Third Circuit Holds “Settlement Language” in Collection Letter Can Be Misleading

By: Jonathan M. RobbinEdward W. Chang, and Scott E. Wortman

Action Item: In a change of course from its prior holding in Huertas v. Galaxy Asset Mgmt., 641 F.3d 28 (3d Cir. 2011), the Third Circuit rules that the terms “settlement” and “settlement offer,” in connection with collecting of a time barred debt, may connote litigation and thus mislead a consumer. However, the Court continues to hold that settlement terms alone do not necessarily constitute deceptive or misleading practices under the FDCPA.

In a unanimous published decision in Tatis v. Allied Interstate LLC, No. 16-4022 (3d Cir.) the Third Circuit reversed the District of New Jersey’s granting of a motion to dismiss. The lower court had held that a debt collector’s attempt to collect the time-barred debt did not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) because the collection letter was not accompanied by a threat of legal action. In its order overruling the lower court, the Third Circuit deviated from its prior holding in Huertas v. Galaxy Asset Mgmt., 641 F.3d 28 (3d Cir. 2011) and instead looked to the more recent decisions from its sister circuits—the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh—which all held that the term “settle” could mislead a consumer. Continue reading

District Court of New Jersey Holds No Duty under FDCPA to Warn of Tax Consequences for Debt Settlement

By: Jonathan M. Robbin and Kyle E. Vellutato

In a case of first impression in the Third Circuit, Vincent Carieri v. Midland Credit Management, Inc., No. 17-0009 (D.N.J. June 26, 2017), the District Court of New Jersey held that that a debt collector does not have a duty to notify a debtor of potential tax consequences for settling a debt at a discount under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”).

As satisfaction for a debt in the amount of $4,491.47, Midland Credit Management, Inc. (“MCMI”) sent a notice to Carieri offering various debt settlement payment options resulting in savings from continued payments under the terms of the loan (the “Notice”).  Specifically, the Notice offered to extinguish the debt if a discounted total payoff was received by a certain date, resulting in savings of 40 percent (or $1,796.58). Carieri’s complaint alleged that the Notice violated the FDCPA by failing to inform the debtor of the potential tax consequences posed by the savings from the discounted payoff of the debt.[1]

In considering MCMI’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court turned to other federal courts including the Second Circuit for guidance on whether the FDCPA expands a debt collector’s duties with regard to notifying a debtor of tax consequences of debt settlement. Specifically, the Court held that as in Altman v. J.C. Christensen & Assocs., Inc., 786 F.3d 191 (2d Cir. 2015), the Notice did not violate the FDCPA, even though the letter did not warn of potential tax consequences.

The Court granted MCMI’s dispositive motion, and confirmed that a debt collector’s failure to advise a debtor of the tax consequences for a discounted payoff does not serve as a basis for a claim under the FDCPA.[2]

[1] Although Carieri attempted to raise a second FDCPA violation purportedly posed by the Notice in his opposition to the dispositive motion under review, Chief Judge Jose Linares denied Carieri’s attempt to expand his claims, offering a stern reminder to plaintiffs that untimely efforts to amend pleadings—to survive disposition or otherwise—will be barred. Nonetheless, in dicta, the Court roundly rejected Carieri’s last-ditch effort to amend finding that the Notice was misleading to the least sophisticated consumer.

[2] The Court also relied upon the following cases in reaching his decision: Smith v. Nat’l Enter. Sys., Inc., No. 15-541, 2017 WL 1194494 (W.D. Okla. Mar. 30, 2017); Rigerman v. Forster & Garbus LLP, No. 14-1805, 2015 WL 1223760 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 16, 2015); Landes v. Cavalry Portfolio Servs., LLC, 774 F. Supp. 2d 800 (E.D. Va. 2011); Schaefer v. ARM Receivable Mgmt., Inc., No. 09-11666, 2011 WL 2847768 (D. Mass. July 19, 2011), and rejected the holding in Ellis v. Cohen & Slarnowitz, LLP, 701 F. Supp. 2d 215, 219-20 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2010).