Circuits Split on Benign Language Exception for Debt Collection Envelopes

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has split from holdings by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits in holding that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA") does not contain a "benign language" exception to the requirement that the envelope for a debt collection letter contain no language other than the debt collector's address. Preston v. Midland Credit Management, Inc.

In July 2017, Midland Credit Management, Inc. ("Midland") sent a debt collection letter to Preston. The envelope, in addition to Midland's and Preston's addresses, bore the words "TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT." Preston filed suit, alleging that the envelope violated 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692(f)(8) by containing language other than Midland's address.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted Midland's motion to dismiss the claim. The District Court agreed with Midland that the FDCPA was intended to prohibit language indicating that the letter was an attempt to collect a debt. The District Court agreed with the Fifth and Eighth Circuits' adoption of a "benign language" exception for "harmless words or symbols" that do not reveal that the letter concerns debt collection. The District Court further found that "TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT" was indistinguishable from phrases such as "priority mail" and "immediate reply requested" approved by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits.

The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that Section 1692(f)(8) expressly prohibited any language or symbol on an envelope other than the debt collector's name and address (and only allowed the name if it did not indicate that the collector is in the business of debt collection). The Court disagreed with the Fifth and Eighth Circuits' findings literal application would lead to "bizarre results," noting that use of the mail is clearly contemplated by the statute, and that the statute's prohibition of any language or symbol on the envelope other than a business name and address was not ambiguous. Accordingly, "TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT" was not within the statute's itemized exemption as it was not Midland's name or address, and the District Court erred in dismissing Preston's claim.

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