District Court Takes Expansive View of "Deceptive or Misleading" Practices under FDCPA

by Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP

Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP

The FDCPA prohibits a debt collector from using “any false, deceptive, or misleading representation” in connection with the collection of a debt. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692e.  Recently, the Eastern District of New York took an expansive view of section 1692e, thereby making truthful statements a violation of the statute’s mandates.
In Islam v. Am. Recovery Serv., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 180415 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 30, 2017), the plaintiff, Fatema Islam, failed to pay the balance due on her credit card with Bank of America, N.A., and Bank of America responded by placing Islam’s account with American Recovery Service (“ARS”) for collection.  Id. at *2.  ARS sent a letter to Islam on August 11, 2016 stating, in relevant part, that “[a]s of the date above, you owe $14,413.78.”  The letter also included a table of information which provided other details – such as identifying Bank of America as the original creditor,” noting that the “total amount of the debt due as of charge-off" as $14,413.78; declaring that the “total amount of interest accrued since charge off” was $0, and further notifying Islam that the “total amount of non-interest charges or fees accrued since charge-off” was $0.  After the table, the letter again advised Islam that “[t]he balance owed above reflects the total balance due as of the date of this letter. The itemization reflects the post charge-off activity we received from Bank of America.” Id. (emphasis added).  
Bank of America maintained a policy that any charged off account would not accrue any new interest or fees after the date of charge off.  Consistent with that policy, the balance on Islam’s account had not grown since it was charged off on August 4, 2016.  Based solely on the language of the August 11, 2016 letter, Islam filed suit alleging that the letter was false or misleading in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1692e.
The court agreed, and based its analysis on the Second Circuit’s 2016 decision in Avila v. Riexinger & Associates, 817 F.3d 72 (2d Cir. 2016).  In Avila, the Second Circuit encountered a case in which a collection letter disclosed the “current balance” of the debt, but did not disclose that after the date of the collection letter, the account was continuing to accrue interest and late fees.  Id. at 75-76.  The Second Circuit held that because the collection notice “did not disclose that the balance might increase due to interest and fees,” it was a “deceptive [or] misleading representation” of the amount due under the general prohibition of 15 U.S.C. § 1692e.  Id.
While the Islam court found Avila to be “factually distinguishable,” it held that Avila’s analytical framework dictated the outcome.  The court explained that the language of ARS’ letter – that Islam’s debt was $14,413.78 “as of the date of” the letter – suggested that Islam’s debt was in “a dynamic state.”  Islam, at *10.  “‘[A]s of the date’ suggests that on a different date, the amount of the debt may be different – and, of course, anyone would understand that it won't get any smaller without payment. But the undisputed fact is that, contrary to this suggestion, the amount of this debt will never be different, never get greater.”  Id.  Islam, as the embodiment of the “least sophisticated consumer,” was therefore “subtly incentivized to pay now to avoid paying more later, when, in fact, there never would be ‘more later.’”  Id.  This caused ARS to possibly receive money that it might not have received but for the language “as of the date of this letter,” which makes that language misleading or deceiving.  The court went on to hold that the misleading or deceiving communication was material, because if the least sophisticated consumer had known that the debt would never get any bigger, she might have chosen to pay another debt.  Id.
This case serves as a troubling example of truthful statements being interpreted as misleading or deceiving.  See id. at *9 (“The courts are to some extent simply burdening the collection industry with a continuing portfolio of litigation that potentially raises the cost of credit for all consumers.”).  Though all statements in ARS’ letter were factually correct – including the statement that Islam’s debt was $14,413.78 as of the date of the letter – the letter was nevertheless deemed to be “misleading or deceiving” because the least sophisticated consumer may incentivized into paying a valid debt they might not have otherwise paid.  To comply with the reasoning of Islam, creditors and debt collectors may wish to craft demand letters without the phrase “as of the date of this letter” if the debt will not increase, or to maintain a policy under which charged off debt continues to accrue interest and fees.

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Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP

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