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Panto v. Professional Bureau of Collections

2011 WL 843899 (U.S. Dist. Ct. D. N.J. 2011) (Unpublished)

FDCPA — Even though the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires that certain mandatory language appear in the body of a debt collection letter, that requirement is satisfied by a properly sized and formatted statement of those provisions in a separate paragraph after the signature line of a letter even though not technically within the body of the letter.

A debt collector mailed a collection letter to a debtor. The debtor responded in writing. He disputed the alleged debt and demanded verification. He also instructed the collector to cease and desist all collection efforts and further communications. The debtor alleged that on the same day, the collector contacted his attorney in an attempt to collect the debt. The debtor filed a punitive class action alleging that the collector had violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) because of some non-mandatory language in the debt collection letter that allegedly overshadowed, and stood in sharp contrast to, the required language; that the least sophisticated consumer would be confused about his or her rights; and that the collector unlawfully contacted his attorney after he sent the written dispute.

The debtor did not allege that the collection letter required FDCPA information; rather, the debtor alleged that additional language within the body of the debt collection letter overshadowed and contradicted the required validation provisions of the FDCPA. The letter instructed the debtor to print the name, address, and phone number of his attorney on the stub of the letter and return it. Also, the required validation provisions appeared in the same font style, size, and format as the remainder of the letter and was in a separate paragraph after the signature line at the bottom of the letter. The debtor alleged that the disputed language, in conjunction with the fact that the debt validation provisions appeared outside the body of letter, could easily confuse a consumer as to his or her rights in disputing the alleged debt. He claimed that the language could lead a consumer to believe that sending the attorney information was all that was required to dispute the debt. In response, the collector argued that the language only created an easy mechanism for the debtor to notify the collector that he was represented.

The Court noted that the required validation provisions were on the front of the letter and in the same font, size, and format as the rest of the letter. Although the validation provision appeared in a separate paragraph after the signature line, and thus was technically outside the body of the letter, its importance was not minimized by its placement. Because the language did not overshadow, contradict or appear to contradict the debt collection letter’s FDCPA validation notice, the debtor’s claim on the issue was dismissed. However, the Court found that the debtor alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for the communications issue. The Court observed that, following a recently decided Third Circuit case, communication by the debt collector to a consumer’s attorney may be actionable under the FDCPA.

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