It is no secret that creditors and debt collectors will go to great lengths in an attempt to collect a debt they are owed. From numerous phone calls a day, to leaving messages threatening criminal prosecution, it seems debt collectors will stop at nothing for what is often a meager pay out in the end. Recognizing this epidemic, Congress adopted the Fair Debt Collection and Practices Act (FDCPA) in an attempt to stop this predatory collecting. It is the purpose of this act "to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors, to insure that those debt collectors who refrain from using abusive debt collection practices are not competitively disadvantaged, and to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses." 15 U.S.C. §1692.
While the FDCP prohibits many specific actions in order to protect the consumer, There are three general categories of actions that are prohibited: 1) A debt collector cannot engage in conduct that is likely to "harass, oppress, or abuse a person in connection with the collection of the debt," 15 U.S.C. §1692(d); 2) a debt collector cannot use any "false, deceptive, or misleading representations or means in connection with the collection of any debt," 15 U.S.C § 1692(e); and 3) a debt collector cannot use "any unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt." 15 U.S.C. §1692(f). So what do all these prohibitions actually mean when it comes down to it? Luckily, the 11th circuit has provided us some guidance.
Harass, Oppress, or Abuse
The FDCPA cites specific behavior, although not exclusive, as examples of behavior that would be considered harassing, oppressive, or abusive:
1) The use of threat of use of violence or other criminal means to harm the physical person, reputation or property of any person;
2) The use of obscene or profane language or language the natural consequence of which is to abuse the hearer or reader;
3) The publication of a list of consumers who allegedly refuse to pay debts, except to a consumer reporting agency or to persons meeting the requirements of section 1681a(f) or 1681b(3) of this title;
4) The advertisement for sale of any debt to coerce payment of the debt;
5) Causing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number;
6) Except as provided in section 1692b of this title, the placement of telephone calls without meaningful disclosure of the caller's identity. 15 U.S.C. §1692(d).
The 11th circuit in Jeter v. Credit Bureau, Inc. found that the above list was not exhaustive, but rather indicative of the kind of behavior that would be found to be harassing, oppressive, or abusive. 760 F.2d 1168 (11th Cir. 1985). The Court further found that each case and set of circumstances is different, but behaviors like those listed above should be considered a violation of the FDCPA. Additionally, the Court pointed out that what might harass or oppress one person may not cause the same feelings in another. The issue with the factors above is that they are subject to each individual's interpretation of the behavior. To assist, the Court held that the allegedly offending behaviors regarding 1692(d) should be judged from the perspective of "a consumer whose circumstances makes him relatively more susceptible to harassment, oppression, or abuse." Id. at 1179. This standard, along with the facts of each case, would ordinarily be up to a jury to decide.
False, Deceptive, or Misleading Representations
The FDCPA provides several restrictions to behaviors Congress considered to be false, deceptive or misleading. One specific behavior that has continuously made an appearance in the 11th circuit is that found in 15 U.S.C. §1692(e)(5):
(5) The threat to take any action that cannot legally be taken or that is not intended to be taken.
For this subsection, the 11th circuit has adopted the "least-sophisticated consumer" standard used when evaluating violations under the Federal Trade Commission Act. The idea is that both acts were intended to protect all consumers, "the gullible as well as the shrewd." LeBlanc v. Unifund CCR Partners, 601 F.3d 1185, 1194 (11th Cir. 2010). The idea here is that if the most basic and uneducated consumer could perceive the communication from a debt collector as a threat to take legal action, it is likely a violation of FDCPA. Id. This standard also protects debt collectors from "liability for bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations of collection notices by preserving a quotient of reasonableness." Id at 1195. The jury would review the facts of each case, including the interpretation of the debtor, and make the ultimate determination as to whether there was a violation, so individuals who are hyper-sensitive or suspecting of misrepresentations would not be able to hold a debt collector liable for simply doing his job.
Unfair or Unconscionable Means
As far as debt collection, the FDCPA does not defined what "unfair or unconscionable means" include, so the 11th circuit turns to the plain meaning. Unfair is defined as "marked by injustice, partiality, or deception;" while unconscionable has been defined as "having no consequence, unscrupulous, showing no regard for conscience, affronting the sense of justice, decency or reasonableness." Crawford v. LVNV Funding, LLC, 758 F.3d 1254, 1258 (11th Cir. 2014) quoting LeBlanc, 601 F. 3d at 1200. The Court has also determined, however, that this phrase in the FDCPA is "as vague as they come," and therefore applies the "least sophisticated consumer" standard to determine the behavior here as well, leaving the decision to a jury to make. Id.
The lesson to be taken away here, is that the FDCPA, with all its restrictions on debt collectors, and ambiguities in language, was set up this way on purpose. It is intended to protect all consumers, no matter their level of understanding or education. When there is a perceived violation, the 11th circuit courts look to how it was perceived by the consumer, and leave it to a jury to decide. While there is a slight level of protection for debt collectors, it still heavily relies on how a reasonable person, no matter the level of intelligence, would perceive the action of the creditor.
By: Samantha A. Marriott, Attorney at The Law Offices of Jason A. Burgess, LLC
If you have questions about this or anything else please give us a call at 904-354-5065 or email us at jason@jasonAburgess.com