Second Circuit Adopts FDCPA Least Sophisticated Consumer Safe Harbor Approach Established by the Seventh Circuit

In Avila, et al. v. Riexinger & Associates, LLC, et al., Case No. 15-1584(L), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals applied the least sophisticated consumer standard of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”) to conclude that a consumer cannot be expected to know that a total debt provided in a given statement continues to increase interest or other fees.  The Second Circuit held that when a debt collector issues a notice to a borrower that includes a statement of the complete amount of their debt, the debt collector must either accurately inform the consumer that the amount of the debt stated in the notice will increase over time based upon interest or other fees, or clearly state that the holder of the debt will accept payment of the amount set forth in full satisfaction of the debt if payment is made by a specified date. In Avila, a consumer brought a putative class action against a debt collector for violation of § 1692e of the FDCPA alleging that the practice of disclosing in a collection notice only the “current balance” of the amount owed amounts to “false, deceptive, or misleading” collection practices under the statute.  The consumer alleged that the notice led them to believe that the amount owed was not increasing.  The Second Circuit agreed and held that the least sophisticated consumer could believe that payment in full of the current balance provided in the notice would satisfy the entire debt owed, and that a failure to mention the ongoing accrual of interest and fees was misleading. Further, the Court held that “the FDCPA requires debt collectors, when they notify consumers of their account balance, to disclose that the balance may increase due to interest and fees.”

The Second Circuit also held that Section 1692e requires additional disclosures to ensure that consumers are not misled into thinking that simply paying the “current balance” as listed on the collection notice will always result in full satisfaction of the amount owed. Accordingly, the Second Circuit adopted the “safe harbor” approach established by the Seventh Circuit in Miller v. McCalla, Raymer, Padrick, Cobb, Nichols, & Clark, L.L.C., 214 F.3d 872 (7th Cir. 2000).  The “safe harbor” doctrine allows a debt collector to prevent liability under Section 1692e “if the collection notice either accurately informs the consumer that the amount of the debt stated in the letter will increase over time, or clearly states that the holder of the debt will accept payment of the amount set forth in full satisfaction of the debt if payment is made by a specified date.”

Although the Second Circuit declined to establish the exact language of any disclosure that a debt collector must use to sidestep a possible FDCPA violation, the Court expressed that the language proposed in Miller, 214 F.3d, at 876, would certainly qualify a debt collector for treatment under the newly-created safe-harbor.

Debt collection agencies, or those that act as debt collectors, should pay particular attention to the language of Miller that the Second Circuit suggests will satisfy the newly-recognized safe harbor provision. For information on revising statements to consumers to comply with the safe harbor language, or for other information regarding this topic, contact Stephanie Strickler at 312-334-3465 or at sstrickler@messerstrickler.com.