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The full case caption appears at the end of this opinion. Manion, Circuit Judge. Lori Pettit claims thatthe Retrieval Masters Creditors Bureau(Retrieval) and its president–Russell Fuchs–violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act(FDCPA) by using its name in a collection letter.Specifically, she contends that the name”Retrieval Masters Creditors Bureau,Incorporated” is deceptive because it leadsunsophisticated debtors to believe that Retrievalis a credit bureau rather than a collectionagency. The district court granted summaryjudgment for Fuchs because he is not a “debtcollector.” It also granted summary judgment forRetrieval based on its view that the letter wasnot deceptive as a matter of law. We affirmbecause under the FDCPA Fuchs is not a debtcollector and because Pettit failed to create agenuine issue of material fact as to whether anunsophisticated debtor would find Retrieval’sname misleading. We also reject her argument thather own subjective belief that all debtcollectors are credit bureaus results inliability for Retrieval Masters. A. Liability of the Debt Collector’sShareholders or Officers Under the FDCPA The FDCPA is designed to protect against abusivedebt collection practices which would likelydisrupt a debtor’s life. Mace v. Van Ru CreditCorp., 109 F.3d 338, 343 (7th Cir. 1997). Itsprovisions generally apply only to debtcollectors. See 15 U.S.C. sec. 1692(e);Transamerica Fin. Servs., Inc. v. Sykes, 171 F.3d553, 554 n.1 (7th Cir. 1999); Whitaker v.Ameritech Corp., 129 F.3d 952, 958 (7th Cir.1997). A “debt collector” is defined as “anyperson who uses any instrumentality of interstatecommerce or the mails in any business theprincipal purpose of which is the collection ofany debts, or who regularly collects or attemptsto collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed ordue or asserted to be owed or due another.” 15U.S.C. sec. 1692a(6). Pettit argues that Russell Fuchs–as the largestshareholder and president of Retrieval Masters–is a debt collector under the terms of the FDCPA,and thus is personally liable for any violationsof the Act perpetrated by Retrieval, or at leastfor those violations in which he was intimatelyinvolved. The district court rejected thisargument and held that Fuchs is not liable underthe FDCPA because he exercised little or no day-to-day control over Retrieval Masters. Pettit v.Retrieval Masters Creditors Bureau, Inc., 42 F.Supp.2d 797, 805 (N.D. Ill. 1999). But under ourholding in White v. Goodman, the extent ofcontrol exercised by an officer or shareholder isirrelevant to determining his liability under theFDCPA. 200 F.3d 1016, 1019 (7th Cir. 2000).Because such individuals do not become “debtcollectors” simply by working for or owning stockin debt collection companies, we held that theAct does not contemplate personal liability forshareholders or employees of debt collectioncompanies who act on behalf of those companies,except perhaps in limited instances where thecorporate veil is pierced. Id.; Aubert v.American Gen. Fin., Inc., 137 F.3d 976, 979-80(7th Cir. 1998). Rather, the FDCPA has utilizedthe principle of vicarious liability. SeeWadlington v. Credit Acceptance Corp., 76 F.3d103, 108 (6th Cir. 1996); Fox v. Citicorp CreditServs., Inc., 15 F.3d 1507, 1516 (9th Cir. 1994).Just as in the Title VII context, the debtcollection company answers for its employees’violations of the statute. With vicarious orrespondeat superior liability, the debtcollection company “and its managers have theproper incentives to adequately disciplinewayward employees, as well as to instruct andtrain employees to avoid actions that mightimpose liability.” U.S. EEOC v. AIC Sec.Investigations, Ltd., 55 F.3d 1276, 1282 (7thCir. 1995). Individuals who do not otherwise meetthe statutory definition of “debt collector”cannot be held liable under the Act.Transamerica, 171 F.3d at 554 n.1. As wementioned in White, FDCPA suits against theowners of a debt collection company who are nototherwise debt collectors are frivolous and mightwell warrant sanctions. 