516 F.3d 85 (2nd Cir. 2008), 06-3147, Jacobson v. Healthcare Financial Services, Inc.

Docket Nº:06-3147-cv.
Citation:516 F.3d 85
Party Name:Gershon JACOBSON, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. HEALTHCARE FINANCIAL SERVICES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:February 14, 2008
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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516 F.3d 85 (2nd Cir. 2008)

Gershon JACOBSON, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

HEALTHCARE FINANCIAL SERVICES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 06-3147-cv.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.

February 14, 2008

Argued: November 19, 2007.

Appeal from a decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Glasser, J.), granting summary judgment to Defendant-Appellee on Plaintiff-Appellant's claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq., and awarding attorneys' fees to Defendant-Appellee.

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Lawrence Katz, Katz & Kleinman, Uniondale, N.Y., for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Brian Miller (David J. Gold, on the brief), New York, N.Y., for Defendant-Appellee.

Before: WALKER and CALABRESI, Circuit Judges, and KEENAN, District Judge.1

CALABRESI, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-Appellant Gershon Jacobson ("Jacobson") appeals from a June 6, 2006 decision of Judge I. Leo Glasser, which (1) granted summary judgment to Defendant-Appellee Healthcare Financial Services ("HFS") on Jacobson's claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq.("FDCPA" or "the Act"), and (2) ordered Jacobson to pay attorneys' fees and costs to HFS. Jacobson v. Healthcare Fin. Servs, Inc., 434 F.Supp.2d 133 (E.D.N.Y. 2006). Jacobson appeals both determinations.

We affirm the district court in part, reverse it in part, and vacate its judgment, both as to the merits of Jacobson's claim, and as to the award of costs and attorneys' fees. We remand the case to the district

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court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

HFS is a "debt collector" within the meaning of the FDCPA. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). It sent a letter to Jacobson, demanding payment of a debt of $492.00 owed by Jacobson to a third party. The letter, dated July 13, 2004, stated:

THIS ACCOUNT HAS BEEN ASSIGNED TO OUR OFFICE FOR COLLECTION.

IF YOUR PAYMENT OR NOTICE OF DISPUTE IS NOT RECEIVED IN THIS OFFICE WITHIN 30 DAYS, WE SHALL RECOMMEND FURTHER ACTION BE TAKEN AGAINST YOU TO COLLECT THIS OUTSTANDING BALANCE.

NOTE: THAT WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO REPORT THIS DEBT TO THE APPROPRIATE CREDIT BUREAU WHICH MIGHT HAVE A NEGATIVE IMPACT ON YOUR CREDIT RATING. MAKE YOUR CHECK OR MONEY ORDER PAYABLE TO HEALTHCARE FINANCIAL SERVICES.

Pursuant to HFS's obligations under the Act, this text was immediately followed by a "validation notice":

PLEASE READ BELOW

THIS COMMUNICATION IS AN ATTEMPT TO COLLECT A DEBT AND ANY INFORMATION OBTAINED WILL BE USED FOR THAT PURPOSE.

IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE PROVISIONS OF PARAGRAPH OF THE CONSUMER CREDIT PROTECTION ACT, AMENDMENTS, YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED OF THE FOLLOWING:

UNLESS YOU NOTIFY THIS OFFICE WITHIN 30 DAYS AFTER RECEIVING THIS NOTICE THAT YOU DISPUTE THE VALIDITY OF THIS DEBT OR ANY PORTION THEREOF, THIS OFFICE WILL ASSUME THIS DEBT IS VALID.

IF YOU NOTIFY THIS OFFICE IN WRITING WITHIN 30 DAYS FROM RECEIVING THIS NOTICE, THIS OFFICE WILL OBTAIN VERIFICATION OF THE DEBT OR OBTAIN A COPY OF A JUDGEMENT AND MAIL YOU A COPY OF SUCH JUDGEMENT OR VERIFICATION.

IF YOU REQUEST FROM THIS OFFICE IN WRITING, WITHIN 30 DAYS AFTER RECEIVING THIS NOTICE, THIS OFFICE WILL PROVIDE YOU WITH THE NAME AND ADDRESS OF ORIGINAL CREDITOR, IF DIFFERENT FROM THE CURRENT CREDITOR.

