Sheriff v. Gillie, No. 15–338.

CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation136 S.Ct. 1594,194 L.Ed.2d 625
Parties Mark J. SHERIFF, et al., Petitioners v. Pamela GILLIE, et al.
Decision Date16 May 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15–338.

136 S.Ct. 1594
194 L.Ed.2d 625

Mark J. SHERIFF, et al., Petitioners
v.
Pamela GILLIE, et al.

No. 15–338.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued March 29, 2016.
Decided May 16, 2016.


Eric E. Murphy, for petitioners.

E. Joshua Rosenkranz, New York, NY, for respondents.

Sarah E. Harrington, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the respondents.

Michael DeWine, Attorney General of Ohio, Eric E. Murphy, State Solicitor, Michael J. Hendershot, Chief Deputy Solicitor, Hannah C. Wilson, Deputy Solicitor, Columbus, OH, for petitioner Michael DeWine, Attorney General of Ohio.

Michael L. Close, Mark Landes, Dale D. Cook, Isaac Wiles Burkholder, & Teetor, Columbus, OH, for petitioners Wiles, Boyle, Burkholder & Bringardner Co., LPA, Mark Sheriff, and Sarah Sheriff.

Boyd W. Gentry, Law Office of Boyd W. Gentry, Beavercreek, OH, for respondents Eric Jones and The Law Office of Eric A. Jones, LLC.

Thomas M. Bondy, Jeremy Peterman, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, Washington, DC, James E. Nobile, Eric E. Willison, Michael B. Zieg, Nobile & Thompson Co., L.P.A., Hilliard, OH, E. Joshua Rosenkranz, Rachel Wainer Apter, Kevin Arlyck, Sarah M. Sternlieb, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, New York, NY, for respondents.

Justice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

Ohio law authorizes the State's Attorney General to retain, as independent contractors, "special counsel" to act on the Attorney General's behalf in collecting certain debts owed to Ohio or an instrumentality of the State. Ohio Rev.Code Ann. § 109.08 (Lexis 2014). As required by the Attorney General, special counsel use the Attorney General's letterhead in communicating with debtors. App. 93. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 91 Stat. 874, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq . (FDCPA or Act),

136 S.Ct. 1598

aims to eliminate "abusive debt collection practices." § 1692(a) -(d). To that end, the Act imposes various procedural and substantive obligations on debt collectors. See, e.g., § 1692d (prohibiting harassing, oppressive, or abusive conduct); § 1692e (barring "false, deceptive, or misleading representation[s] ... in connection with the collection of any debt"); § 1692g(a) (setting out requirements for the contents of initial notices to consumers). The FDCPA excludes from the definition of "debt collector" "any officer or employee of the United States or any State to the extent that collecting ... any debt is in the performance of his official duties." § 1692a(6)(C).

This case involves litigation between debtors to Ohio institutions and special counsel who sought to collect money owed to the institutions. The petition raises two questions: (1) Do special counsel appointed by Ohio's Attorney General qualify as "state officers" exempt from the FDCPA's governance? (2) Is special counsel's use of the Attorney General's letterhead a false or misleading representation proscribed by § 1692e ?

Assuming, arguendo, that special counsel do not rank as "state officers," we hold, nevertheless, that their use of the Attorney General's letterhead does not offend § 1692e. Not fairly described as "false" or "misleading," use of the letterhead accurately conveys that special counsel, in seeking to collect debts owed to the State, do so on behalf of, and as instructed by, the Attorney General.

I

Responding to reports of abusive practices by third-party collectors of consumer debts, Congress enacted the FDCPA "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." § 1692(e). Primarily governing "debt collector[s]," the Act defines that term to include "any person ... in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect ... debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another." § 1692a(6). Excluded from the definition is "any officer or employee of the United States or any State to the extent that collecting or attempting to collect any debt is in the performance of his official duties." § 1692a(6)(C).

Among other proscriptions, the FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from employing "false, deceptive, or misleading" practices. § 1692e. "Without limiting" this general ban, § 1692e enumerates 16 categories of conduct that qualify as false or misleading. Two of those categories are pertinent to our review: "[t]he use or distribution of any written communication which simulates or is falsely represented to be a document authorized, issued, or approved by any court, official, or agency of ... any State, or which creates a false impression as to its source, authorization, or approval," § 1692e(9) ; and "[t]he use of any business, company, or organization name other than the true name of the debt collector's business, company, or organization," § 1692e(14). A debt collector who violates the Act is liable for both actual and statutory damages. § 1692k(a).

This case concerns the debt collection practices of those charged with collecting overdue debts owed to Ohio-owned agencies and instrumentalities. Among such debts are past-due tuition owed to public universities and unpaid medical bills from state-run hospitals. Under Ohio law, overdue debts are certified to the State's Attorney

136 S.Ct. 1599

General, who is responsible for collecting, settling, or otherwise disposing of them. Ohio Rev.Code Ann. § 131.02(A), (C), (F). Carrying out this responsibility, the Attorney General may appoint private attorneys as "special counsel to represent the state" in collecting certified claims. § 109.08.

Special counsel enter into year-long retention agreements "on an independent contractor basis" to "provide legal services on behalf of the Attorney General to one or more State Clients." App. 143–144. The Attorney General's Office assigns individual claims to special counsel, who are paid a set percentage of the funds they collect for the State. § 109.08 ; id., at 144–145, 149–152. With "the prior approval of the Attorney General," special counsel may litigate and settle claims on behalf of the State. Id., at 149. Special counsel may continue to represent private clients so long as doing so does not create a conflict of interest with their work for the Attorney General. Among the special counsel appointed by the Attorney General in 2012 were Mark Sheriff, a partner at the law firm of Wiles, Boyle, Burkholder, and Bringardner Co. LPA (Wiles firm), and Eric Jones, of the Law Offices of Eric A. Jones, LLC.

