THIRD CIRCUIT RULES THAT DEBT COLLECTION NOTICE DID NOT CONTAIN MISLEADING LANGUAGE

By: Louise Bowes

In Szczurek v. PMM, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently affirmed the United States District Court for Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s ruling that the Plaintiff Joseph Szczurek (“Plaintiff” or “Szczurek”) failed to establish that a debt collection notice he received from the Defendant was in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). No. 14-4775 (3d Cir. filed October 1, 2015).

In June 2014, Szczurek received a one-page notice from Professional Medical Management, Inc. (“PMM”) advising him that Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital had referred his past due account balance of $19.70 to PMM for collection. In addition to the language required by the FDCPA, the notice stated, “To avoid further contact from this office regarding your past due account, please send the balance due to our office and include the top portion of this letter with your payment.” Id. at 2.   Szczurek received four more similar letters from PMM over the next month, and filed a purported class action in the District Court, alleging that PMM had violated Sections 1692(e) and 1692(f) of the FDCPA by including deceptive and misleading language in the debt collection notice.   Specifically, Szczurek asserted that the correspondence created the false impression that the only way to stop PMM from further contact was to pay the debt. PMM moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because its notices complied with the FDCPA. The District Court granted the motion and dismissed the case, and the Plaintiff appealed to the Third Circuit.

On appeal, the Third Circuit applied the “least sophisticated debtor” standard, as set forth in Brown v. Card Serv. Ctr. 464 F. 3d 450 (3d Cir. 2006). The Brown court previously held that communications between debt collectors and debtors should be analyzed using this standard, which is a lower standard than the standard of a reasonable debtor. Szczurek argued that the least sophisticated debtor may interpret the language in the notice to mean that the only way to stop the debt collection notices was to pay the debt, when, in fact, debtors have other options under the FDCPA to halt debt collection communications. The Court disagreed with the Plaintiff, and ruled that the purpose of the language in question was to advise the debtor that PMM will continue its collection efforts until successful, and not to notify him of the available methods debtors may use to halt debt collection communications under the FDCPA. The Court further held that PMM was under no obligation under the FDCPA to inform a consumer that he may ask a debt collector to cease further contact pursuant to the statute.

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