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Stokes v. Consumer Credit, Inc.

777 F. Supp.2d 832 (D. N.J. 2011) (Unpublished)

FDCPA — The text on the front and back of a collection notice need not be identical and even the least sophisticated debtor is expected to give a fair and sensible reading to the best and to recognize that one text supplements the other, rather than conflicts with the other.

A collection agency sent a collection notice to an individual who allegedly owed money to a hospital. “The text on the front of the letter stated, ‘nless you notify our office that you dispute the validity of this debt within 30 days of receiving this letter, we will assume that the debt is valid and expect it to be paid.’ The back of the letter stated, ‘[the collection agency] will assume this debt to be valid unless you dispute the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, within thirty days after receipt of this notice. If you notify [us], in writing, within this thirty-day period that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, we will obtain verification of the debt ... .’”

The alleged debtor claimed that the “front of the letter fail[ed] to inform consumers that they can dispute ‘any portion’ of the debt, [and the alleged debtor] further maintain[ed] that the front and back of the letter [were] inconsistent, and the ‘least sophisticated consumer’ would not understand their right to contest a portion of the debt.”

The Court, after signaling its final determination by referring to the “gravamen” of the issue as “four little words, ‘or any part thereof,’” dismissed the complaint. It rejected the alleged debtor’s argument “that the letter was ‘confusing and conflicting.’” It pointed to a “clear and prominently displayed instruction, written in bold, capital letters on the front of the letter, that state[d] ‘please important notice on the back.’” In examining prior decisions, it cited text from one of those decisions reading, “even the least sophisticated debtor is bound to read collection notices in their entirety.” Consequently, according to the Court, the question became “whether, as a matter of law, the omission of the four words on the front and their inclusion on the back created a conflict and/or confusion.” It found that a “fair and sensible reading” would be that the notice on the back did not conflict with the front of the letter, “but merely expanded, modified or clarified much the way a child might understand the directive to ‘eat your peas, followed by the modification, or a portion of thereof.’” It found it to be “an unreasonable linguistic stretch” for the alleged debtor to maintain that the collection agency “falsely represented her options” by “encourag[ing] her to believe that she could only dispute all, or none, of the debt.”

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