Fifth Circuit Affirms Debt Collector’s Duty to Report Disputed Debt

by Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP
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A recent opinion from the Fifth Circuit should serve as a reminder to debt collectors that their duties as to disputed debts are not governed solely by section 1692g.  In Sayles v. Advanced Recovery Systems, Advanced Recovery Systems (“ARS”) sent debt validation notices pursuant to section 1692g to the plaintiff regarding two debts.  The notices were sent to the plaintiff’s last known address in June and September of 2013.  Sayles v. Advanced Recovery Sys., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 12080, *1 (5th Cir. July 6, 2017). The plaintiff never responded to the notices with a dispute or request for validation and in fact, alleges he did not recall receiving the validation notices.  In February 2014, however, the plaintiff discovered ARS was reporting the debts on his credit report.  In response, plaintiff faxed a letter to ARS on March 5, 2014 disputing the debts and requesting validation.  In April 2014, plaintiff ran his credit report again and discovered ARS was still reporting the debts and had failed to mark the debts as “disputed.”  The plaintiff filed suit against ARS, contending that ARS violated 15 U.S.C. §1692e(8) which provides that a debt collector may not  communicate or threaten to communicate any “credit information which is known or which should be known to be false, including the failure to communicate a disputed debt is disputed.”  15 U.S.C. §1692e(8).
The primary issue before the district court was whether a debt collector may rely upon a consumer’s failure to seek validation within the thirty day validation period as a defense for the debt collector’s failure to report a subsequent dispute as to the debt to the credit reporting agencies. The district court held that it could not.  In doing so, the court stated that the protections provided by section 1692e(8) were separate and apart from those provided by section 1692g.  While ARS was not under an affirmative duty to correct its reporting prior to its receipt of the plaintiff’s fax, once it received the fax, it was under an affirmative duty to communicate in its future reporting that the debt was disputed.  Sayles v. Advanced Recovery Sys., 206 F. Supp. 3d 1210,  1216 (S.D. Miss. 2016).
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court.  In doing so, the Fifth Circuit focused on the specific language of section 1692e(8) and,  particularly, the “knows or should know” language.  “This “knows or should know” standard requires no notification by the consumer, written or oral, and instead, depends solely on the debt collector’s knowledge that a debt is disputed, regarding less of how or when that knowledge is acquired.  Applying the meaning of “disputed debt” as used in {1692g(b)] to [1692e(8)] would thus render the provision’s “knows or should know” language impermissibly superfluous.”.  Sayles v. Advanced Recovery Sys., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 12080 at *5-6 (internal citations omitted).
 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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