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By: Bill Buechner
The Eleventh Circuit very recently affirmed a district court’s ruling that a debt collector did not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act even though the collection misstated the name of the creditor to whom the consumer owed the debt.
In Lait v. Medical Data Sys., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 31814 (11th Cir. Nov. 9, 2018) (per curiam), the plaintiff incurred medical expenses provided to him by Enterprise Medical Center. A debt collector sent the plaintiff a letter seeking to collect on the debt. The letter indicated that the debt collector was seeking to collect on the “accounts indicated below.” After two intervening paragraphs, the letter listed “Medical Center Enterprise” next to a service date, the plaintiff’s name, and an outstanding balance of $412. The letter did not expressly refer to Medical Center Enterprise as the plaintiff’s creditor. Id. at *2.
The plaintiff alleged that the collection letter violated 15 U.S.C. § 1692g, which requires that debt collectors provide in writing certain information to a consumer in either the initial communication or within five days thereafter, including the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed. The plaintiff did not contend that the different word order of the hospital in the letter caused him any confusion. Instead, the plaintiff asserted that the letter failed to “meaningfully convey” the name of the creditor to whom he owed the debt.
The Eleventh Circuit assumed, without deciding, that the plaintiff’s claim was governed by the least sophisticated consumer standard. Under this standard, the court presumes that the consumer “possess[es] a rudimentary amount of information about the world and a willingness to read a collection notice with some care.” Id. at *5 (citing cases). Applying this standard, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that, because the plaintiff acknowledged that he had received medical treatment at a hospital called “Enterprise Medical Center,” the least sophisticated consumer “could be expected to connect the dots on a collection letter that lists the name ‘Medical Center Enterprise’ next to an outstanding balance.” Id. In other words, “[a] consumer who had been a patient at a hospital would surely understand the hospital to be the creditor when its name was listed next to the amount of the debt.” Id. at *5-6. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit held that the letter complied with § 1692g.
The Eleventh Circuit has applied the least sophisticated consumer standard to other sections of the FDCPA, including 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692e and 1692f. Other circuits, including the Third, Sixth and Ninth Circuit have applied the least sophisticated consumer standard to claims brought pursuant to § 1692g as well. The Eleventh Circuit has suggested in at least one previous unpublished decision that it did not disagree with these other circuit decisions. The panel in Lait, however, suggested that concerns about obscuring information required to be disclosed under § 1692g could be addressed in other sections of the FDCPA. Lait, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 31814, at *4 n.2.
Thus, it remains an open question in the Eleventh Circuit as to whether the least sophisticated consumer standard applies to claims under § 1692g, or whether courts should simply consider whether the collection letter contains the information required by § 1692g without considering whether the least sophisticated consumer would understand it.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Bill Buechner at [email protected].