of “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” on the envelope was a violation of section 1692f(8). The defendant argued that an exception should be carved out for “benign” language in this instance, and the district court agreed, ruling that the language “‘does not create any privacy concerns for [the consumer] or expose potentially embarrassing information by giving away the fact that the letter is from a debt collector.’”
On appeal, the 7th Circuit invited the Bureau to file an amicus brief on whether there is a benign language exception to section 1692f(8)’s prohibition, and, if so, whether the phrase “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” falls within that exception. The Bureau asserted that there is no benign language exception, and stressed that while section 1692f(8) recognizes that debt collectors may be permitted to include language and symbols on an envelope that facilitate the mailing of an envelope, section 1692f(8), by its own terms, does not allow for benign language. Additionally, the Bureau commented that section 1692f’s prefatory text does not “provide a basis for reading a ‘benign language’ exception into section 1692f(8),” nor does the prefatory text suggest that the prohibition applies only in instances where it may be “‘unfair or unconscionable’” in a general sense. Moreover, if Congress wanted to allow for markings on envelopes provided they did not reveal the debt-collection purpose, then it would have done so, the Bureau argued, concluding that if the court did adopt a benign language exception, then whether “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” would fall within that exception would be a question of fact.
On August 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not give the FTC power to order restitution, overruling that court’s 1989 decision in FTC v. Amy Travel Service, Inc. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment against a credit monitoring service and its sole owner in an action filed under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The court concluded that no reasonable jury would find that the defendants’ scheme of using false rental property ads to solicit consumer enrollment in credit monitoring services without their knowledge could occur without engaging in unfair or deceptive practices. The FTC argued that the defendants’ scheme, which used the promise of a free credit report to enroll the consumers into a monthly credit monitoring program, violated the FTC Act’s ban on deceptive practices. The court agreed, holding that the ad campaign was “rife with material misrepresentations that were likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.” Additionally the court agreed with the FTC that the defendants’ website was materially misrepresentative because it did not give “the net impression that consumers were enrolling in a monthly credit monitoring service” for $29.94 a month, as opposed to defendants’ claim that consumers were obtaining a free credit report. The court also found that the defendants’ websites failed to meet certain disclosure requirements imposed by the Restore Online Shopper Confidence Act. The court entered a permanent injunction and ordered the defendants to pay over $5 million in “equitable monetary relief” to the FTC.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s liability determination, and affirmed the issuance of the permanent injunction. However, the appellate court took issue with the restitution award ordered pursuant to Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The appellate court noted that the FTC has long viewed Section 13(b) as authorizing awards of restitution, and even acknowledged that the 7th Circuit agreed with the FTC’s position in its decision in Amy Travel. However, subsequent to the Amy Travel decision, the Supreme Court, in Meghrig v. KFC W., Inc., clarified that “courts must consider whether an implied equitable remedy is compatible with a statute’s express remedial scheme.” Applying Meghrig, the 7th Circuit noted that “nothing in the text or structure of the [FTC Act] supports an implied right to restitution in section 13(b), which by its terms authorizes only injunctions.” The panel emphasized that the FTC Act has two other provisions that expressly authorize restitution if the FTC follows certain procedures, but the current reading of Section 13(b), based on Amy Travel, allows the FTC “to circumvent these elaborate enforcement provisions and seek restitution directly through an implied remedy.” Therefore, based on the Supreme Court precedent in Meghrig, the panel concluded that Section 13(b)’s grant of authority to order injunctive relief does not implicitly authorize an award of restitution, overturning its previous decision in Amy Travel and vacating the district court’s award of restitution.
