Placing Debtor’s Account Number on Envelope of Collection Letter is Not Permitted by the FDCPA

Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, 765 F.3d 299 (3d Cir. 2014).  The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §1692f(8) (“FDCPA”), forbids debt collectors from putting on the envelopes of debt collection letters “any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address.”  In this putative class action case, defendant sent plaintiff a collection letter that contained plaintiff’s account number with defendant, and that account number showed through the clear glass window of the envelope.  Plaintiff sued for violation of the FDCPA.  Defendant moved for summary judgment, on the grounds that the account number constituted “benign language” that was permitted on the face of the envelope despite section 1692f(8).  The district court agreed and granted summary judgment.  On appeal, applying the plenary standard of review applicable to decisions on motions for summary judgment,  the Third Circuit reversed, with Judge Scirica writing the panel’s opinion.

Judge Scirica began by noting that the FDCPA provision at issue addresses the language “on any envelope.”  Here, the allegedly offending language appeared “through the glassine window of the envelope.”  He concluded that, given the plain meaning of the statute, it applies to “language visible through a transparent window of an envelope.”  Indeed, defendant did not argue the contrary.

From there, it was easy.  “The text of §1692f(8) is unequivocal,” and “[t]he plain language of §1692f(8) does not permit Convergent’s envelope to display an account number.”

Judge Scirica then turned to the district court’s “benign language” rationale.  He noted that some other Circuit Courts of Appeal had, in very different circumstances from those of this case, adopted a “benign language” exception.  But the panel declined to reach the issue of whether such an exception exists, because Douglass’s account number was not benign in any event.  “The account number is a core piece of information pertaining to Douglass’s status as a debtor and Convergent’s debt collection effort.  Disclosed to the public, it could be used to expose her financial predicament.  Because Convergent’s disclosure implicates core privacy concerns, it cannot be deemed benign.”

Finally, Judge Scirica observed that the legislative history of §1692f(8) also offered no basis to permit the display of a debtor’s account number on an envelope of a collection letter.  Accordingly, the decision below was reversed and the matter was remanded for further proceedings.