By: Bill Buechner
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires that debt collectors send a notice to the consumer containing certain required disclosures, either in the “initial communication” with the consumer in connection with the collection of a debt or within 5 days thereafter. 15 U.S.C. § 1692g. In this validation notice, the debt collector must provide several disclosures, including the amount of the debt owed, the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed, and the debt collector’s obligation to provide a verification of the debt if the consumer disputes in writing all or part of the debt within 30 days of receiving the notice. Federal courts throughout the country have been divided as to whether these disclosure requirements apply only to the initial debt collector, or whether subsequent debt collectors must also comply with these disclosure requirements. For example, unpublished decisions issued by the Third Circuit and Tenth Circuit previously have held that the disclosure requirements set forth in § 1692g only apply to the initial debt collector.
The Ninth Circuit, however, recently issued a decision holding that subsequent debt collectors must comply with the notice provisions of § 1692g. Hernandez v. Williams, Zinman & Parham, — F.3d —, 2016 WL 3913445 (9th Cir. July 20, 2016). The Ninth Circuit held that the language of § 1692g was ambiguous as to whether it applies to just the initial debt collector or whether it also applies to subsequent debt collectors. However, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the overall structure and purpose of the FDCPA demonstrates that Congress intended § 1692g to apply akso to subsequent debt collectors. Id. at *3. In particular, the Ninth Circuit expressed concern that a contrary ruling would create significant loopholes that could hinder consumers’ efforts to dispute their debts or obtain verification of their debts. Id. at *5-8. The Ninth Circuit also concluded that requiring subsequent debt collectors to comply with § 1692g would further the remedial purpose of the FDCPA by giving consumers updated information concerning their debts and additional opportunities to verify their debts after they have changed hands. Id. at *8-9. Significantly, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which have regulatory and enforcement authority under the FDCPA, submitted amicus briefs arguing that subsequent debt collectors must comply with the notice provisions of § 1692g.
The Ninth Circuit’s ruling abrogates several district court decisions within the Ninth Circuit that held that only the initial debt collector was required to comply with the notice provisions of § 1692g. Accordingly, debt collectors that contact consumers who reside within the Ninth Circuit should send notices that comply with § 1692g even if they are not the first debt collector attempting to collect on the debt at issue.
Debt collectors who contact consumers in other jurisdictions (even those where there is favorable case law) should re-assess whether they should send notices to consumers that comply with § 1692g even if they are not the first debt collector that has attempted to collect on the debt. To the extent that the FTC and/or the CFPB decide to file amicus briefs in other cases, courts in other jurisdictions may be persuaded to follow Hernandez and hold that subsequent debt collectors must comply with the notice provisions of § 1692g.
Another Ninth Circuit panel very recently addressed the FDCPA’s requirement that debt collectors “disclose in subsequent communications that the communication is from a “debt collector.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(11). In Davis v. Hollins Law, — F.3d —, 2016 WL 4174747 (9th Cir. August 8, 2016), the debt collector and the consumer had been negotiating a possible resolution of the debt in a series of phone calls and email exchanges over the course of approximately two weeks. At that point, the debt collector left a voicemail message with the consumer that did not expressly state that the call was from a debt collector. Instead, the voicemail message stated, “Hello, this is a call for Michael Davis from Gregory at Hollins Law. Please call sir, it is important, my number is 866-513-5033.”
The consumer filed suit, asserting that this voicemail message violated § 1692e(11) because it did not reveal that the voicemail message was from a debt collector. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the consumer and held that the voicemail message did not violate § 1692e(11). The Ninth Circuit held that, given the extent of prior communications between the consumer and the debt collector (and its employee in particular), the voicemail message was sufficient to disclose that the communication was from a debt collector. Id. at *4. Thus, the Ninth Circuit reiterated that § 1692e(11) does not require the debt collector to use any specific language as long as it is sufficient to disclose that the communication is from a debt collector. Id.
Davis reached a commonsense conclusion under the facts of the case. However, the safest course of action for debt collectors is to include an explicit statement in any voicemail message left with the consumer that the communication is from a debt collector, even if the debt collector has had an ongoing dialogue with the consumer regarding the debt.