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Homer v. The Law Offices of Frederic I. Weinberg & Associates, P.C.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 9, 2017

RONN HOMER
v.
THE LAW OFFICES OF FREDERIC I. WEINBERG & ASSOCIATES, P.C.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TIMOTHY J. SAVAGE JUDGE.

         This action raises two issues regarding the efficacy of a validation notice under Section 1692(g) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) the Third Circuit has yet to address. The first is whether a notice advising the debtor that the debt collector must “hear from” the debtor within thirty days to dispute the debt complies with the FDCPA. The other is whether a validation notice that demands that the debt collector receive the debtor's dispute within thirty days impermissibly shortens the thirty-day period under section 1692g(a) the debtor has to act.

         We conclude that the validation notice in this case violates the FDCPA because it misleads and deceives the debtor about how and when to dispute the debt. The notice leads the debtor to believe that he may dispute the debt orally when only a written notice of dispute is effective. It also requires the debtor to act to dispute the debt in less time than the FDCPA provides. Therefore, we shall grant the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and deny the defendant's motion.[1]

         Background

         The Law Offices of Frederic I. Weinberg & Associates, P.C., a debt collector, sent Ronn Homer a dunning letter attempting to collect a credit card debt owed to Barclays Bank of Delaware. The letter read, in part, as follows:

Unless this office hears from you within thirty (30) days after receipt of this letter that you dispute the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, this office will assume the debt is valid. If you notify this office in writing within thirty (30) days of your receipt of this letter that the debt or any portion thereof is disputed, this office will obtain verification of the debt or, if the debt is founded upon a judgment, a copy of the judgment will be obtained and this office will mail to you a copy of such verification or judgment.[2]

         The parties dispute whether the notice violates the FDCPA.[3] They disagree about the meaning of a single sentence. It reads, “[u]nless we hear from you within thirty (30) days after receipt of this letter that you dispute the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, this office will assume the debt is valid.”

         Homer initially contended that the language violates the FDCPA because it misleads the consumer about both how to dispute the debt and when to do so. In his amended complaint, he omitted the claim that the least sophisticated debtor would understand the language to mean that he could dispute the validity of the debt merely by calling Weinberg's office even though only a written dispute is effective. He continues to assert that the letter impermissibly shortens the statutory thirty-day dispute period because it misinforms the debtor that Weinberg must receive the notice of dispute within thirty days rather than he must send it within that time. Nevertheless, in considering the thirty-day dispute period language, we necessarily need to analyze the efficacy of the notice in its entirety, including whether it misleads the consumer about how to dispute a debt.

         Weinberg argues that the letter mirrors the statute and does not limit the time the debtor has to dispute the debt. Weinberg maintains that “hears from you” is a “colloquial phrase that does not alter the meaning of the statute's requirement that the debtor must ‘dispute' the validity of the debt within the 30 day period.”[4]

         Analysis

         Section 1692g(a) of the FDCPA requires a debt collector to send a consumer a written notice of rights within five days of an initial communication in connection with the collection of a debt. The notice, commonly referred to as a validation of rights notice, must include:

(1) the amount of the debt;
(2) the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed;
(3) a statement that unless the consumer, within thirty days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be ...

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