Under the FDCPA, letters can still mean what they say.
The least sophisticated consumer doesn’t need everything spelled out for him. Or at least that’s what the Eleventh Circuit held recently in Conde v. Webcollex, LLC, No. 18-12551 — another case where a court finds that something means exactly what it says.
The plaintiff in Conde filed suit after he got a validation letter from Webcollex telling him that:
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 after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt, this office will obtain verification of the debt or obtain a copy of a judgment and mail you a copy of such judgment or verification. If you request of this office in writing within 30 days after receiving this notice, this office will provide you with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.
The plaintiff contended that the letter violated the FDCPA because it failed to clearly state that he could dispute “any portion” of the debt, as required by 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a), and that omission amounted to a “false, deceptive, or misleading” representation under § 1692e(10). The district court granted Webcollex’s motion to dismiss, finding that the first line of the letter unambiguously told the plaintiff that he could “dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof.” On appeal, the plaintiff said that the notice was not so clear: arguing that the least sophisticated consumer could have misinterpreted Webcollex’s letter to allow the consumer to “dispute a portion of the debt orally” but that “he could only dispute the entire portion of the debt in writing.”
That argument didn’t fly with the Eleventh Circuit. Like the district court, it pointed out that the first sentence of the letter clearly stated that a consumer had the right to challenge “any portion” of the debt. And nothing later in the letter distinguished that statement or limited how a consumer could notify the office that he intended to dispute the debt. As a result, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s FDCPA claim.
The upshot of Conde is the Eleventh Circuit made it clear that the least sophisticated consumer standard doesn’t allow a plaintiff or a court take a blue pen to a validation letter. If the letter is clear on its face about letting the consumer know that he has the right to dispute any part of the debt — and isn’t otherwise contradictory or misleading — then that’s enough. The standard is meant to protect the naïve, not the imaginative.