200 F.3d at 1019. Theholding of White is equally applicable to thiscase, so regardless of whether Fuchs exercisedextensive control over Retrieval Masters, thedistrict court correctly granted summary judgmentfor Fuchs. Of course, Pettit may still seekredress from Retrieval Masters for any violationsof the Act committed by Fuchs, since it isundisputed that Retrieval is a debt collector. B. The FDCPA and the UnsophisticatedDebtor The FDCPA specifically prohibits a “falserepresentation or implication that a debtcollector operates or is employed by a consumerreporting agency . . . .” 15 U.S.C. sec.1692e(16). A consumer reporting agency is “anyperson which, for monetary fees . . . regularlyengages in whole or in part in the practice ofassembling or evaluating consumer creditinformation or other information on consumers forthe purpose of furnishing consumer reports tothird parties . . . .” 15 U.S.C. sec. 1681a(f).The purpose of this provision is to prevent debtcollectors from coercing payments from debtors byfalsely leading them to believe that the failureto pay the debt will adversely affect thedebtor’s credit rating and ability to obtaincredit. Cf. McKenzie v. E.A. Uffman & Assocs.,Inc., 119 F.3d 358, 361 (5th Cir. 1997). Practices purporting to violate the Act must beviewed from the objective standard of an”unsophisticated debtor.” Bartlett v. Heibl, 128F.3d 497, 500 (7th Cir. 1997); Jang v. A.M.Miller & Assoc., 122 F.3d 480, 483 (7th Cir.1997). In attempting to describe thishypothetical debtor we have recognized that he isnot as learned in commercial matters as arefederal judges, see Walker v. National Recovery,Inc., 200 F.3d 500, 501 (7th Cir. 1999), butneither is he completely ignorant. Thus, on theone hand, we have described an unsophisticateddebtor as “uninformed, naive, or trusting.”Gammon v. GC Servs., Ltd. Partnership, 27 F.3d1254, 1257 (7th Cir. 1994). At the same time, wehave rejected the “least sophisticated debtor”standard used by some other circuits because wedon’t believe that the unsophisticated debtorstandard should be tied to “the very last rung onthe sophistication ladder.” Id. Instead, we andother courts have held that our uneducated debtorpossesses rudimentary knowledge about thefinancial world, is wise enough to readcollection notices with added care, possesses”reasonable intelligence,” and is capable ofmaking basic logical deductions and inferences.See Chaudhry v. Gallerizzo, 174 F.3d 394, 408-09(4th Cir. 1999); United States v. National Fin.Servs., Inc., 98 F.3d 131, 136 (4th Cir. 1996);Gammon, 27 F.3d at 1257; Clomon v. Jackson, 988F.2d 1314, 1319 (2d Cir. 1993). Furthermore,while our unwary debtor may tend to readcollection letters literally, he does notinterpret them in a bizarre or idiosyncraticfashion. White, 200 F.3d at 1020; Taylor v.Perrin, Landry, deLaunay & Durand, 103 F.3d 1232,1236 (5th Cir. 1997). According to ourunsophisticated debtor standard, a statement willnot be confusing or misleading unless asignificant fraction of the population would besimilarly misled. Gammon, 27 F.3d at 1260(Easterbrook, J., concurring). With this standardin mind, we turn to the letter at hand. C. No Genuine Issue of Material Fact The first thing a person notices when readingthe letter is the name “RETRIEVAL MASTERSCREDITORS BUREAU, INC.” which is prominentlydisplayed, in capital letters, at the top of thecorrespondence. See Appendix. Almost as prominentare the words, also in capital letters, “RCMBCOLLECTION AGENCY”. In smaller type, the letteralso informs Pettit that Retrieval Masters is amember of the “American Collectors Association,Incorporated.” The body of the letter plainlystates that “your account is now being handled bydebt collectors . . .”, and it warns Pettit thata failure to pay the debt might result in hername being placed on the “National DelinquentDebtor File, which could affect your ability toobtain certain types of credit . . . .” Theletter is signed by a person identified as a”Collection Manager.” Finally, the letterinstructs Pettit to examine the reverse side,which informs her in plain English that “[t]hisis an attempt to collect a debt.” The district court held that this letter wouldnot dupe an unsophisticated debtor into believingthat Retrieval Masters was a credit bureau.Pettit, 42 F. Supp.2d at 810. The court based itsholding on the fact that the letter does notsuffer from the usual defects which result inFDCPA liability. For instance, it