Seventh Circuit Addresses When Offer of Settlement Can Moot Class Representative’s Interest; Holds That Dunning Letter Offering to “Settle” an Unenforceable Debt Violates FDCPA

By Theresa E. Loscalzo

In McMahon v. LVNV Funding LLC, and Delgado v. Capital Management Services, LP, two separate appeals consolidated for purposes of an opinion, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressed both the circumstances under which (a) a defense proffered settlement can pick off a party plaintiff in a class action, thereby mooting the claims; and (b) dunning letters seeking to collect time-barred debts may violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

In McMahon, the defendant debt collector sent a letter to plaintiff setting forth the name of the creditor from whom the debt was purchased, the amount of the debt and an offer to settle the debt for about 50 percent of the amount of the debt. The letter did not contain any information concerning when the original debt was incurred, a detail that would have alerted a consumer or his lawyer to the fact that there was, in the court’s words, “an iron-clad defense under the statute of limitations.”  Similarly, in Delgado, the defendant debt collector sent a letter to plaintiff seeking to collect an old debt.  The letter contained an offer to settle the outstanding debt but did not contain any information concerning when the original debt was incurred.

Both McMahon and Delgado filed individual and putative class action claims alleging that the debt collectors violated the FDCPA by including “settlement offers” in collection letters for time-barred debts.

Relevant Procedural Background. In McMahon, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, and McMahon filed a motion for class certification.  The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the class allegations but on reconsideration, granted McMahon leave to amend the class allegations.  Hours after the district court granted leave to re-plead, defendant made an offer to settle plaintiff’s individual claim by paying statutory damages, costs incurred, a reasonable attorney’s fee, and “any other reasonable relief” if the court concluded more was necessary.  Plaintiff ignored the offer, and filed an amended class complaint and amended motion for certification.   Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that its settlement offer rendered McMahon’s individual claim moot, which made him an inappropriate class representative.   Holding that the offer to pay McMahon everything he would be entitled to recover under the statute mooted his claim, the district court dismissed the case for lack of an Article III case or controversy.

In Delgado, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court denied, holding that when “collecting on a time-barred debt a debt collector must inform the consumer that (1) the collector cannot sue to collect the debt and (2) providing a partial payment would revive the collector’s ability to sue and collect the balance.”  Defendant moved for interlocutory appeal, which motion was granted.

Mootness. Reversing the McMahon district court, the Seventh Circuit first addressed the issue of whether the settlement offer proffered in McMahon mooted plaintiff’s claims, and held that an offer to pay a plaintiff everything requested can render a putative class action moot only if the settlement is proposed before the plaintiff files a motion for class certification.  Because the time to re-plead his class allegations and move to certify had yet to run at the time of the settlement offer, McMahon retained an on-going personal economic stake in the substantive controversy and, therefore, could represent the putative class.

FDCPA. The Court then turned to an analysis of the circumstances under which a dunning letter for an unenforceable time-barred debt could violate the FDCPA.  Affirming the denial of the motion to dismiss in Delgado, the Court noted that Section 1692e(2)(A) of the FDCPA specifically prohibits the false representation of the character or legal status of any debt, and  squarely held that a debt collector violates the FDCPA if it uses language that would mislead an unsophisticated consumer into believing that a debt is legally enforceable, regardless of whether the letter actually threatens litigation (as the Third Circuit and Eighth Circuit require).   The Court noted that where dunning letters contain offers of settlement, as here, it exacerbates the potential impact on the consumer because by making a partial payment in response to such a letter, the consumer could unwittingly reset the statute of limitations on the entire debt and thereby revive what had been a legally unenforceable claim.

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