Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

iStock_000027020861_DoubleWe’ve often argued that when the principal rationale for approving a low-value class settlement is that the claims are weak, that is a signal that the case should not have been filed as a class action in the first place. The Second Circuit recently reached that exact conclusion when considering a proposed class settlement in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) case, holding that the putative class couldn’t be certified and that the FDCPA claims should be dismissed.

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The spate of class actions under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) isn’t ending anytime soon. And the risks to businesses have just increased in the Third Circuit, thanks to that court’s recent ruling that the TCPA permits consumers to retract consent to receiving calls on their cell phones placed by automatic telephone dialing systems.

The TCPA prohibits making any call to a cell phone “using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice” unless (among various exceptions) the call is made with the “prior express consent of the called party.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). Courts have upheld various ways of demonstrating “express consent,” including:

  • verbally, such as when the consumer orally provides a cell phone number as a contact number (Greene v. DirecTV, Inc., 2010 WL 4628734 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 8, 2010)); 
  • in writing, such as when a contract authorizes cell phone calls (Moore v. Firstsource Advantage, LLC, 2011 WL 4345703 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 15, 2011)); and 
  • through a third party, such as when a spouse authorizes cell phone calls (Gutierrez v. Barclays Bank Group, 2011 WL 579238 (S.D. Cal. Feb. 9, 2011)).

But once consumers have consented to receiving these calls, can they rescind their consent? The TCPA’s text is silent on the subject. And although the FCC’s 1992 TCPA Order indicates that consumers who provide their cell phone number can give “instructions” that they don’t agree to receive autodialer calls, the order doesn’t address whether the consumer can give those instructions long after initially providing the cell phone contact number.

By contrast, other privacy statutes—such as the CAN-SPAM Act, the Junk Fax Protection Act, and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act—have express provisions allowing consumers to opt out of receiving communications at any time. A number of district courts have concluded that the lack of a corresponding express provision in the TCPA means that consumers don’t have the statutory right to retract consent once it has been given. See, e.g., Osorio v. State Farm Bank, F.S.B., 2012 WL 1671780 (S.D. Fla. May 10, 2012); Cunningham v. Credit Mgmt., L.P. (pdf), 2010 WL 3791104 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 30, 2010); Starkey v. Firstsource Advantage, L.L.C. (pdf), 2010 WL 2541756 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 11, 2010).

But in Gager v. Dell Financial Services, Inc. (pdf), the Third Circuit sided with courts that have taken the opposite view. See Adamcik v. Credit Control Servs., Inc., 832 F. Supp. 2d 744 (W.D. Tex. 2011); Gutierrez, supra.

The Third Circuit gave three reasons for its holding. In my view, each one is questionable.


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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which regulates the conduct of debt collectors, authorizes plaintiffs suing over violations to recover statutory damages of up to $1,000. Because these amounts can rapidly add up to exorbitant numbers in a class action for very minor, technical violations, Congress capped the total amount of statutory damages that

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TPCA”), the law that prohibits certain types of calls using an automatic telephone dialing system or prerecorded message. The plaintiffs’ bar has filed numerous class actions seeking statutory damages under the TCPA.  Businesses facing these actions should be alert for opportunities to defend themselves by invoking the TCPA’s exception from liability for calls made with the “prior express consent” of the recipient.  A recent decision, Balthazor v. Central Credit Services, Inc., No. 10-cv-62435 (S.D. Fla.), illustrates how this exception can be used to defeat class certification in TCPA class actions.
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The Second Circuit’s recent decision in Hecht v. United Collection Bureau, Inc., No. 11-1327 (2d Cir. Aug. 17, 2012), should sound alarm bells for any business that attempts to settle a class action.  The takeaway from the decision is to make sure that  notice of the settlement to absent class members is adequate. Under some circumstances, a single notice in the USA Today won’t cut it. And if it doesn’t, the release in the settlement won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on, and other plaintiffs will be free to bring the exact same class action against you.
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