Contending that HFS had violated the FDCPA by "divest[ing] the consumer of his rights to dispute the debt for thirty days after receipt of the collection letter," Jacobson filed a complaint on July 30, 2004. He purported to bring a nationwide class action on behalf of himself and all other consumers who had received similar communications from HFS.2 Plaintiff did not allege any actual loss, but sought statutory damages and attorneys' fees.

Rather than answer the complaint, HFS moved for its dismissal, and in the alternative asked for summary judgment. Concluding that the letter did not violate the statute, the district court granted summary judgment to HFS. Jacobson, 434 F.Supp.2d at 139-41. Moreover, finding that plaintiff's action was brought "in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment,"

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15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3), the court awarded attorneys' fees and costs to defendant. Jacobson, 434 F.Supp.2d . at 141. This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

I. The Merits

Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party shows that there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).3 The facts relevant to this appeal are undisputed, and we review de novo the district court's holding that the collection letter did not violate the FDCPA. See Russell v. Equifax A.R.S., 74 F.3d 30, 33 (2d Cir. 1996).

In passing the FDCPA in 1977, legislators noted "abundant evidence of the use of abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices." 15 U.S.C. § 1692(a). Finding existing laws inadequate to address the problem, Congress acted with the aim of eliminating abusive practices in the debt collection industry, and also sought to ensure that "those debt collectors who refrain from using abusive debt collection practices are not competitively disadvantaged." Id. § 1692(e). These purposes inform the FDCPA's many provisions. Among other things, the Act regulates and restricts the acquisition of information about debtors. Id. §§ 1692b, 1692c. It further prohibits conduct whose natural consequence is to "harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt." Id. § 1692d. And it bars the use of "any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt," id. § 1692e, while proscribing "unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt." Id. § 1692f.

As a response to "the recurring problem of debt collectors dunning the wrong person or attempting to collect debts which the consumer has already paid," S. Rep. No. 95-382, at 4 (1977), as reprinted in 1977 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1695, 1699, the FDCPA gives the consumer the right to dispute a debt claimed by a debt collector, and to seek verification of the validity of the debt. 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(b). If the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing, "within the thirty-day period" afforded by the Act, that she disputes the debt or any portion of the debt, the debt collector must "cease collection." Id. The debt collector may resume collection activities only when it has obtained verification of the debt, and has mailed a copy of the verification to the consumer. Id. The thirty-day window is not a "grace period"; in the absence of a dispute notice, the debt collector is allowed to demand immediate payment and to continue collection activity.4By the same token, however, "[t]he failure of a consumer to dispute the validity of a debt under [§ 1692g] may not be construed by any

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court as an admission of liability." 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(c).

Significantly, the FDCPA does not assume that the recipient of a collection letter is aware of her right to require verification of the debt. Instead, the Act requires the debt collector, as the party in the better position to know the law, to inform the consumer of that right. Section 1692g(a) orders the debt collector to send a written notice, within five days of its initial communication with the consumer, stating the amount of the debt and the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692g(a)(1) & (2). This validation notice must further include "a statement that unless the consumer, within thirty days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector." Id.§ 1692g(a)(3). The notice must incorporate "a statement that if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt." Id.§ 1692g(a)(4). Finally, the notice must contain "a statement that, upon the consumer's written request within the thirty-day period, the debt collector will provide the consumer with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor." Id.§ 1692g(a)(5).

In this Circuit, the question of whether a communication complies with the FDCPA is determined from the perspective of the "least sophisticated consumer." Clomon v. Jackson, 988 F.2d 1314, 1318 (2d Cir. 1993). The purpose of the least-sophisticated-consumer standard, here as in other areas of consumer law, is to ensure that the statute protects the gullible as well as the shrewd. Id. at 1318. But in applying this standard, we bear in mind the Act's "dual purpose": in addition to protecting consumers against deceptive debt collection practices, the objective test we apply protects debt collectors from unreasonable constructions of their communications. Id. at 1320. Even in "crafting a norm that protects the naive and the credulous," we have "carefully preserved the concept of reasonableness." Id. at 1319. Accordingly, the FDCPA does not aid plaintiffs whose claims are based on "bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations of collection notices." Id. at 1320.

In this case, Jacobson concedes that the language of the validation notice, standing alone, would satisfy HFS's obligations under § 1692g(a). But that is not the end of the matter, for HFS has the obligation, not just to convey the information, but to convey it clearly. Russell, 74 F.3d at 35. Applying the least-sophisticated-consumer standard, we have held repeatedly that a debt collector violates § 1692g(a), even if the...

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