Voicemail Triggers Fair Debt Collection Law, Appeals Court Says

By Chris Bruce

Voicemail is a “communication” covered by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and a debt collector’s voicemail message provided “meaningful disclosure” under the law even though the individual caller wasn’t named, a federal appeals court said ( Hart v. Credit Control LLC , 11th Cir., 16-cv-17126, 9/22/17 ).

The Sept. 22 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit said it’s the first time it’s addressed the voicemail question explicitly, saying the plain language of the FDCPA shows it’s covered by the 1977 statute. The voicemail left in this case “falls squarely within the FDCPA’s definition of a communication,” said Judge Charles R. Wilson, who wrote for a three-judge panel. That could make debt collectors more vulnerable to FDCPA claims, including the collector in this case, Credit Control LLC.

Meanwhile, the “meaningful disclosure” holding is the first by any federal appeals court on that question, he said. The FDCPA bars debt collection telephone calls “without meaningful disclosure of the caller’s identity.” Although district courts have tackled what constitutes “meaningful disclosure,” they haven’t reached a consensus, Wilson said.

In this case, Credit Control left a voicemail for the debtor, Stacey Hart. The message was: “This is Credit Control calling with a message. This call is from a debt collector. Please call us at 866-784-1160. Thank you.” In her lawsuit, Hart claimed that wasn’t meaningful disclosure because the message didn’t disclose the name of the person who actually made the call.

The Eleventh Circuit panel disagreed, saying an individual caller’s name is not necessary as long as the company itself is named. “Equipped with the knowledge that the call is being placed on behalf of a debt collection company and the company’s name, a consumer has enough information to protect herself under the FDCPA,” Wilson said.

The ruling means the case returns to the district court, which originally dismissed Hart’s lawsuit. The district court held the voicemail wasn’t a communication covered by the FDCPA.

Hart was represented by Joseph Panvini of Thompson Consumer Law Group in Mesa, Ariz., and Alexander D. Weisberg of Weisberg Consumer Law Group in Cooper City, Fla. Credit Control was represented by Ernest H. Kohlmyer, III, of Urban Thier & Federer in Orlando, and Christopher P. Hahn of Maurice Wutscher LLP in Fort Lauderdale.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Bruce in Washington at cbruce@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Ferullo at MFerullo@bna.com

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