Seventh Circuit Holds Secure Email Did Not Constitute a Communication Under the FDCPA, and Link to Validation Notice Was Improper

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held that a debt collector’s secure emails did not constitute an initial communication under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) and, even if they did, that the validation notices linked from the emails were not effectively given to the debtor.  See Lavallee v. Med-1 Sols., LLC, 2019 WL 3720875 (7th Cir. Aug. 8, 2019).  In the case, plaintiff incurred two debts that were referred to defendant for collection.  Defendant sent emails to plaintiff on each debt in April and May 2015 that stated “Med-1 Solutions has sent you a secure message” and contained a hyperlink that would have brought plaintiff to a website operated by defendant’s sister company.  Plaintiff never opened either email.  Had she done so, she would have had to click on a number of links and download a PDF to view the validation notice that defendant was required to send under the FDCPA.  See 15 U.S.C. § 1692g (requiring the debt collector to provide a validation notice to the debtor within five days of the “initial communication with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt.”).  In November 2015, plaintiff learned about these debts and called defendant about the same, but defendant never sent any more validation notices.  Plaintiff then brought this action, claiming defendant violated the FDCPA by failing to send the required notices.  Defendant argued that the April and May emails constituted “initial communications” under the FDCPA and linked the notices, which was all that was required.  The District Court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed.  First, the Court found that the April and May emails did not constitute “initial communications” under the FDCPA.  A “communication” is defined as “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.”  See 15 U.S.C. § 1692g.  In this case, no information about the debt was conveyed to plaintiff, because the email only said “Med-1 Solutions has sent you a secure message” and contained a hyperlink.  Thus, the initial communication between the parties was the November phone call, and defendant failed to send the validation notice within five days after that call.  Second, even if those emails were initial communications, the Court found that they did not contain the proper disclosures.  The emails contained a link to another site that itself contained a link to download a PDF that included the disclosures.  The Court found that “[a]t best, the emails provided a digital pathway to access the required information” and a communication does not properly include the disclosures “when it merely provides a means to access them.”

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.