New York Federal Court Dismisses FDCPA Class Action, Holds Limitations Period Under Federal Communications Act Did Not Preempt State Limitations Period

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York recently dismissed a putative class action brought under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the “FDCPA”) and held that the two-year limitations period under 47 USC § 415 for “all actions at law by carriers for recovery of their lawful charges” did not preempt New York’s statute of limitations for a lawsuit on a debt arising from an unpaid cell phone contract.  See Torres v. Midland Credit Mgmt., Inc., 2018 WL 2304771 (E.D.N.Y. May 21, 2018).  In the case, plaintiff incurred a debt for her cell phone bill that she did not pay.  In 2016, defendant sent a dunning letter regarding the debt.  Plaintiff then brought this action, alleging that the letter violated the FDCPA because it did not state that the statute of limitations had expired and that defendant legally could not bring any action to collect the debt.  Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the letter was sent within the six-year limitations period for collecting a debt under New York law.  Plaintiff opposed the motion and argued that 47 USC § 415 of the Federal Communications Act (the “FCA”) set a two-year limitations period for any actions brought by cell phone carriers and that this statute preempted New York’s statute.  See 47 USC § 415 (“All actions at law by carriers for recovery of their lawful charges, or any part thereof, shall be begun within two years from the time the cause of action accrues, and not after.”).

The Court granted defendant’s motion and dismissed the action.  Although the Court acknowledged the FCA’s plain language, a preemption analysis requires the Court to determine whether Congress intended the statute to preempt state law.  The Court found that the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning in Castro v. Collecto, Inc., 634 F.3d 779 (5th Cir. 2011) was persuasive.  In that action, the Fifth Circuit held that the term “lawful charges” in the FCA initially referred only to “tariffed charges,” and that it was unclear whether this definition had changed.  Thus, the Fifth Circuit held that “[b]ecause we conclude that the meaning of ‘lawful charges’ is ambiguous, we therefore decline to interpret the term in such a way that conflict preemption would apply.”  The Court here adopted that reasoning and dismissed the complaint, finding that the letter was not sent outside the limitations period.

For a copy of the decision, please contact Michael O’Donnell at modonnell@riker.com, Michael Crowley at mcrowley@riker.com, or Dylan Goetsch at dgoetsch@riker.com.