The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held that a debt collector’s inclusion of the phrase “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” on the outside of a debt collection letter violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). See Preston v. Midland Credit Mgmt., Inc., 2020 WL 290451 (7th Cir. Jan. 21, 2020). In the case, plaintiff received a letter from the defendant debt collector, and the envelope included the phrase “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT.” The letter itself contained settlement offers that were contingent on how quickly plaintiff made payments. Plaintiff then brought this class action alleging violations of the FDCPA based on both the language on the outside of the envelope and the language of the letter itself. Under § 1692f(8), a debt collector is prohibited from using “unfair or unconscionable means” to collect a debt, including “[u]sing any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address, on any envelope when communicating with a consumer by use of the mails or by telegram, except that a debt collector may use his business name if such name does not indicate that he is in the debt collection business.” According to plaintiff’s complaint, the “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” language violated this provision. Plaintiff also claimed that the combination of that language on the envelope and the settlement offers in the letter violated the FDCPA because they contained deceptive language that created a false sense of urgency. Defendant moved to dismiss, and the District Court granted the motion. It found, among other things, that there was a benign-language exception to § 1692f(8), and that this particular language fell into that exception because it did not create privacy concerns or expose plaintiff to embarrassment.
On appeal, the Court reversed in part and affirmed in part. First, the Court reversed the District Court and found that the language on the envelope violated § 1692f(8), holding that the statute was unambiguous on what was allowed on the envelopes, and that any other language violated the statute regardless of whether a court thought it was benign. In doing so, the Court disagreed with interpretations from other circuit courts that found that benign language on envelopes did not violate this provision because such language was not “unfair or unconscionable.” See Strand v. Diversified Collection Serv., Inc., 380 F.3d 316 (8th Cir. 2004); Goswami v. Am. Collections Enter., Inc., 377 F.3d 488 (5th Cir. 2004). Second, the Court found that the letter’s contents did not violate the FDCPA, and that offers to settle debts for a discounted amount if done within certain periods was not deceptive.