“Flimsy” Case Dismissed, But No Rule 11 Sanctions Awarded

This is a case where the plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed, but sanctions were denied. A medical provider hired Capital Collection to try to collect a bill for $351. The plaintiff sued under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. He alleged that the “least sophisticated consumer” would not understand to whom the debt belongs. As you can see, the plaintiff’s claim had little merit.

There is only one claim in the amended complaint: that Defendant failed to disclose the “name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed” when it wrote “Account for: Advanced Endoscopy & Surgical Ctr, LLC.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(2). In the Third Circuit, communications from lenders to debtors subject to the FDCPA are analyzed from the perspective of the “least sophisticated debtor.” Brown, 464 F.3d at 454. The goal is to protect “all consumers, the gullible as well as the shrewd.” Id. (quotations omitted). A degree of care in choice of words is therefore required. “[M]ore is required than the mere inclusion of the statutory debt validation notice in the debt collection letter—the required notice must also be conveyed effectively to the debtor.” Wilson v. Quadramed Corp., 225 F.3d 350, 354 (3d Cir. 2000). However, the FDCPA prevents liability for “bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations of collection notices by preserving a quotient of reasonableness and presuming a basic level of understanding and willingness to read with care.” Wilson, 225 F.3d at 354-55 (3d Cir. 2000) (quotations and citations omitted). We note, further, that we are to evaluate the entire letter, not bits and pieces of it. Context matters. See, e.g., Wright v. Phillips & Cohen Assocs., Ltd., 2014 WL 4471396, at *5 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2014) (“The least sophisticated consumer would have known, after reading the entirety of the letter, that Defendant sought to collect a debt on behalf of [a creditor].”).

We note at the outset that Datiz and McGinty are merely persuasive authority on this Court, and not very persuasive at that. We are at pains to understand how even the “least sophisticated” of consumers—consumers definitionally being persons who pay bills (i.e., “consume”) at least occasionally—would fail to identify that a bill was being collected on by the Datiz or McGinty letters and that that bill related to the creditor identified by “re.” But that is of no moment here, for we need not decide on the meaning of “re.” We are asked instead to decide on whether “Account for” is language that sufficiently conveys, to the least sophisticated consumer, notice of a creditor seeking recovery of a debt.

Plaintiff’s argument for this proposition verges 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. And we presume Plaintiff has “a basic level of understanding and willingness to read with care.” Wilson, 225 F.3d at 354-55.

We therefore agree with Defendant that “the least sophisticated consumer does not mean an imbecile.” The letter at issue today appears to this Court to be fair notice, readable, and obviously relating to an outstanding debt owed to the creditor Advanced Endoscopy & Surgical Ctr., LLC and whose recovery is sought by a debt collector. It follows that Plaintiff’s complaint is bereft of merit and is, accordingly, dismissed.

Despite that holding, the court denied the Rule 11 sanctions motion even though the court faulted the work of the plaintiff’s lawyer. The reasoning:

Rule 11 requires an attorney who signs a complaint to certify that there is a reasonable basis in law or fact for the claim. Plaintiff has relied on two cases that found “re” to be insufficiently precise under the FDCPA, but aside from that has presented precious little to show this claim was remotely meritorious. Although we believe Defendant has failed to “stop, think, investigate and research before filing papers with the court,” Gaiarado v. Ethyl Corp., 835 F.2d 479, 482 (3d Cir. 1987),the fact that some courts have entertained similar actions indicates some basis in reality for believing the suit was not entirely frivolous. We therefore decline to impose sanctions, and the motion for sanctions is denied.

In sum, it takes a great deal of poor legal work to obtain Rule 11 sanctions. And, even here, where the complaint was extremely weak – there was not enough to merit sanctions.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

Macelus v. Capital Collection

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