Among other things, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits a debt collector from using “any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address, on any envelope when communicating with a consumer by use of the mails.” (The debt collector may include, in addition to its address, its business name if the name does not indicate that it is in the business of collecting debts.) Some courts, such as the Fifth and Eighth Circuits, have read into this provision an exception for so-called “benign language,” and have allowed debt collectors to include additional phrases on envelopes such as “priority letter,” “personal and confidential,” or “immediate reply requested.”
In a recent Third Circuit case, Douglas v. Convergent Outsourcing, the debtor’s account number, while not printed on the envelope, was visible on the letter inside through a window. The court had to decide: (1) whether the account number was “on” the envelope when it was merely visible through the window, and (2) whether the account number was “any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address,” and thus prohibited by the FDCPA. The Third Circuit answered both questions “yes.”
As to the first question, the Third Circuit reasoned that “[l]ike language printed on the envelope itself, language appearing through a windowed envelope can be seen by anyone handling the mail.” Thus, such language “appears on the face” of the envelope and is therefore “on” it for purposes of the FDCPA.
As to the second question, the Third Circuit rejected the debt collector’s suggestion that the debtor’s account number was “benign language.” The Third Circuit “express[ed] no opinion” on whether the FDCPA in fact allows for such an exception, but held that even if it does, the account number was not “benign.” Rather, the court found, an account number is “a core piece of information pertaining to [the debtor’s] status as a debtor and [the debt collector’s] collection effort.” Because the account number “implicates core privacy concerns, it cannot be deemed benign.” The Third Circuit distinguished the types of language held to be benign by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits on the basis that the language in those cases was not “capable of identifying [the debtor] as a debtor.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to offer guidance in this area. Until it does so, the best practice for debt collectors in the wake of this Third Circuit decision may be to assume that any language that might identify a letter’s recipient as a debtor, and which is in any way visible to a person handling the mail, violates the FDCPA and should be avoided.