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Debt Collection ‘versus’ Consumer Protection: The FDCPA’s Prohibition on False Representations of the Legal Status of Debt

By: Sara Brenner

St. John’s Law Student

American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Staff

 

        In In re Murray, chapter 13 debtor Mr. Murray (the “Debtor”), sued Revenue Management Corporation and Donald Aucoin (“Defendants”), alleging that the Defendants violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).[1] According to the Debtor, the Defendants violated the FDCPA by including a reference to purported litigation as reflected by inserting a “vs” between the Defendants’ names and the Debtor in the top right corner of a collection letter.[2]

        The applicable statute in this case is 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). Specifically, with respect to the issue of “versus language,” the governing provision is § 1692(e)(2)(A), “False Representation of Legal Status of Debt.”[3]

        In Murray, the court held that a collection letter containing “versus language,” i.e., “vs.” between the parties’ names, in the absence of pending litigation violates the FDCPA unless the letter contains additional language sufficient to counteract the false impression created by such language.[4] The court found that the defendant’s use of the versus language in the top right corner of the collection letter constituted a false representation of the legal status of the debt, violating § 1692(e)(2)(A) of the FDCPA.[5]

        In Johnson v. Ardec Credit Servs., the court found that a debt collector violated §1692(e)(2)(A) by sending a collection letter with versus language when no lawsuit was pending.[6] Further, the court held that the use of such adversary styling at the top of a letter would create in the mind of an unsophisticated consumer a false impression that judicial action is pending.[7]

        In contrast, the court in Phillip v. Sardo & Batista, P.C. found no violation of § 1692(e)(2)(A) in a letter containing versus language where additional language in the body of the letter clarified that a suit had not yet been filed.[8] The court noted that although the versus language was suggestive of a lawsuit, the body of the letter unambiguously clarified that no litigation was pending and a suit had not been filed. Specifically, the court found that the language “will institute suit” was sufficient to negate any confusion arising from the versus language in the subject line of the letter.[9] Therefore, the exception in §1692(e) applied. As a result, the court held that the letter did not violate the FDCPA.[10]

        In Murray, like in Johnson, no lawsuit was pending at the time the letter was sent.[11] However, in contrast to Phillip, the letter in Murray lacked additional language to clarify or counteract the false impression created by the use of “vs.” in the letter.[12] Thus, the letter in Murray violated the FDCPA.[13]

       By providing a practical illustration of what is prohibited under the FDCPA, Murray highlights the contours of 1692(e)(2)(A) and offers an example of when a party falsely represents the legal status of a debt.[14] Enforcement of the statute in Murray not only protects consumers, but also other debt collectors who do not engage in deceptive collection by ensuring they are not competitively disadvantaged.[15] Murray provides a clear example of how to interpret and apply 15 U.S.C. §1692(e), helping ensure that consumers are not deceived by debt collectors.[16]



[1] In re Murray, 552 B.R. 1, 3 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692e (West).

[4] Murray, 552 B.R. at 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Johnson v. Ardec Credit Servs., C.A. No. C83–0818A, 1984 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24889, at *14–16 (N.D.GA March 21, 1984).

[7] Id.

[8] Philip v. Sardo & Batista, P.C., No. CIV.A. 11–4773 SRC, 2011 WL 5513201, at *2 (D.N.J. Nov. 10, 2011).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Murray, 552 B.R. at 3; Johnson, C.A. No. C83–0818A, 1984 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24889, at *14–16.

[12] Philip, P.C., No. CIV.A. 11–4773 SRC, 2011 WL 5513201, at *2; Murray, 552 B.R. at 7.

[13] Murray, 552 B.R. at 7.

[14] Id. at 1-7.

[15] See Murray, 552 B.R. at 7-8.

[16] Id. at 1, 3, 7.