does notcontain an explicit statement that Retrieval is acredit bureau. [FOOTNOTE 1] There are no inconsistent orcontradictory assertions concerning Retrieval’sstatus with respect to being a credit bureau or acollection agency, and the letter does not buryor overshadow its identification of Retrieval asa collection agency with a suggestion that it isa credit bureau. Rather, Retrieval’s reminderthat the creditor might place Pettit’s name onthe National Delinquent Debtor File suggests tothe reader that Retrieval is not a credit bureau,since it is not the one in charge of theDelinquent Debtor File. As the district courtstated: “Obviously, RMCB is warning that Pettit’sname will be turned over to a credit reportingagency if she does not pay promptly. If RMCB wasfalsely suggesting that RMCB itself was a creditbureau, it would not need to threaten to reporther to a credit reporting agency.” 42 F. Supp.2dat 810. Undeterred, Pettit points to the obvioussimilarity between the term “Creditors Bureau” inthe defendant’s name and the term “creditbureau,” and argues that an unlearned debtormight mistakenly read the name as “creditbureau.” While it’s true that upon cursory reviewthis or any other collection letter could bemisread, as we mentioned above, even anunsophisticated debtor reads collection letterscarefully so as to be sure of their content.Gammon, 27 F.3d at 1257. A careful reading of theletter would not lead an unsophisticated debtorto believe that Retrieval is identified as acredit reporting agency. So we agree with thedistrict court that any danger of misreadingcreated by simply placing the name “RetrievalMasters Creditors Bureau, Inc.” on the letterheaddoes not violate the Act. [FOOTNOTE 2] White, 200 F.3d at1020; Chaudhry, 174 F.3d at 408; Clomon, 988 F.2dat 1319. So Pettit can’t prevail on her”misreading” argument. [FOOTNOTE 3] Pettit also argues that an unsophisticateddebtor might believe that there is no differencebetween a creditors’ bureau and a credit bureau,or that the collection agency in question is botha credit bureau and a creditors’ bureau, and sothe letter would be deceiving in this respect.While there may be some merit to this argument,Pettit cannot prevail because at the summaryjudgment stage of a case she must do more thanmerely speculate about how a naive debtor wouldinterpret the letter. The non-moving party mustoffer sufficient evidence to create a genuinefactual issue for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P.56(e). But Pettit presents little on this point.The best she could come up with was her own self-serving deposition testimony that Retrieval’sname led her to believe that the company was acredit bureau. This fails to create a genuineissue as to whether a significant fraction of thepopulation would have believed the same thingafter reading this letter. Robin v. Espo Eng’gCorp., 200 F.3d 1081, 1088 (7th Cir. 2000)(nonmoving party “must supply evidence sufficientto allow a jury to render a verdict in hisfavor.”). We have advised litigants on severaloccasions that this feat might be accomplishedthrough the use of survey evidence, see, e.g.,Walker, 200 F.3d at 501; Johnson v. RevenueManagement Corp., 169 F.3d 1057, 1060 (7th Cir.1999), but Pettit elected not to take this route.The self-serving opinion of the plaintiff,clearly not an expert or an objective observer,does not create a genuine issue for trial.Therefore, for this reason alone summary judgmentwas proper. D. Imputation of Irrationality to theUnsophisticated Debtor Another more substantial problem exists withPettit’s reliance on her own depositiontestimony. This court has held that it will notascribe to the hypothetical unsophisticateddebtor all of the irrational notions which FDCPAplaintiffs might suggest. White, 200 F.3d at1020. Yet that is exactly what Pettit asks us todo here. In her deposition she revealed her ownsubjective standard for an unsophisticateddebtor. Pettit essentially contends that nomatter what name Retrieval had used, she (as thetypical unsophisticated debtor) would havethought that it was a credit bureau, because shethought that credit bureaus and collectionagencies were the same thing. Q: When you received this letter in August of1997, what about the letter made you think thatit was from a