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Stiffler v. Frontline Asset Strategies, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 2, 2019




         This is a civil action brought pursuant to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. The plaintiff, Charles Stiffler, alleges that the defendant, Frontline Asset Strategies, LLC (“Frontline”), violated certain provisions of the FDCPA when it mailed him a debt collection letter. Stiffler seeks an award of damages plus costs and reasonable attorney fees pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1692k.

         This action commenced on June 1, 2018, when Stiffler filed his original complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Wayne County. The case was removed to this federal district court by Frontline on July 2, 2018. Stiffler filed his first amended complaint on July 27, 2018. Frontline filed its answer on August 10, 2018. Frontline then moved for judgment on the pleadings, pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on October 1, 2018. That motion is now fully briefed and ripe for decision.

         I. Legal Standard

         The defendant has answered the complaint and moved for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 12(c) provides that “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). “Under Rule 12(c), a court must accept all factual averments as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.” U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Tierney Assoc., Inc., 213 F.Supp.2d 468, 469 (M.D. Pa. 2002) (citing Soc'y Hill Civic Ass'n v. Harris, 632 F.2d 1045, 1054 (3d Cir. 1980)); see also Westport Ins. Corp. v. Black, Davis & Shue Agency, Inc., 513 F.Supp.2d 157, 163 (M.D. Pa. 2007) (“When deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court is directed to view ‘the facts presented in the pleadings and the inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.'”) (quoting Hayes v. Cmty. Gen. Osteopathic Hosp., 940 F.2d 54, 56 (3d Cir. 1991)). In deciding a Rule 12(c) motion, we may also consider “matters of public record, and authentic documents upon which the complaint is based if attached to the complaint or as an exhibit to the motion.” Chemi SpA v. GlaxoSmithKline, 356 F.Supp.2d 495, 496-97 (E.D. Pa. 2005); see also Kilvitis v. Cty. of Luzerne, 52 F.Supp.2d 403, 406 (M.D. Pa. 1999) (“In deciding a Rule 12(c) motion, however, a court may take judicial notice of any matter of public record.”). Ultimately, “[a] party moving for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) must demonstrate that there are no disputed material facts and that judgment should be entered as a matter of law.” U.S. Fid. & Guar., 213 F.Supp.2d at 469-70 (citing Jablonski v. Pan Am. World Airways, Inc., 863 F.2d 289, 290-91 (3d Cir. 1988), and Inst. for Sci. Info., Inc. v. Gordon & Breach, Sci. Publishers, Inc., 931 F.2d 1002, 1005 (3d Cir. 1991)).

         II. Discussion

         In his amended complaint, Stiffler alleges that Frontline, a debt collector for purposes of the FDCPA, mailed a letter to him on August 17, 2017. This letter was an attempt to collect a debt, as that term is defined under the FDCPA. Stiffler alleges that the letter violated two different provisions of the FDCPA.

         A. 15 U.S.C. § 1692e

         Among other things, Frontline's letter stated: “Your current creditor has placed the above-mentioned account in our office to resolve. Your lack of communication may result in the enforcement of your current creditor's rights on your contractual agreement.” Stiffler claims that this statement is false, deceptive, and misleading, and thus a violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1692e, which prohibits the use of “any false, deceptive, or misleading representation . . . in connection with the collection of any debt, ” and, more specifically, 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(10), which prohibits “[t]he use of any false representation or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect any debt or obtain information concerning a customer.” Stiffler contends that this statement constitutes an implicit threat of litigation, but Frontline lacked the authority or intent to sue him.

         “Because the FDCPA is a remedial statute, we construe its language broadly . . . .” Brown v. Card Serv. Ctr., 464 F.3d 450, 453 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Thus, “[w]hether a debt collector's communications threaten litigation in a manner that violates the FDCPA depends on the language of the letter, which ‘should be analyzed from the perspective of the ‘least sophisticated debtor.''” Huertas v. Galaxy Asset Mgmt., 641 F.3d 28, 33 (3d Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (quoting Brown, 464 F.3d at 453, and Wilson v. Quadramed Corp., 225 F.3d 350, 354 (3d Cir. 2000)).

This standard is less demanding than one that inquires whether a particular debt collection communication would mislead or deceive a reasonable debtor. Nevertheless, the least sophisticated standard safeguards bill collectors from liability for bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations of collection notices by preserving at least a modicum of reasonableness, as well as presuming a basic level of understanding and willingness to read with care on the part of the recipient.
Although established to ease the lot of the naïve, the standard does not go so far as to provide solace to the willfully blind or non-observant. Even the least sophisticated debtor is bound to read collection notices in their entirety.

Campuzano-Burgos v. Midland Credit Mgmt., Inc., 550 F.3d 294, 299 (3d Cir. 2008) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In Huertas, the Third Circuit considered a debt collector's letter that requested that the debtor call “to resolve this issue, ” but which also included a statutorily required validation notice[1] and a boldface, all-caps disclaimer at the bottom of the one-page letter: “THIS IS AN ATTEMPT TO COLLECT A DEBT.” Id. at 33. Under those circumstances, the Third Circuit held that “[e]ven the least sophisticated consumer would not understand [the debt collector's] letter to explicitly or implicitly threaten litigation.” Id.

         Here, Frontline's letter to Stiffler contained a similar validation notice and a similar disclaimer: “This communication is from a debt collector and is an attempt to collect a debt.” While the disclaimer was not boldfaced and all-caps like the one in Huertas, it immediately followed a boldfaced, all-caps header: “IMPORTANT NOTICE.” Perhaps even more importantly, Frontline's letter to Stiffler stated that the debt had been “placed . . . in our office to resolve, ” and that a failure to communicate with Frontline “may result in the enforcement of your current creditor's rights on your contractual agreement.” But a statement that enforcement of the creditor's contractual rights may result from a failure to respond does not amount to an implicit or explicit threat of litigation, and it does not give rise to liability under § 1692e. See Avila v. Riexinger & Assoc., LLC, 644 Fed. App'x 19, 22 (2d ...

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