A debt collection law firm did not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) by leaving a voicemail message for the plaintiff that identified the law firm but did not expressly state that the law firm was a debt collector, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled.

It is a violation of Section 1692e(11) of the FDCPA for a debt collector to fail to make certain disclosures in its initial communication with the consumer and to fail to disclose "in subsequent communications that the communication is from a debt collector." In Davis v. Hollins Law, an employee of the defendant—described as "a law firm and debt collection agency"— initially contacted the plaintiff by telephone regarding his credit card debt. According to the court, there was no allegation that the employee failed to identify the nature of the call or the law firm as a debt collector, as required by the law firm's procedures.

The plaintiff's account was subsequently assigned to another law firm employee who—following a telephone inquiry from the plaintiff about settling his debt—exchanged a series of emails with the plaintiff about the plaintiff's settlement offer. The employee thereafter left a voicemail message for the plaintiff where the employee stated that the call was "from Gregory at Hollins Law" and provided a phone number at which he asked the plaintiff to call him. The voicemail message was followed by another exchange of emails between the plaintiff and the employee in which the employee stated that the plaintiff's initial settlement offer had been declined and that the law firm would proceed with legal action.

Following a trial on the plaintiff's FDCPA claim, the district court entered judgment for the plaintiff finding that the voicemail message "technically violated" the FDCPA because it failed to disclose that the message was from a debt collector. In reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit applied "an objective standard that takes into account whether [the law firm employee's] voicemail message would be sufficient to disclose to the least sophisticated debtor that the call was on behalf of a debt collector." It also indicated that in applying this standard, "we presume that the debtor has a basic level of understanding which does not include 'bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations' of the communication at issue."

The Ninth Circuit first observed that at the time the voicemail message was left, the plaintiff and employee already had been involved in settlement negotiations for about two weeks and a settlement offer was pending, and that in the message, the employee identified himself and the law firm by name. The court concluded that "given the extent of the prior communications, the statement in the message that the call was from “Gregory at Hollins Law" was "sufficient to disclose to a debtor with a basic level of understanding that the communication at issue was from a 'debt collector.'" In the court's view, any other interpretation of the message would be "bizarre or idiosyncratic." It stated that the FDCPA "does not require a subsequent communication to use any specific language so long as it is sufficient to disclose that the communication is from a debt collector, as it was here."

Attorneys in Ballard Spahr's Consumer Financial Services Group regularly advise clients on compliance with the FDCPA and state debt collection laws and defend clients in FDCPA lawsuits and enforcement matters. The Group is nationally recognized for its guidance in structuring and documenting new consumer financial services products, its experience with the full range of federal and state consumer credit laws throughout the country, and its skill in litigation defense and avoidance.

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