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Supreme Court to Hear FDCPA Case

Justices will decide if private attorneys appointed by State improperly used letterhead from the Attorney General’s Office to intimidate consumers into paying.

On Dec. 11, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Sheriff, et al. v. Gillie, et. al., No. 15-338, 2015 WL 5476344, — S.Ct.— (U.S. Dec. 11, 2015), a “FDCPA exemption” and “false, deceptive or misleading representation” case.

The Court is poised to answer two principal questions in the case:

Were the private attorneys designated as special counsel to collect debts owed to the state of Ohio state officials, rather than debt collectors subject to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, when they sent demand letters to two consumers?
Was the attorneys’ use of the official letterhead stationery of the Attorney General “materially misleading” under the FDCPA?

As ACA reported previously, in the underlying case of Gillie v. Law Offices of Eric A. Jones, LLC, No. 14-3836, 2015 WL 2151755 (May 8, 2015), consumers Pamela Gillie and Hazel Meadows filed a lawsuit against several law firms acting as special counsel for the Ohio Attorney General to collect medical debt owed to the state. They argued that the use of the Attorney General’s letterhead to send demand letters to collect consumer debt was intentionally misleading and, therefore, a violation of the FDCPA. After a lower district court ruled in favor of the law firms, the consumers appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court.

With one judge on the three-judge panel dissenting, the Sixth Circuit vacated the district court’s decision for the law firms. The appellate court determined that private attorneys designated by the Ohio Attorney General as special counsel for debt collection purposes are not officers of the state, meaning they are not exempt from the FDCPA. As a result, the attorneys’ use of the Attorney General’s official letterhead on collection letters could be a misrepresentation that violates the FDCPA. Whether the special counsel had misrepresented their status was a question for a jury to consider, the majority of the appellate court decided.

Following its custom, the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue a comment on the case when it granted the law firms’ petition for writ of certiorari (a formal request for the Supreme Court to hear and review the case).

To read more about the most recent significant judicial decisions involving the credit and collections industry, ACA members can always find concise summaries of these decisions on ACA’s Industry Advancement Program website.