On January 31, 2018, a District Court judge in New Jersey decided that including a toll free number on an initial collection letter does not violate the FDCPA. In Riccio v. Sentry Credit, Inc. et al, 2018 WL 638748 (D.N.J. Jan. 31, 2018), the court rejected this argument by granting Sentry Credit’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, which is a ruling on the merits of the claim based solely on the pleadings.
You can download the full text of the Opinion here.
Sentry Credit sent an initial collection letter to plaintiff Maureen Riccio. The letter contained the required 1692g notice, which instructs the consumer to submit any disputes to the debt collector in writing. The letter also included a section that listed “Contact us with one our [sic] convenient options,” followed by a mailing address, a toll-free number to call, and a web address.
The letter displayed as follows:
Plaintiff, represented by the firm Jones, Wolf & Kapasi, LLC, filed this lawsuit alleging that the inclusion of the toll-free number misleads the least sophisticated consumer into thinking that she can dispute the debt by either mailing in a written dispute or calling the toll-free number listed.
The decision issued by Judge Brian R. Martinotti summarily dismissed Riccio’s allegations. The court made this decision by looking only at the pleadings and the letter attached as an exhibit, not needing to review any other evidence.
According to the decision, the letter provided very clear instructions in the 1692g disclosure that a dispute must be made in writing within thirty days. The court recognized that nowhere else in the letter is there any indication that a dispute can be submitted in any method other than in writing. The court found that the toll-free phone number was merely Sentry’s contact information.
Riccio raised an issue with the prominence of the contact information, which is displayed in a set of boxes on the letter. This argument did not persuade the court. Specifically, the court found that the 1692g notice is under a heading titled “IMPORTANT NOTICE” while the contact information is under a separate, less prominent heading of “Contact us with one our [sic] convenient options.” The “IMPORTANT NOTICE” section contains clear instructions that a dispute must be made in writing, while the “Contact us…” section makes no reference to disputing the account.
Based on the above, the court granted Sentry’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.
This decision nips an up-and-coming legal claim in the bud. The issue recently started spreading in New Jersey where this plaintiffs’ firm began filing a high volume of lawsuits with this identical claim. In a jurisdiction that sometimes issues opinions different from the majority of jurisdictions (e.g., the envelope barcode claims from a few years ago), it is comforting to see a reasonable, common-sense decision.
Plaintiff has 30 days from entry of the order to file a notice of appeal, in which case the matter would be reviewed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.