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O'Neill v. Northland Group, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 3, 2017

BARBARA O'NEILL, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHLAND GROUP, INC., et al., Defendants.

          AMENDED OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY, United States District Judge

         Barbara O'Neill sues Northland Group, Inc., a debt collector, for damages and declaratory relief under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. Her claim is essentially that a debt collection letter, dated July 15, 2015, contained a misleading statement concerning settlement for less than the full amount owed. For the reasons stated herein, I find that the face of the letter and prior case law permit me to rule as a matter of law that the language in this letter is not misleading within the meaning of FDCPA. I therefore grant Northland's Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         The Complaint (ECF no. 1), filed on July 13, 2016, alleges as follows:

         The plaintiff, Ms. O'Neill, is a "consumer" within the meaning of FDCPA. She had a credit card account with TD Bank USA/Target Cards ("TD Bank"). O'Neill defaulted on the obligation, and the account was transferred to defendant Northland, which is a debt collector within the meaning of FDCPA. (Cplt. ¶¶ 14-20)

         Northland sent O'Neill a one-page letter dated July 14, 2015. ("Letter", ECF no. 1 at 13; a copy is attached for ease of reference.) The Letter has a box at the top that identifies the creditor as TD Bank, states the account number (masked), and states that the "Account Balance" is $344.42.

         The first paragraph of the body of the Letter reads as follows:

The above referenced client has assigned your account to our office for collections. Your creditor has authorized us to extend an offer to settle this account with you at a reduced amount. In order to take advantage of this money saving opportunity, please contact us at the number listed below. We are not obligated to renew this offer.

(Letter; see also Cplt. ¶ 27) This language is alleged to be misleading in that it would lead the recipient to believe "that the creditor had authorized only a singular, pre-set settlement offer" (Cplt. ¶ 33), when in reality Northland "was authorized by the creditor to accept a range of settlement offers and terms" (Cplt. ¶ 34).

         Count 1 alleges a claim that the quoted passage was deceptive and that it constituted an unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect a debt, in violation of FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692e and 1692f.

         DISCUSSION

         Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., provides for the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged in the complaint are accepted as true and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the plaintiff. New Jersey Carpenters & the Trustees Thereof v. Tishman Const. Corp. of New Jersey, 760 F.3d 297, 302 (3d Cir. 2014). Federal Rule of Procedure 8(a) requires that the complaint's factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiffs right to relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         The courts construe FDCPA broadly to further its remedial purpose and goal of "eliminat[ing] abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors." Lesher v. Law Offices of Mitchell N. Kay, PC, 650 F.3d 993, 997 (3d Cir. 2011); 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). In assessing communications to debtors, the courts adopt the perspective of the "least sophisticated debtor, " so that the law protects the gullible as well as the shrewd. Lesher at 997; accord McLaughlin v. Phelan Hallinan & Schmeig, LLP, 756 F.3d 240, 246 (3d Cir. 2014). That said, this framework "preserv[es] a quotient of reasonableness and presum[es] a basic level of understanding and willingness to read with care." Id. (quoting Wilson v. Quadramed Corp., 225 F.3d 350, 354-55 (3d Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

         An offer to settle, as such, does not violate the FDCPA. See, e.g., Campuzano-Burgos v. Midland Credit Management, Inc.,550 F.3d 294, 299 (3d Cir. 2008). Nor need the creditor lead with its last and best ...


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