On August 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a district court ruling that a consumer could not proceed on FDCPA or Wisconsin Consumer Act (WCA) claims because he failed to demonstrate that the incurred credit card debt in question was a “consumer debt” entitled to FDCPA and WCA protections. The consumer filed a lawsuit against a law firm acting on behalf of a debt collection agency claiming, among other things, that the firm had failed to provide written notice of his right to cure a defaulted debt before the firm commenced an action against him in Wisconsin state court. While the consumer maintained that the debt was not his, he argued that “to the extent” that he was liable for the debt, it was entered into for personal, family, or household purposes, and that by failing to provide written notice of his rights, the firm had violated the FDCPA and WCA. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant, finding that the consumer failed to establish that the debt was a consumer debt.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. The appellate court found that the evidence put forward by the plaintiff, which included account statements and his own representations regarding the purpose of the account, was insufficient to show that the debt was incurred for personal, family, or household purposes. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff’s representations that the debt was a consumer debt could not be reconciled with his contention that the debt was not his and that the charges on his account statement did not provide sufficient information for the court to conclusively determine that they were made for personal, and not business, purposes.
On August 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a summary judgment ruling in favor of a consumer, concluding that a debt collector’s emails did not constitute a “communication” under the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the debt collector sent a consumer two emails about separate medical debts containing hyperlinks to the debt collector’s website, which then required the user to click through various screens to access and download a document containing the disclosures required under Section 1692g(a) of the FDCPA. The consumer did not open the emails. After finding out about the debt collection effort from the hospital, the consumer called the debt collector for more information; however, the required disclosures were not provided over the phone or sent in a written notice within the next five days. The consumer filed suit against the debt collector alleging it violated Section 1692g(a) by not providing the disclosures during her phone call or within five days after the call as required by law. The company argued that the emails were the FDCPA’s “initial communications” and contained the mandatory disclosures. The lower court granted the consumer’s motion for summary judgment.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit rejected the debt collector’s arguments that the emails constituted a “communication” under the FDCPA, noting that other appellate courts have held the message “must at least imply the existence of a debt,” and the emails only contained the name and email address of the debt collector. Moreover, the appellate court took issue with the multistep process required to access the validation notice, concluding “[a]t best, the emails provided a digital pathway to access the required information. And we’ve already rejected the argument that a communication ‘contains’ the mandated disclosures when it merely provides a means to access them.”
Notably, the CFPB filed an amicus brief in the action, seeking affirmation of the lower court’s ruling on the separate theory that the debt collector allegedly failed to satisfy the conditions of the E-Sign Act. However, because the court affirmed the decision on other grounds, it chose not to address the E-Sign Act.
On July 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that a percentage-based collection fee was expressly authorized by the contractual agreement and therefore, did not violate the FDCPA. According to the opinion, a consumer entered into a contract with an amusement park for a monthly pass, which stated the consumer would “be billed for any amounts that are due and owing plus any costs (including reasonable attorney’s fees) incurred by [the park] in attempting to collect amounts due.” After the consumer fell behind on payments for the pass, he received a collection letter from a collection agency, seeking the principal amount owed, plus $43.28 in costs to be paid directly to the collection agency or to the amusement park. The consumer filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the debt collector “charged a fee not ‘expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt’” in violation of the FDCPA. The district court held a bench trial and found that the collection fee was expressly authorized by the language in the consumer’s contract.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court, but noted its decision was in contrast to previous decisions by the 11th and 8th Circuits (both of which have held that percentage-based fees do violate the FDCPA when the underlying contract uses the term “costs.”) The appellate court noted that the contract “allows for ‘any costs,’ and the most reasonable reading of that term is to include fees paid in attempting to collect.” Moreover, the contract “explicitly provided that the term ‘costs’ includes attorney’s fees,” and therefore, the appellate court declined “to hold that the term ‘costs’ bears such a narrow meaning when the contract explicitly tells [the court] that the term is broad enough to include more.” Therefore, the collection fee, according to the appellate court, fell within the contract’s language authorizing “any costs” of the collection and did not violate the FDCPA.
