Third Circuit to Debt Collectors: “Use Your Real Name”
If you are a debt collector calling to collect a debt and don’t use your “true name,” you may have violated Section 1692e(14) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). That is one of the lessons from a recent precedential decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In Levins et al. v. Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group LLC, the Third Circuit reversed a New Jersey district court’s dismissal of a putative class action for violation of the FDCPA, holding that plaintiffs had stated a plausible claim that defendant Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group LLC (“HRRG”), a debt collector, failed to use its “true name” in violation of Section 1692e(14) of the FDCPA.
As the Court explained, HRRG had called the Levinses, a New Jersey couple, to collect on a debt and had left voicemail messages for the Levinses. In their voicemails, HRRG stated “ARS calling Please return our call at 1-800-694-3048. ARS is a debt collector. This is an attempt to collect a debt.” After receiving multiple such voicemails, the Levinses filed a class action suit alleging violations of not only Section 1692e(14), but also Section 1692d(6) (failure to meaningfully disclose identity) and Section 1692e(10) (false representations and deceptive means to collect a debt).
HRRG had in fact registered to do business in New Jersey under the name “ARS ACCOUNT RESOLUTION SERVICES,” and argued that since “ARS” is an abbreviation of its alternative business name, it did not violate Section 1692e(14)’s mandate that debt collectors use their “true name,” nor did it fail to disclose its identity or make false representations. Plaintiffs (the Levinses) in turn offered evidence that hundreds of business registered in New Jersey use names that include “ARS” (who knew that “ARS” was such a popular moniker?), and that they had no idea that “ARS” in this case meant that HRRG was calling them.
After the district court agreed with HRRG and dismissed all three claims, Plaintiffs appealed to the Third Circuit. In an opinion issued on August 22, 2018, the Third Circuit held that Plaintiffs had stated a claim for violation of Section 1692e(14) of the FDCPA because ARS is not “HRRG’s full business name, the name under which it usually transacts business, or its commonly used acronym.” Interestingly, however, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Plaintiffs’ Sections 1692d(6) and 1692e(10) claims, holding that: (1) HRRG’s disclosure that it was a debt collector was sufficient to constitute “meaningful disclosure of the caller’s identity; and (2) nothing in the voicemail messages at issue was “materially deceptive, misleading, or false.”
The takeaway: even if you disclose that you are a debt collector and do not materially deceive or mislead consumers, you may still be liable under the FDCPA if you don’t use your true name.