The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of collection agency Van Ru Credit Corp. in a case involving a voicemail message left at a consumer’s business. The Sixth Circuit ruled the communication as defined by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act did not convey information about the consumer’s debt or any collection efforts, thus upholding a lower court ruling that dismissed the consumer’s claims.
The Sixth Circuit cited the Federal Trade Commission’s “common sense approach” to defining this type of communication. That approach states that communication under the FDCPA “does not include situations in which the debt collector does not convey information regarding the debt, such as . . . [a] request to a third party for information about the consumer’s assets, if the debt collector does not reveal the existence of a debt.’ ”
In the case, Brown v. Van Ru Credit Corp., the consumer incurred a debt for delinquent student loans. The collector called the consumer’s place of employment, a business that the consumer owns, seeking to reach someone in the payroll department. The collector left the following message on the business’s general mailbox:“Good morning, my name is Kay and I’m calling from Van Ru Credit Corporation. If someone from the payroll department can please return my phone call my phone number is (877) 419-5627 and the reference number is *****488; again, my telephone number is (877) 419-5627 and reference number is ****488.”
The message included only a few pieces of generic information: the name of the caller, the name of the collection company (without implying the company was a debt collector), a return number, a reference number (without disclosing what it referenced) and clarification that the message was for the payroll department.
The consumer’s employee who heard the message, and was allegedly aware that the message was from a debt collector, informed the consumer about it. The consumer filed suit against the debt collector alleging that the debt collector violated the FDCPA by communicating with a third-party about a debt without permission or legal justification.
Van Ru filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit ruled that while the voicemail clearly conveys information, it does not convey information regarding a debt and therefore is not a “communication” under the FDCPA. The court said that the voicemail message “could relate to any number of other matters . . . unrelated to a personal debt covered by the FDCPA.”
The Sixth Circuit further explained that the word “Credit” in the debt collection company’s name could refer to a broad category of financial activities unrelated to debt collection; the reference number and the toll-free call back number could relate to some kind of business relationship; and the request for a return call from the payroll department could suggest only an inquiry for some sort of payroll information.
The Sixth Circuit concluded that the bits of data and information included in the voicemail message did not imply that the consumer or anyone else at the consumer’s business owed a debt, even under the circumstances and the context in which the voicemail message was delivered.