credit bureau? Pettit: The name Creditors Bureau. Q: Is that the only thing? Pettit: Yes. Q: But you also knew that it was from a debtcollector, right? Pettit: I thought they were the same thing. Pettit Dep. p. 25. Pettit’s self-serving testimony does not serveher well. Her proposed standard would createliability for debt collectors based oninformation which the Act requires debtcollectors to place in their collection letters.15 U.S.C. sec. 1692e(11) (debt collector mustinform the debtor that it is attempting tocollect a debt, and thus that it is a debtcollector); Lewis v. ACB Business Servs., Inc.,135 F.3d 389, 399 (6th Cir. 1998) (debt collectormust inform the debtor that the dunning letter isfrom a debt collector who is attempting tocollect a debt). We obviously cannot acceptPettit’s claimed level of unsophistication as thelevel of unsophistication possessed by thetypical unsophisticated debtor. If we did, nearlyall collection letters from debt collectors wouldviolate the Act. Under Pettit’s standard, anyletter which states it is an attempt to collect adebt or which states that it is from a collectionagency would lead someone with Pettit’s mindsetto believe not only that the letter is from acollection agency, but also, because she believesthat collection agencies are credit bureaus, thatthe debt collector sending her the letter is acredit bureau. Pettit’s proposed standard ofunsophistication would mean that all attempts tocollect debts by non-credit bureau debtcollectors would violate the FDCPA. But the textof the FDCPA implicitly places limits on how farwe can go in attributing unenlightened notions toour hypothetical debtor. White, 200 F.3d at 1020;Smith v. Computer Credit, Inc., 167 F.3d 1052,1055 (6th Cir. 1999) (“A collection agency doesnot have to stop its collection efforts to complywith the Act.”). In short, under the FDCPA,confusion is not in the eyes of the beholder. Aswe said in White, the “Act is not violated by adunning letter that is susceptible of aningenious misreading, for then every dunningletter would violate it. The Act protects theunsophisticated debtor, but not the irrationalone.” White, 200 F.3d at 1020. As a matter oflaw, the extremely low level of sophisticationand the high level of irrationality suggested byPettit is not the standard for unsophisticateddebtors. Chaudhry, 174 F.3d at 409 (leastsophisticated debtor standard preserves aquotient of reasonableness and presumes a basiclevel of understanding). Accordingly, thedistrict court correctly granted summary judgmentfor Retrieval Masters. We AFFIRM. :::FOOTNOTES::: FN1 Prior to 1979, Retrieval’s official name was”Retrieval Masters Credit Bureau, Inc.” The namechange was engendered by the Federal TradeCommission’s suggestion that “Credit Bureau” wasmisleading. The FTC has made no complaint aboutRetrieval’s present name. FN2 This is not to say that Retrieval Masterscouldn’t improve the letter. In the future, itmight place in its collection letters an explicitstatement that it is not a credit reportingagency. As we discuss below, this would not havemattered in Pettit’s case because she believedthat all debt collectors were credit bureaus, butsuch a disclaimer may prove helpful to somedebtors. FN3 Pettit attempts to support her argument with aFifth Circuit opinion dealing with a collectionagency that used the name “CollectionsDepartment, Credit Bureau of Baton Rouge.” SeeMcKenzie, 119 F.3d at 358. The McKenzie courtfound that this name would lead debtors tobelieve that the company was a credit reportingagency. Obviously that case is distinguishablefrom the present one for, as we point out above,Retrieval Masters did not use the term “creditbureau” in its name or any other part of theletter.
Pettit v. Retrieval Masters Creditors Bureau, Inc. In the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Lori Pettit, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Retrieval Masters Creditors Bureau, Inc., and Russell Fuchs, Defendants-Appellees. No. 99-1797 Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 98 C 1154–Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, Judge. Argued: October 25, 1999 Decided: May 9, 2000 Before: Easterbrook, Manion, and Rovner, Circuit Judges.
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