We’ve been closely following the cases out of the district courts within the Third Circuit related to whether a validation notice that tracks the statutory language of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is misleading or confusing. Those decisions tend to be all over the place, and courts are starting to put these cases on hold as we await review by the Third Circuit. However, the jurisdictional split on this issue between the Third Circuit and the remainder of the country is visible in a recent case out of the Middle District of Georgia.
In Urquhart v. Credit Bureau of Napa Cnty., Inc., No. 5:18-cv-00371 (M.D. Ga. May 30, 2019), the court granted defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings on this very issue. In this case, the defendant sent a collection letter that included a validation notice that tracked the language in section 1692g. The letter then went on to say, “If you would like to submit a dispute you can call us at 877-256-2510 or send it by mail to: Chase Receivables [address].” Plaintiff sued, alleging that this statement overshadows the validation notice because it could lead a consumer to call with a dispute.
The court granted defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, and the most significant part of the decision is the reasoning. The court differentiates between the different options within the validation notice. The court found that there is a difference between disputing the validity of the debt (which a consumer can submit through any medium) and the “advanced remedy” of requesting verification of debt (which a consumer must submit in writing).
According to the court, these instructions are very clear from the validation notice language and there was no violation of the FDCPA's requirements with this letter. The court states:
Any reading to the contrary is plainly unreasonable.
This interpretation is very different from the decisions coming out of the Third Circuit, and this situation highlights the uncertainty debt collectors face as they attempt to comply in good faith with the FDCPA and related laws and regulations. When reviewing federal requirements, which should apply consistently nation-wide, a letter containing the same validation notice language is fine in some jurisdictions but problematic in others.
Uniformity for something as basic as the validation notice should be a no-brainer. While the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for debt collection attempts to fill in and provide clarity to gaps in requirements, the NPRM only tangentially addresses this issue in the 538-page document. The NPRM provides a model form and instructions about the validation notice, which allows for an oral dispute, but would this be enough for the Third Circuit to take back its interpretation that all disputes under section 1692g must be in writing? Who knows.
The good news is this: the CFPB’s proposed rules provide a mechanism for seeking official interpretations of requirements from the CFPB itself. The rules may not be finalized in time to help with this specific issue, but this could be an excellent tool to utilize on whatever wild FDCPA theories the plaintiffs’ bar comes up with in the future—depending, of course, on the turn-around time for the Bureau’s official interpretations.