The Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Preston v. Midland Credit Mgmt. departs from other circuits that have considered whether there is a “benign language” exception under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). The Seventh Circuit, ruled, as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) urged in an amicus brief, that the FDCPA does not contain a “benign language” exception.
FDCPA Section 1692(f)
Section 1692(f) of the FDCPA broadly prohibits a debt collector from using unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt, and enumerates specific examples of prohibited conduct. Section 1692(f)(8) prohibits a debt collector from using any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address, on any envelope when communicating with a consumer by use of the mails or by telegram. However, the section provides that a debt collector may use his business name if such name does not indicate that he is in the debt collection business.
The “Benign Language” Exception
Although Section 1692(f)(8) does not include any exceptions to the prohibition discussed above, courts have found that certain types of “benign language” do not run afoul of the prohibition. As recognized by the Fifth Circuit and the Eighth Circuit, the “benign language” exception allows words such as “personal and confidential,” “immediate reply requested,” and “forwarding and address correction requested,” and other innocuous language and corporate logos that do not identify the sender as a debt collector to appear on a debt collector’s envelope to a consumer.
The Fifth Circuit (in Goswami v. American Collections Enterprise, Inc.), believed that the text of section 1692(f)(8) was ambiguous and could be read two ways. In isolation, it could be read as barring “any markings on the outside of… [the] envelope other than the name and addresses of the parties. However, if it was read together with the prefatory language of section 1692f it could be read as “only prohibiting markings… that are unfair on unconscionable.” To resolve the ambiguity, the court created the “benign language” exception to allow for language on an envelope that “would not intimate that the contents of the envelope relate to collection of delinquent debts.”
Similarly, the Eighth Circuit (in Strand v. Diversified Collection Service, Inc.) found that a literal reading of the statutory text would “create bizarre results.” Specifically, the Eighth Circuit found under Section 1692f(8) would “a debtor’s address and an envelope’s pre-printed postage would arguably be prohibited, as would any innocuous mark related to the post, such as ‘overnight mail’ and ‘forwarding address correction requested.’” The court examined the legislative history of the FDCPA and found that benign language or other corporate markings and logos on an envelope would not thwart the purpose of the FDCPA. As a result, it opined that a “benign language” exception should exist for this type of language on a debt collector’s envelope.
Preston v. Midland Credit Management
In Preston, the plaintiff appealed the district court’s finding that the “benign language” exception applied to a collection letter the defendant sent the plaintiff. The collection letter was enclosed in an envelope bearing the words “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT.” The internal envelope was enclosed in a larger envelope with a glassine covering, so that the words on the internal envelope were visible to the recipient. The plaintiff argued that the defendant’s use of the words “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” violated section 1692f(8) of the FDCPA.
CFPB Amicus Brief
The CFPB filed an amicus brief in Preston, petitioning the court to rule that there is no “benign language” exception to the FDCPA. The CFPB argued: (1) that the statutory text of the FDCPA was clear, and (2) there was no statutory ambiguity between the prefatory language of section 1692f and the explicit prohibition in section 1692f(8). The CFPB noted that the “benign language” exception was unnecessary because the FDCPA already provides that debt collectors may “make use of the mails” in communicating with a consumer. The CFPB argued that the FDCPA’s text allowing a debt collector “use of the mails” rendered the “benign language” exception moot, because the language and symbols the courts analyzed would all be allowed by the FDCPA as “use of the mails.”
Interpretation of Eighth and Fifth Circuit Case Law
In analyzing the plaintiff’s claims in Preston, the Seventh Circuit examined the opinions of the Fifth and Eighth Circuits in creating the “benign language” exception. Ultimately, the court declined to recognize any such “benign language” exception in the FDCPA.
The Seventh Circuit found that adhering to the plain wording of the statute would not prohibit the use of a debtor’s address on a debt collection letter, or of pre-printed postage. Rather, the court agreed with the CFPB, finding that because the FDCPA allows for debt collectors to communicate by “use of the mails,” it authorizes any language or symbol needed for communicating by mail to appear on an envelope, but not more. That is, “the use of the mails” provision permits the inclusion of language and symbols that are required to ensure the successful delivery of communications through the mail, but in Preston, the court found that that the inclusion of “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” was not required to ensure the successful delivery of the communication though the mail, and therefore was in violation of the FDCPA.
The Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Preston casts uncertainty on the status of the “benign language” exception. Although the Seventh Circuit addressed the printed language at issue in the Fifth and Eighth Circuit cases, the Seventh Circuit did not address the use of corporate logos that were not the debt collector’s name. Debt collectors that do business in the Seventh Circuit, comprising Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, should ensure that any letters sent to consumers do not contain any extraneous language that is not used in the ordinary course of sending mail.