When special counsel contact debtors on behalf of the State, the Attorney General requires them to use his letterhead. Id., at 93. Consistent with this requirement, Sarah Sheriff, an employee of the Wiles firm, sent respondent Hazel Meadows a debt collection letter on the Ohio Attorney General's letterhead. The letter reads:

"Sir/Madam: Per your request, this is a letter with the current balance owed for your University of Akron loan that has been placed with the Ohio Attorney General. Feel free to contact me at [telephone number] should you have any further questions." Gillie v. Law Office of Eric A. Jones, LLC, 785 F.3d 1091, 1119 (C.A.6 2015).

The amount Meadows owed is listed in the letter's subject line. Ibid. After the body of the letter, Sheriff's signature appears, followed by the firm's name, its address, and the designation "Special Counsel to the Attorney General for the State of Ohio." Ibid.1 The letter concludes with a notice that it is "an attempt to collect a debt" and that the senders "are debt collectors." Ibid.

Respondent Pamela Gillie received a letter, also on the Ohio Attorney General's letterhead, in relation to a debt she owed to a state-run hospital:

"Dear Sir/Madam, You have chosen to ignore repeated attempts to resolv[e] the referenced ... medical claim. If you cannot make immediate full payment call DENISE HALL at Eric A. Jones, L.L.C., [phone number] at my office to make arrangements to pay this debt." Id., at 1118.

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59 practice notes
  • Martin v. Trott Law, P.C., Case Number 15-12838
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Michigan)
    • July 26, 2016
    ...and to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses.' " Sheriff v. Gillie , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1594, 1598, 194 L.Ed.2d 625 (2016) (quoting 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e) ). "The Act prohibits a wide array of specific conduct, but it also prohibits, in gene......
  • Friends River v. N. Coast R.R. Auth., S222472
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • July 27, 2017
    ...U.S. at pp. 140-141, 124 S.Ct. 1555 ; Gregory , supra , 501 U.S. at pp. 459-461, 111 S.Ct. 2395 ; Sheriff v. Gillie (2016) 578 U.S. ---- [136 S.Ct. 1594, 1602] 194 L.Ed.2d 625 ( Gillie ); City of Los Angeles v. County of Kern (2014) 59 Cal.4th 618, 631, 174 Cal.Rptr.3d 67, 328 P.3d 56 ["Pri......
  • Friends River v. N. Coast R.R. Auth., S222472
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • July 27, 2017
    ...U.S. at pp. 140-141, 124 S.Ct. 1555 ; Gregory , supra , 501 U.S. at pp. 459-461, 111 S.Ct. 2395 ; Sheriff v. Gillie (2016) 578 U.S. ---- [136 S.Ct. 1594, 1602] 194 L.Ed.2d 625 ( Gillie ); City of Los Angeles v. County of Kern (2014) 59 Cal.4th 618, 631, 174 Cal.Rptr.3d 67, 328 P.3d 56 ["Pri......
  • Vien–Phuong Thi Ho v. Recontrust Co., NA, No. 10-56884
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • October 19, 2016
    ...that interferes with California's system for conducting non-judicial foreclosures. 858 F.3d 577Cf. Sheriff v. Gillie , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1594, 1601, 194 L.Ed.2d 625 (2016).II The district court twice dismissed Ho's TILA rescission claim without prejudice, and Ho didn't replead it in ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
59 cases
  • Martin v. Trott Law, P.C., Case Number 15-12838
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Michigan)
    • July 26, 2016
    ...and to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses.' " Sheriff v. Gillie , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1594, 1598, 194 L.Ed.2d 625 (2016) (quoting 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e) ). "The Act prohibits a wide array of specific conduct, but it also prohibits, in gene......
  • Friends River v. N. Coast R.R. Auth., S222472
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • July 27, 2017
    ...U.S. at pp. 140-141, 124 S.Ct. 1555 ; Gregory , supra , 501 U.S. at pp. 459-461, 111 S.Ct. 2395 ; Sheriff v. Gillie (2016) 578 U.S. ---- [136 S.Ct. 1594, 1602] 194 L.Ed.2d 625 ( Gillie ); City of Los Angeles v. County of Kern (2014) 59 Cal.4th 618, 631, 174 Cal.Rptr.3d 67, 328 P.3d 56 ["Pri......
  • Friends River v. N. Coast R.R. Auth., S222472
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • July 27, 2017
    ...U.S. at pp. 140-141, 124 S.Ct. 1555 ; Gregory , supra , 501 U.S. at pp. 459-461, 111 S.Ct. 2395 ; Sheriff v. Gillie (2016) 578 U.S. ---- [136 S.Ct. 1594, 1602] 194 L.Ed.2d 625 ( Gillie ); City of Los Angeles v. County of Kern (2014) 59 Cal.4th 618, 631, 174 Cal.Rptr.3d 67, 328 P.3d 56 ["Pri......
  • Vien–Phuong Thi Ho v. Recontrust Co., NA, No. 10-56884
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • October 19, 2016
    ...that interferes with California's system for conducting non-judicial foreclosures. 858 F.3d 577Cf. Sheriff v. Gillie , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1594, 1601, 194 L.Ed.2d 625 (2016).II The district court twice dismissed Ho's TILA rescission claim without prejudice, and Ho didn't replead it in ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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