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Debt Collector Wins Summary Judgment on False Threat to Sue

Link: Bandas v. United Recovery Service, LLC, Case No. 17-cv-01323 (N.D. Ill., Sept. 7, 2018).

Plaintiff, represented by Michael Jacob Wood of Community Lawyers Group, Ltd., filed an action under Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq., and the Illinois Collection Agency Act (“ICAA”), 225 ILCS 425/1 et seq. Both parties moved for summary judgment and the court ruled in favor of the defendant debt collector.

After incurring a medical debt, URS sent the Plaintiff a letter as follows:

Dear FRANK,
Please receive and accept this letter in the spirit in which it is intended. We do not seek to create a climate of argument and threat but merely to state our position in as factual a manner as possible. Our client claims a debt is due and owing from you; they have attempted to resolve this between them and you with no success. Our office has been brought into the picture and we have done everything we can think of to convince you to pay this claim; our file indicates that you have the means to pay but that you will not pay.
We wish to make this appeal to you as one reasonable party to another. Send us your full payment today or contact this office at once to make suitable payment arrangements so that no further procedures need to be taken in this matter.
This is our third attempt to have you voluntarily resolve this claim. We seek your cooperation now! . . .

Plaintiff  alleged that URS’s letter deceptively threatened him with litigation when it had no intention of actually suing him for the debt, in violation of § 1692e of the FDCPA.  Judge Virginia M. Kendall pointed out that in order to defeat summary judgment a plaintiff must show not only that statement is false but also that it would mislead an “unsophisticated consumer.” See Lox v. CDA, Ltd.,689 F.3d 818, 822 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing Wahl v. Midland Credit Mgmt., 556 F.3d 643, 645-46 (7th Cir.2009)), and that that the representation would be confusing to a “significant fraction of the population.” Gruber v. Creditors’ Prot. Serv., Inc., 742 F.3d 271, 274 (7th Cir. 2014).

Section 1692e cases fall into three categories: (1) “cases involving statements that plainly, on their face, are not misleading or deceptive,” in which courts grant summary judgment in favor of defendants, (2) “cases involve[ing] statements that are not plainly misleading or deceptive but might possibly mislead or deceive the unsophisticated consumer,” in which “plaintiffs may prevail only by producing extrinsic evidence, such as consumer surveys, to prove that unsophisticated consumers do in fact find the challenged statements misleading or deceptive,” and (3) “[c]ases involving plainly deceptive communications” that are “clearly misleading on their face,” in which plaintiff need not present any extrinsic evidence to prevail.

Given that Plaintiff alleges that the statement is deceptive (i.e. in the third category above), he needed to put extrinsic evidence into the record because judges “are not experts in the knowledge and understanding of unsophisticated consumers facing demands by debt collectors” and “are no more entitled to rely on [their] intuitions in this context than [they] are in deciding issues of consumer confusion in trademark cases.” Evory v. RJM Acquisitions Funding L.L.C., 505 F.3d 769, 776 (7th Cir. 2007). He did not. As such the court looked to whether the thread of litigation was plain on the face of the letter.

Interestingly, the court discussed how some judges looked to Google and Wikipedia for insight bceause it is reasonable to interpret the plain meaning of language in the same way an unsophisticated consumer would. (Citing McMahon v. LVNV Funding, LLC, 744 F.3d 1010, 1021 (7th Cir. 2014) and Holt v. LVNV Funding, LLC, 147 F. Supp. 3d 756, 761 (S.D. Ind. 2015).

Because Plaintiff offered no support for his conclusion that an unsophisticated consumer would automatically assume litigation is the only “further procedure” available to URS, the court granted summary judgment in favor of debt collector URS.

 

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