Judge: Debt collector's voicemail did not violate federal law

By Jim Boyle | Jan 26, 2015

HARRISBURG - A voicemail message left by a debt collector did not violate the Fair Debt Collection

Practices Act (FDCPA) because it failed to identify the company at the beginning of a prerecorded message, as required by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), according to a federal judge's Jan. 5 summary judgment order.

Judge James Munley, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, ruled in favor of the defendant, Oxford Law, LLC, saying that while the debt collector's failure to identify himself to plaintiff Ninouska Gomez at the start of the message may have violated the TCPA, such violations are not considered illegal activities under the FDCPA.

According to court documents, a prerecorded voice mail was left on Gomez's phone on Nov. 20, 2013, by a debt collector from Oxord Law. It began with a statement that if the person listening was the person named in the message (someone with the same last name but a different first name than the plaintiff), he should continue to listen to the message.

The debt collector identified itself in the seventh sentence of the message. Under the TCPA, an artificial or prerecorded telephone message must identify the business, individual, or other entity that is calling at the beginning of the call.

The plaintiff alleged that the message violated the FDCPA’s prohibition in section 1692e(5) on “threat[ening] to take any action that cannot legally be taken or that is not intended to be taken.”

The plaintiff did not claim that the debt collector’s message was a threat to take action that cannot legally be taken. Instead, the plaintiff contended that section 1692e(5) prohibits not only such threats but also prohibits illegal acts.

According to the plaintiff, because the message was a TCPA violation that occurred during the collection of a debt, the debt collector violated section 1692e(5)’s prohibition of illegal acts.

In granting the debt collector’s motion for summary judgment, the court ruled that section 1692e(5)’s plain language applies only to threats to take action. The court found the debt collector’s message to be devoid of any threat, such as one to institute a lawsuit or garnish the plaintiff’s wages, and instead to only ask the plaintiff to call it back.

In addition, the court observed that even if it were to construe section 1692e(5) to include both threats and illegal acts, the debt collector’s “technical violation of the TCPA” was not the type of illegal act prohibited by the FDCPA.

According to the court, the cases in which courts have found a section 1692e(5) violation based on an illegal act have all involved illegal acts pertaining to filing a lawsuit, moving for a default judgment, or serving a writ of garnishment (where the debt collector’s illegal act, such as engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, would have made the lawsuit, default judgment, or garnishment an action the debt collector could not legally take).

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