On July 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss a plaintiff’s claim that a credit union’s website accessibility barriers violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the plaintiff is not a member of the credit union, nor can he become one. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last year the district court granted the credit union’s motion to dismiss on standing grounds because the plaintiff—who tests software that reads text aloud for visually impaired users to access content on the internet—had no plausible reason to use the credit union’s website because the website was directed at members of the credit union for which he was ineligible. The court found that the plaintiff lacked standing because he failed to allege “concrete and particularized” injuries when he claimed he suffered dignitary and informational harm stemming from his inability to access information on the website, and cited to a recent 4th Circuit decision in Griffin v. Dep’t of Labor Fed. Credit Union, which held that “a plaintiff who is legally barred from using a credit union’s services cannot demonstrate an injury that is either concrete or particularized.”
On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court, finding that “Illinois law prevents [the plaintiff’s] dignitary harm from materializing into a concrete injury,” and that “indignation at violation of the law” is not concrete or particularized as is required to show standing. The appellate court also noted that the plaintiff’s informational harm claim failed as well because “[h]is alleged injury flows from the [c]redit [u]nion’s failure to support his software, not its refusal to disclose information about its services.”
7th Circuit: HEA does not preempt affirmative misrepresentation claims against student loan servicer
On June 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit vacated the dismissal of an action against a student loan servicer, concluding a borrower is not barred by the Higher Education Act from asserting state-law claims against a student loan servicer if the borrower reasonably and detrimentally relied on affirmative misrepresentations. The class action filed against a federal student loan servicer alleged that the servicer steered borrowers who were struggling to make payments into repayment plans that benefited the servicer to the detriment of borrowers, notwithstanding claims on the servicer’s website indicating that trained experts would assist each borrower choose among options beneficial to the borrower based on individual circumstances. In addition to violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, the complaint alleged that the servicer’s conduct constituted constructive fraud and negligent misrepresentation under Illinois law. The district court dismissed the claims, holding that they were expressly preempted by Section 1098g of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which states “‘[l]oans made, insured, or guaranteed pursuant to a program authorized by title IV of the [HEA] of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1070 et seq.) shall not be subject to any disclosure requirements of any State Law.’”
On appeal, the 7th Circuit disagreed, concluding the district court’s decision was “overly broad.” Specifically, the appellate court found that the statements made on the servicer’s website were “affirmative misrepresentations,” which would not be covered under the HEA. The appellate court distinguished the instant case from the 9th Circuit’s decision in Chae v. SLM Corp, noting the plaintiffs in Chae complained about alleged “failures to disclose key information in specific ways, such as loan terms and repayment requirements.” Here, however, the 7th Circuit panel determined that the preemption principles enunciated in the Chae opinion do not extend to claims about the servicer’s “affirmative misrepresentations in counseling, where [the servicer] could have avoided liability under state law by remaining silent (or telling the truth) on certain topics.”
On June 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in a consolidated appeal, affirmed summary judgment in favor of a debt collector in actions alleging that the debt collector violated the FDCPA by naming the “original creditor” and the “client” in its collection letters, but declining to identify the current owner of the debt. According to the opinion, two consumers received collection letters naming an online payment processor as the “client” and a bank as the “original creditor,” and stating that, “upon the debtor’s request, [the collector] will provide ‘the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.’” The consumers filed class actions against the debt collector, alleging that it violated, among other things, Section 1692g(a)(2) of the FDCPA by failing to disclose the current creditor or owner of the debt in the initial collection letters. In both cases, the respective district court granted summary judgment for the debt collector, concluding that the letter not only includes the original creditor—the bank—but also provides additional information for the unsophisticated consumer by including the online payment processor so that the consumer could better recognize the debt.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the lower courts and concluded that the letters did not violate the FDCPA. The appellate court noted that “the letter identifies a single ‘creditor,’ as well as the commercial name to which the debtors had been exposed, allowing the debtors to easily recognize the nature of the debt.” The appellate court rejected the consumers’ argument that calling the bank the “original creditor” instead of the “current creditor” creates confusion, because the letter contained language that notified consumers that the original and current creditors may be one and the same. Because the letter “provides a whole picture of the debt for the consumer,” the court concluded it is not abusive or unfair and does not violate Section 1692g(a)(2) of the FDCPA.
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