Yesterday, insideARM reported on the case of Lisa Kostik v. ARS National Services, Inc. In that case the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled against the Defendant agency on a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) issue involving the display of a barcode that imbedded the plaintiff’s account number.
Yesterday’s article also went into great detail on the history of the “Envelope Cases.” We will not repeat that discussion today.
Today we report on a similar case, but with a different result. The Honorable John T. Curtin, District Court Judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, rendered an opinion on in the matter of Lucienna Gelinas v. Retrieval-Masters Creditors Bureau, Inc. that is completely opposite to the court’s opinion in the Kostik matter.
The facts in Gelinas are only slightly different than those presented in Kostik. In the Gelinas case, the envelope in question displayed a series of 21 numbers, the last 10 of which were the original invoice number for the services rendered that created the outstanding balance due. (In Kostik the envelope displayed a barcode.)
The Plaintiff alleged that the displayed numbers violate Section 1692f of the FDCPA which 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.”
In his decision, Judge Curtin discusses the split in prior opinions in the various “envelope cases.” Judge Curtin also discussed the language, intent, and history surrounding Section 1692f. In the end he concludes that “1692f was only intended to prevent markings [on envelopes] that would be considered unfair or unconscionable, not those that are innocuous or benign.”
Judge Curtin commented: “Having reviewed the letters in question, it cannot be said that the visibility of a series of letters and numbers above the recipient’s name is capable of identifying that person as a debtor. The series of numbers and letters is indecipherable to anyone, sophisticated or not, and its significance only becomes apparent when the letter is opened and the last ten numbers above the name are compared to the “invoice number” on the bottom of the letter itself.”
While this decision is positive for the industry, the one size fits all “answer” for this question is impossible to determine. When there is such a split of opinion through the federal courts it would seem that the safest route is to refrain from including any symbols on an envelope or in a letter that can be seen through the envelope’s window.
Perhaps the CFPB will provide some additional clarity on this issue in their upcoming rulemaking.