A federal judge has sided with a debtor who sued a debt collection law firm alleging it failed to provide him enough time to contest the debt.
U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the Law Offices of Frederic I. Weinberg & Associates’ motion for summary judgment and granted plaintiff Ronn Homer’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the firm violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in its validation notices.
“We conclude that the validation notice in this case violates the FDCPA because it misleads and deceives the debtor about how and when to dispute the debt,” Savage wrote in his Nov. 9 opinion. ”The notice leads the debtor to believe that he may dispute the debt orally when only a written notice of dispute is effective. It also requires the debtor to act to dispute the debt in less time than the FDCPA provides.”
The crux of the dispute was the meaning of a sentence in the debt collection notice, Savage said: “Unless we hear from you within 30 days after receipt of this letter that you dispute the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, this office will assume the debt is valid.”
Homer alleged that the notice creates confusion about how to dispute the debt and the timeframe in which to do so. He argued that the letter misleads the debtor into believing that the law firm must receive the notice of dispute within 30 days rather than that the debtor must send the notice within that timeframe.
Weinberg countered that the letter uses statutory language and does not impermissibly shorten the time the debtor has to dispute the debt. The firm maintained that “hears from you” is a colloquialism that doesn’t confuse the meaning of the statute, which says that a debtor may “dispute” the validity of the debt within 30 days.
“The letter here is misleading,” Savage concluded. “It creates the impression that the debtor can dispute the debt by calling the debt collector. The phrase ‘[u]nless we hear from you’ imparts the understanding that the debtor can dispute the validity of the debt orally. Contrary to Weinberg’s characterization, ‘hears from you’ is not a colloquial phrase that a reasonable debtor, let alone a least sophisticated debtor, would construe to mean that a dispute must be in writing.”
Cary Flitter of Flitter Milz in Narberth represents Homer and did not respond to a request seeking comment. Richard Perr of Fineman Kerkstein & Harris in Philadelphia represents Weinberg and also did not respond to a request seeking comment.