Debt Collection Agency Succeeds in FDCPA Validation Language Case

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”), provides strict requirements for debt collection agencies to include in their letters to consumers.  However, while compliance with the FDCPA requires collectors to include specific language in letters to consumers, collection agencies are not necessarily required to include exact language from the Act to comply with it. 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court ruling against a collection agency for using the word “of” rather than “after” in a validation notice.  In Wallace v. Diversified Consultants, Inc., a collection agency wrote a collection letter to a consumer stating that it would assume the validity of the debt unless he disputed it “within 30 days of receiving this notice.”  The consumer sued the collection agency for using the word “of” rather than “after” which is outlined in the FDCPA.  The FDCPA provides that the notice shall contain “a statement that unless the consumer, within thirty days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector.” See, § 1692g(a)(3) (emphasis added).  The lower court granted the collection agency’s judgment on the pleadings, and the consumer appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling and stated in its opinion, “[a] statement works if it speaks with enough clarity to convey the required information to a reasonable but unsophisticated consumer.”  The Court concluded the letter to the consumer did that.  “It informed him that he had thirty days to dispute the debt, that the clock would start running when he received the letter (rather than, say, when [the collector] sent the letter), and that if he did not act the collector would assume the debt’s validity.”

The Court agreed with the consumer’s argument that “of” and “after” are different words, but it noted “this possibility does not make [the collector’s] choice of preposition improper.  No reasonable consumer, even an unsophisticated one, would read the letter as an instruction to travel back in time (through no more than thirty days back) to dispute the debt.”

Although this case provides debt collection agencies relief in knowing that they are not required to include verbatim language of the FDCPA in each letter to consumers, collectors should still be cautious as many courts do require specific language to be included in these letters.

For more information on this topic, or for review of your collection letters, contact Stephanie A. Strickler at (312) 334-3465 or sstrickler@messerstrickler.com