In Riccio v. Client Services, Inc., the District Court of New Jersey dismissed a class action lawsuit finding that a failure to assure a consumer that statements in a letter would not change in the future was not materially misleading under the least sophisticated debtor test.
On February 13, 2020, Joanne Riccio received a collection letter from Client Services, Inc. (“CSI”) that included the following statement: “Please note that no interest will be added to your account balance through the course of Client Services, Inc. collection efforts concerning your account.” In response, Riccio filed a complaint on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated arguing that CSI violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) when it stated that no interest would be added to the account balance without addressing whether interest would accrue after CSI ceased its collection efforts.
The FDCPA prohibits the false representation of the character, amount, or legal status of any debt, 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(2)(a), and further prohibits the use of any false representation or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect a debt. 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(10). When analyzing a communication from a debt collector, courts view such communications from the perspective of the least sophisticated debtor to protect even the most gullible consumer from deceptive practices. While this standard establishes a relatively low threshold for alleging violations, it presumes a basic level of understanding on the part of consumers to prevent liability for “bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations of collection notices.”
The Court in this case found that all of Riccio’s possible interpretations of the statement at issue constituted such bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations. Contrary to Riccio’s argument, the Court found that the statement at issue “clearly and unambiguously explains the state of the Account and that no interest will be added while Defendant services the Account.” Because this statement was clear and unambiguous, the Court found that Riccio had failed to state a claim for relief under the FDCPA and dismissed the Complaint. The Court reiterated that “[t]o require that every statement in a debt collection letter be followed by an assurance that the fact stated will not change in the future would result in complex and verbose debt collection letters that are confusing to the least sophisticated consumer—precisely the type of letter the FDCPA is meant to protect consumers against.”
This case demonstrates the continued evolution of attempts by plaintiffs’ lawyers to find technical problems with language about account balances in letters. While the challenge to this letter language was rejected by this Court, it remains to be seen whether this theory gains traction in any other jurisdiction.