Joining a split among the circuits, the Fourth Circuit holds that the FDCPA permits debtors to dispute debts orally

By Stephen J. Shapiro

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), in § 1692g(a)(3), requires a debt collector to send a consumer from whom it is attempting to collect a debt a notice.  Among other things, the notice must state that “unless the consumer, within 30 days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector.”  The Fourth Circuit, joining a conflict among the circuits, recently held that a consumer may dispute a debt orally, and, therefore, a notice that purports to require a consumer to dispute a debt in writing violates the FDCPA.

In Clark v. Absolute Collection Service, Inc., after plaintiffs did not pay a debt they owed to a health care facility, the facility engaged the defendant debt collector to collect the debt.  The debt collector sent the plaintiffs a notice that stated that “ALL PORTIONS OF THIS CLAIM SHALL BE ASSUMED VALID UNLESS DISPUTED IN WRITING WITHIN THIRTY (30) DAYS.”  Plaintiffs, on behalf of a putative class of debtors who received such notices, sued the debt collector alleging that, because the FDCPA did not require them to dispute the debt in writing, the debt collector violated the FDCPA by sending them a notice stating otherwise.  The debt collector moved to dismiss, arguing that § 1692g(a)(3) of the FDCPA contained an “inherent” requirement that debtors dispute debts in writing.  The district court agreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated the decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.  The Court first noted that § 1692g(a)(3) on its face does not require debtors to dispute debts in writing and declined the defendant’s invitation “to read into [§ 1692g(a)(3)] words that are not there.”  The Court noted that other sections of the FDCPA explicitly require written communications, which suggests, under standard principles of statutory construction, that Congress intended to omit such a requirement from § 1692g(a)(3).

The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that a reading of § 1692g(a)(3) that permits consumers to dispute debts orally would be absurd and inconsistent because debtors who do not dispute debts in writing waive protections afforded them by other provisions of the FDCPA.  The Court noted that, although consumers who give oral notice of a dispute would not be entitled to invoke some of the FDCPA’s protections, those consumers would not sacrifice all of the protections in the statute.  Therefore, the Court concluded, permitting debtors to dispute a debt orally would not lead to an absurd result.

In conclusion, the Court held that “[S]ection 1692g(a)(3) permits consumers to dispute the validity of a debt orally, and it does not impose a writing requirement.”  The Court noted that its holding departed from a contrary decision by the Third Circuit, but comported with decisions by the Second Circuit and the Ninth Circuit.

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