By: Daniel A. Cozzi and Diana M. Eng
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that an envelope revealing a consumer’s account number through a clear plastic window constitutes a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). In doing so, the Third Circuit reversed the District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s holding that the disclosure of a consumer’s account number is not a “benign” disclosure and thus constitutes a violation of § 1692f(8) of the FDCPA.
In Douglas v. Convergent, the Third Circuit addressed the issue of whether “the disclosure of a consumer’s account number on the face of a debt collector’s envelope violates § 1692f(8) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.” Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, No. 13-3588, 2014 WL 4235570 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2014); 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq.
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from using “unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692f. Further, Section 1692f(8) specifically limits the language that debt collectors may place on envelopes sent to consumers:
Using any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address, on any envelope when communicating with a consumer by use of the mails or by telegram, except that a debt collector may use his business name if such name does not indicate that he is in the debt collection business. (Emphasis added).
On May 16, 2011, Plaintiff/Appellant Courtney Douglass (“Plaintiff” or “Douglass”) received a debt collection letter from Convergent Outsourcing (“Convergent”) regarding the collection of a debt that Douglass allegedly owed to T-Mobile USA. The name Convergent, followed by Convergent’s account number for the alleged debt were visible on the letter, and through the clear plastic window of the envelope. In addition, the “quick response” (“QR”) code, which, when scanned, reveals the name Convergent, the account number and the monetary amount of Douglass’s alleged debt, was also visible through the envelope window.
Douglass filed a lawsuit in the United Stated District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleging that Convergent violated the FDCPA by including a QR code and account number in a location visible through the clear plastic window of a collection letter sent to Douglass. Convergent moved for summary judgment, arguing that displaying such information in the window of the envelope was benign. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant Convergent under a “benign language” exception. Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, 963 F. Supp. 2d 440 (E.D. Pa., 2013). The “benign language” exception to Section 1692f(8) is a judicially created exception to Section 1692f(8), which allows a court to forgive a technical violation of Section 1692f(8) if the violation is benign in nature. The District Court reasoned that although Convergent may have technically violated § 1692f(8), a strict interpretation of the statute would contradict Congress’ true intent.
To reach this conclusion, the District Court cited to Waldron v. Professional Medical Management, which held that a literal application of § 1692(8) “would produce absurd results.” No. 12-1863, 2013 WL 978933 (E.D. Pa., March 13, 2013). The District Court and the Waldron court relied on similar applications of the “benign language” exception to Section 1692f(8) in the Fifth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, District of Connecticut and the Central District of California. Ultimately, the District Court held that “the mere presence of an account number does not show that the communication is related to a debt collection and “[i]t also could not reasonably be said to ‘humiliate, threaten, or manipulate’ the debtor.” Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, 963 F. Supp. 2d at 446. Further, the District Court found that “[s]ince the ‘random series of letters and numbers’ revealed through the QR code does not ‘clearly refer to a debt,’ or ‘tend to humiliate, threaten, or manipulate’” the consumer, Convergent did not violate the FDCPA. Id. at 448. Accordingly, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Convergent.
Douglass appealed the order granting summary judgment. On appeal, Douglass argued that an unambiguous reading of § 1692(8) explicitly bars the disclosure of account numbers. Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, 13-3588, 2014 WL 4235570 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2014). Convergent maintained that a plain reading of § 1692(8) would lead to absurd results and thus its disclosure of Douglass’ account number is allowed under a “benign language” exception. Id. at *3. In response, Douglass argued that, even if a “benign language” exception applies, the disclosure of an account number is never benign. Id.
The Third Circuit found that “the plain language of § 1692f(8) does not permit Convergent’s envelope to display an account number” but declined to evaluate whether Section 1692f(8) allows for a “benign language” exception. Instead, the Third Circuit determined that a debt collector’s account number is never benign. Id. at *4. Specifically, the Third Circuit held that “[t]he account number is a core piece of information pertaining to Douglass’s status as a debtor and Convergent’s debt collection effort. Disclosed to the public, it could be used to expose her financial predicament. Because Convergent’s disclosure implicates core privacy concerns, it cannot be deemed benign.” Id. Based on these considerations, the Third Circuit found that “Douglass’s account number is impermissible language or symbols under § 1692f(8)” in violation of the FDCPA. Id. at *6.
On September 10, 2014, Convergent filed a Petition for Rehearing En Banc or Panel Rehearing.
In light of this decision, entities collecting consumer debt should avoid the use of account numbers and/or QR codes on envelopes or within the viewing area of clear plastic envelope windows. Revealing such information on envelopes or through clear plastic envelope windows may expose debt collectors to liability under the FDCPA.
 A “QR” Code is a barcode like image which can be read from a Cell Phone.
 Strand v. Diversified Collection Serv., Inc., 380 F.3d 316, 318–19 (8th Cir. 2008); Goswami v. Am. Collections Enter., Inc., 377 F.3d 488, 494 (5th Cir. 2004); Lindbergh v. Transworld Sys., Inc., 846 F. Supp. 175, 180 & n. 27 (D. Conn. 1994); Masuda v. Thomas Richards & Co., 759 F. Supp. 1456, 1466 (C.D. Cal. 1991).