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Piper v. Portnoff Law Associates

January 31, 2005


On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 03-cv-02046) District Judge: Hon. Marvin Katz

Before: Sloviter, Becker and Stapleton, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stapleton, Circuit Judge


Argued October 5, 2004


This appeal presents the certified question of whether the requirements of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. ("FDCPA"), apply to the defendants' efforts to collect municipal water obligations of the plaintiff, Bridget Piper. We hold that they do.


Until 2002, the City of Bethlehem ("City") contractually retained the private law firm of Portnoff Law Associates, Ltd. ("PLA") to collect payment for overdue water and sewer obligations. The City notified PLA of delinquent water and sewer assessments, and PLA then contacted homeowners in attempts to collect on those claims.

On February 20, 2002, the City notified PLA of a delinquent water service obligation of Bridget and Michael Piper at 828 Kossuth Street, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the amount of $252.71. PLA then sent Mr. and Mrs. Piper the following correspondence:

a. On February 21, 2002, PLA mailed a letter on City stationery and addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Piper personally, advising them that they were delinquent in water fees owed to the City in the sum of $252.75. The letter stated: "you are urged to make your payment to [PLA]," and was signed "Very truly yours, City of Bethlehem." App. at R105a; R267a-268a.

b. On April 4, 2002, PLA mailed a second letter – this time on PLA letterhead – directly to Mr. and Mrs. Piper. This letter advised them that they were "delinquent in the payment of [their] water fees," and that they owed the City $404.37, which included the delinquent water bill, interest, penalties and attorneys' fees. The letter stated "[u]nless payment of the above amount is received by [PLA] within ten (10) days of the date of this letter, a lien will be filed against your property."*fn1 It further advised as follows: "You are hereby advised that City of Bethlehem will avail itself of all legal remedies until it receives payment in full. Legal recourse will result in substantial additional cost to you and may result in the Sheriff's sale of your property.... Payment must be made in full." App. at R108a (emphasis in original).

c. On May 9, 2002, PLA mailed a third letter to Mr. and Mrs. Piper. Enclosed with the letter was a copy of a municipal lien "for non-payment of water fees... assessed against the [Pipers] and described properties..." The letter advised Mr. and Mrs. Piper that the sum of $567.07 was due to clear the lien (this sum included additional attorneys' fees and a filing fee), and warned that "unless your check in that amount is received by [PLA] within fifteen (15) days," PLA would initiate a Sheriff's Sale of the Pipers' home. The letter concluded by urging Mr. and Mrs. Piper to "pay the full amount above to this office within the time period specified." App. at R109a.

d. PLA sent three more letters addressed personally to Mr. and Mrs. Piper, dated September 16, 2002, October 3, 2002 and November 8, 2002. Each letter demanded payment of a balance due. The October 3, 2002 letter stated "I wanted to afford you a final opportunity to pay the balance before further legal action occurs with additional charges assessed. This balance must be paid within ten days of the date of this letter..." The November 8 letter stated that PLA had been directed to file a writ of execution against the Pipers' home and that they would be given "one final opportunity to make arrangements for payment" during the ensuing thirty days. See App. at R201a; R204a; R213a.

PLA also made a number of telephone calls to the Piper residence in an effort to secure payment of the delinquent water service fees.

PLA has never disputed that the letters it sent to Mr. and Mrs. Piper failed to include the debt verification language required by § 1692(g) of the FDCPA.*fn2 App. at R33a. PLA has communication or the consumer has paid the debt, send the consumer a written notice containing

(1) the amount of the debt;

(2) the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed;

(3) a statement that unless the consumer, within thirty days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector;

(4) a statement that if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment against the consumer and a copy of such ...

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