On April 21, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a decision that threatens significant consequences for a variety of loan servicing and debt collection industries. The upshot of the court’s holding is that anyone falling within the FDCPA’s broad definition of “debt collector” violates the FDCPA when it communicates with any third party – including a vendor or other party assisting with the collection or servicing of the loan – regarding the loan or debt.
In Hunstein v. Preferred Collection and Management Services, Inc. the plaintiff asserted a claim under Section 1692c of the FDCPA, claiming the defendant violated the statute by making an unauthorized “communication in connection with the collection of any debt” to a third party. The underlying facts of the claim will likely hit close to home for many debt collectors and loan servicers. Specifically, the defendant – a debt collector – provided its commercial mail vendor with certain limited information about a consumer and the consumer’s debt so that the vendor could populate a dunning letter and then send on behalf of the defendant. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, holding that merely providing information to a vendor so it could fill out a form letter was not a communication “in connection with the collection of the debt.”
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed. The court first addressed the defendant’s argument that federal courts lacked Article III subject matter jurisdiction due to the absence of allegations that the plaintiff suffered a concrete injury in fact. The court agreed that the plaintiff had not alleged that he had suffered any sort of “tangible harm” or a “risk of real harm” from the defendant’s alleged conduct. But after close review of the statute, the court concluded that the plaintiff claimed “statutory injury” – that is, the mere fact that the FDCPA was allegedly violated sufficed. The court tied the alleged violation of Section 1692c with the long-standing principle forbidding “invasion of privacy” and found that Congress had sought to address that very sort of harm in enacting Section 1692c of the FDCPA. Thus, even though the plaintiff had not alleged that he suffered a “real injury” as most would understand the term, the court held that he had alleged enough of an injury to satisfy Article III.
Turning to the merits, the court applied a textualist approach to determine that the FDCPA’s prohibition on communications with third parties “in connection with the collection of any debt” applied to the defendant’s somewhat mundane communication with its own vendor. The court began by noting the broad literal meaning of “in connection with the collection of any debt.” The court distinguished the case law applying a narrower interpretation of the same language in Section 1692e of the FDCPA, holding that the different statutory text and context called for a broader interpretation of the phrase in Section 1692c. Applying that broad definition, the court concluded that even “communications” (the parties agreed that the information exchanges were “communications”) with the debt collector’s vendor in order to populate the contents of a dunning letter were prohibited.
The court seemed to recognize the drastic nature of its ruling. It expressly addressed the defendant’s contention that the use of mailing vendors is a widespread practice, and even acknowledged that the use of other common vendors may run into the same problems under the court’s interpretation of the statute. But according to the court, its obligation was “to interpret the law as written, whether or not we think the resulting consequences are particularly sensible or desirable.”
The ramifications of the court’s decision could be huge. While conventional independent debt collection firms are governed by the FDCPA, so, too, are loan servicers when they acquire servicing rights to debts already in default. Those debt collectors and loan servicers use a wide array of third parties to assist them with various collection and servicing activities, including mailing vendors, data-hosting services, insurance providers, and property appraisers. Communications with those third parties about anything even touching on a consumer’s debt may now be an FDCPA violation under the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning. Please stay tuned as Bradley will be leading a cross-industry effort to address the consequences of the court’s ruling.