Seal, United States Court of Appeals for the T...

Seal, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Latest FDCPA Hot Topic: Consumer’s Account Number Can’t be Seen in the Envelope Window of Debt Collection Letter

 

The U.S. Court of Appeals (Third Circuit) recently decided that if a consumer’s account number is visible through the clear window of a debt collector’s envelope, it breaks Section 1692f(8) of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

The Court reasoned that any information observable through the window of a debt collector’s envelope is covered by Section 1692f(8).  In addition, the court rejected the contention that the account number is simply “benign language”  and thus granted an exception pursuant to Section 1692f(8).

In this case, a debt collector – Convergent Outsourcing – sent a collection letter to the plaintiff in an envelope whereby the plaintiff’s account number was readable.  The plaintiff claimed this violated Section 1692f(8), which forbids “using any language or symbol” other than a debt collector’s name and address on an envelope.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Convergent, reasoning the account number qualified as “benign language” that Section 1692f(8) wasn’t intended to forbid.

Overruling the district court, the Third Circuit said that Section 1692f(8) applies to symbols or language “on any envelope”–including material appearing through the window on the envelope and verbiage on the envelope.

The court subsequently reasoned that Section 1692f(8)’s prohibition applies to account numbers as the statute clearly says that “any language or symbol,” except the debt collector’s address can be contained in the envelope.

Convergent claimed this interpretation is illogical because Section 1692f(8) would literally bar even a stamp.  So, Convergent encouraged the court to embrace a “benign language” exception to the FDCPA that would allow for information like an account number be allowed on an envelope so long as it doesn’t give away the letter’s purpose or humiliate the debtor.

The Court declined to determine whether Section 1692f(8) contains a language that was benign because it maintained that a consumer’s account number is malignant.

Mentioning Section 1692(a), the court noted that a core concern is the invasion of individual privacy.  An account number, the court reasoned, raises privacy concerns since it’s a core bit of advice pertaining to the consumer’s standing as a debtor as well as the debt collection attempt.  The court rejected Convergent’s contention the account number was a pointless sequence of numbers which couldn’t potentially damage the plaintiff if it were revealed.  The court reasoned the account number may be utilized to show to the public the plaintiff’s fiscal plight.

We at CompuMail are in the process of reviewing this recent decision with all our clients and making the necessary adjustments to comply.  Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this recent court decision.