Monday, August 9, 2010

Leaving Voicemail Messages - Ninth Circuit May Resolve The Foti Issue

Debt collectors who have struggled to formulate what voicemail message, if any, to leave for consumers may be receiving guidance on the issue if the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decides to grant the petition that was filed on December 29, 2010, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), in the case of Koby v. ARS National Service, Inc, 2010 WL 1438763 (S.D. Cal. March 29, 2010). A copy of the petition filed with the Court by defendant ARS National Services, Inc. can be read and downloaded here:

Koby v. ARS National Services, Inc. Section 1292(b) Petition To Ninth Circuit -

In Koby, the United States District Court for the Southern District of California found that the following voice mail message left for one of the plaintiffs, Michael Simmons, was NOT a “communication” within the meaning of the FDCPA, and, therefore, when defendant left the message it had NOT violated section 1692e(11) of the Act:

This is Brian Cooper. This call is for Mike Simmons, I need you to return this call as soon as you get this message 877-333-3880, extension 2571.”

Regarding this message, the court held: “The Court, however, finds the message left for Plaintiff Simmons, which merely included the caller's name and asked for a return call, does not convey, directly or even indirectly, any information regarding the debt owed. As such, the claim based upon the voicemail message left with Plaintiff Simmons would not permit recovery under section 1692e(11) and Defendant is entitled to judgment as to this claim.” This portion of the Koby opinion is very similar to the case of Biggs v. Credit Collections Inc., 2007 WL 4034997 *4 (W.D. Okla. Nov.15, 2007).

Having made this ruling, however, the district court also held that the same message, and two other similar messages, left for plaintiffs Koby and Supler, violated section 1692d(6) of the FDCPA, by failing to “meaningfully disclose” the identity of the collector. The court also found that the Koby and Supler messages did constitute “communications” under the FDCPA, and therefore the complaint had stated a section 1692e(11) claim with respect to those messages. The Koby and Supler messages were alleged to state the following:

This is Robin calling for Michael Koby, if you could please return my call at 800-440-6613. My direct extension is 3171. Please refer to your Reference Number as 15983225.”

Hey John, uh, it's Mike Mazzouli with ARS National. Umm, there appears to be some documents here in my office, uh, John at this point your [sic] involved. Call me as soon as you can. My direct number and direct extension is 800-440-6613; I'm at extension 3697. Thank you.

Recently, the district court held, consistent with the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), that its ruling “involves controlling questions of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion, and that an immediate appeal from the Order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation” and the district court therefore certified the following two questions to the Ninth Circuit:

1. Do each of the voice mail messages as alleged in the complaint in this action constitute a ‘communication’ within the meaning of section 1692a(2) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et. seq., (the “FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq.;” and

2. Do the voice mail messages as alleged in the complaint violate section 1692e(11) and/or section 1692d(6) of the FDCPA?

The principal reasons raised by ARS in the petition explaining why the Ninth Circuit should take the appeal are:

• The messages are not “communications” under the plain language of the FDCPA. They did not disclose any information “regarding a debt,” such as the amount due, the name of the creditor or the applicable interest rate. By omitting this information, ARS respected the consumer’s right to privacy.

• The messages did meaningfully disclose the “caller’s identity,” because each message stated the name of the caller and provided the consumer with a toll-free number to return the call. In the context of a voice mail message, this is sufficiently meaningful disclosure.

• The district court correctly held that the message left for Plaintiff Simmons – “which merely included the caller’s name and asked for a return call” – was not a “communication” under the FDCPA, and therefore did not violate section 1692e(11) of the Act. This is consistent with the holding of the district court of Oklahoma in Biggs v. Credit Collections, Inc., 2007 WL 4034997, *4 (W.D. Okla. Nov. 15, 2007).

• The district court erred, however, when it held that the messages left for Plaintiffs Koby and Supler stated a viable claim under section 1692e(11), as this cannot be reconciled with the ruling on the message left for Plaintiff Simmons. The only differences are that the message for Koby also mentioned a “reference number” and the message for Supler also mentioned “documents” in the caller’s office.

• The district court erred when it held that all three messages stated a viable claim under section 1692d(6) for failure to provide meaningful disclosure of the caller’s identity. The court reasoned that a collector can avoid liability under 1692d(6) by not leaving any message at all, but this directly conflicts with a ruling issued by the Northern District of California, which effectively held that a collector must leave a voice mail message in order to avoid liability.

• The logic of the district court is internally inconsistent, since it found that ARS did not “communicate” with Simmons when ruling on the section 1692e(11) claim, but also found that ARS was required to state it was a “debt collector” attempting to collect a debt in order to comply with section 1692d(6).

• There are serious constitutional issues raised by the district court’s interpretation of the FDCPA, because the messages are a valid form of commercial speech. The ruling, read in conjunction with other district court cases, would expose collectors to strict liability every time they place a call, deterring calls to consumers, and silencing an entire channel of commercial speech. This violates the canon of “constitutional avoidance” which prohibits courts from interpreting statutes in a way that raises serious constitutional issues.

The Ninth Circuit should rule on the petition within the next few months and, if it is granted, the matter will then proceed as a normal appeal.


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