This article was written by David N. Anthony and Margeaux Serrano and originally published on the Troutman Sanders LLP Consumer Financial Services Law Monitor and is republished here with permission.  

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee recently held that that a debt collector’s civil court summons requesting “reasonable attorney fees” does not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  In Wilma Jones et al. v. Hospital of Morristown (Case No. 2:16cv13, 2016 LEXIS 153869 (E.D. Tenn. Oct. 6, 2016)), the plaintiff argued that the defendant hospital violated the FDCPA by using unfair and unconscionable methods to collect the debt she owed.  Jones owed the hospital for services it had rendered for her. The hospital filed a civil summons in state court to collect the debt she owed and attached an affidavit with the amount owed.  The affidavit did not request attorneys’ fees or any other additional fees, although the civil summons did.  The hospital obtained a default judgment against Jones for the amount of the underlying debt and costs, plus reasonable attorneys’ fees. 

Jones argued that by requesting attorneys’ fees in the civil summons, the hospital violated the FDCPA because it was attempting to collect an amount greater than what was stated in the affidavit.  Therefore, she argued, when the state court entered a default judgment against her in an amount greater than the amount of the debt as stated in the affidavit, the request for attorneys’ fees in the summons amounted to unconscionable debt collection and would likely mislead a “least sophisticated consumer.” 

Despite acknowledging that Jones’ argument was somewhat convoluted, the Court recognized that since the summons did not request a specific amount of attorneys’ fees, Jones was unable to dispute the specific amount of the debt owned, and that the resulting default judgment, which that was larger than the debt as stated in the affidavit, was misleading.  The Court disagreed with Jones, however, and ultimately held that even the “least sophisticated consumer” would not be misled as to why the default judgment was larger than the amount of debt as stated in the affidavit.  Indeed, the Court reasoned that Jones was put on notice that the civil summons requested a judgment inclusive of attorneys’ fees and costs, which would result in a judgment greater than the amount of the debt as stated in the affidavit.

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