Judge Calls Out Lawsuit for Being ‘Silly,’ but Denies Sanctions

A federal judge in New Jersey has tossed a potential class-action lawsuit against a collection agency, ruling that the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case are “silly.”

A copy of the ruling in the case — Macelus v. Capital Collection Service — can be viewed here.

Attorneys for the plaintiff argued that the language used by the collection agency in a letter sent to collect on an unpaid debt of $351 was confusing and that the “least sophisticated consumer” as interpreted by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act would not have understood the identity of the actual creditor.

The letter stated the name of the creditor — Advanced Endoscopy & Surgical Center, LLC — in the top right-hand corner of the letter, included the date of service and the amount due. The letter also stated: “This claim has been sent to us for collection. We request that you pay or dispute this debt directly with this office,” and included the name of the agency at the top of the page. The letter also said “[t]his is an attempt to collect a debt by a debt collector.”

Attorneys for the plaintiff argued in their complaint that “[m]erely naming the creditor as the ‘account,’ does not explicitly convey that the ‘account’ is the current creditor to whom the debt is owed.” The defendant then threatened to file for sanctions if the complaint was not dropped. The plaintiff did not drop the case.

The judge in the case acknowledged a pair of recent rulings from the Eastern District of New York which ruled favorably for plaintiffs in relation to the identification of the current creditor in a collection letter, but in acknowledging the rulings said he was at a loss to understand how even the least sophisticated consumer could have mis-interpreted the letters as anything other than attempts to collect a debt.

Plaintiff’s arguments that this language is insufficient verge on the silly. Plaintiff argues that the letter here does not “explicitly” state that Advanced Endoscopy & Surgical Ctr, LLC—whose name is in the top right corner, in capitalized letters—is the current creditor to whom the debt is owed. “Account for,” Plaintiff argues, is an insufficient tip-off on who that creditor might be. Plaintiff similarly argues that the language of the letter, including the statement “[t]his claim has been sent to us for collection,” provides the least sophisticated consumer with “quite literally [] no way of knowing who currently owns her debt.” (Doc. No. 8 at 6.) Plaintiff further argues that some consumers are oblivious to the fact that debts are sold to buyers, and while he’s undoubtedly correct that some consumers are not aware of this, we fail to see how that fact matters here when the letter can be read only as a request to pay off a creditor’s debt. Ultimately, and despite Plaintiff’s contentions, there simply is no other way to read the letter. It literally says “this is an attempt to collect a debt by a debt collector.” The plain language of the letter indicates what its purpose is: to recover a creditor’s debts. It says who that creditor is. It says how much that creditor wants. If we assume the recipient of the letter has a passing knowledge of English, it does not strain the imagination to figure out why this ended up in his mailbox.

The judge declined to impose sanctions on the plaintiff’s attorney because of the other rulings in the Eastern District of New York offer sone basis that the lawsuit in question here was not frivolous.

By Mike Gibb