A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the use of official letterhead from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office is a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. 

The case involves collection law firms that were hired by the AG’s office to perform debt collections. Two women, Pamela Gillie and Hazel Meadows, sued after receiving collection notices from the law firms, stating it was misleading that the notices were sent on stationary bearing DeWine’s name and the seal of his office. 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district judge’s decision and called the letterhead a “deception” that could wrongly influence consumers’ decisions by making them pay promptly regardless of their circumstances or the accuracy of the debt they were alleged to owe.

The Columbus, Ohio law firms and attorneys named in the case include Eric A. Jones, the Law Office of Eric A. Jones LLC, Mark J. Sheriff, Sarah Sheriff and Wiles, Boyle, Burkholder & Bringardner Co. LPA. Officials with the firms could not be immediately reached for comment.

The law firms and DeWine’s office argued that the attorneys simply were acting as officers of the state when sending the letter. The district court agreed in finding that the defendants were exempt from FDCPA coverage as “officers” of the state of Ohio.

But the appellate court 2-1 decision returns the case to the lower court judge with instructions to have a jury decide whether the letters were confusing to "the least sophisticated consumer."

"Intimidation is at the heart of this case," the appellate court stated. "There is no compelling reason for special counsel to use the [AG] letterhead, other than to misrepresent their authority and place pressure on those individuals receiving the letters." 

 

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