Collection agency Convergent Outsourcing violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by sending a collection letter where the debtor's account number appeared through the envelope's transparent address window, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
The three-judge appellate panel, in a unanimous decision, overturned an Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruling in Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing that favored the collection agency.
Convergent Outsourcing, formerly ER Solutions, sent the letter in 2011 to pursue a debt allegedly owed to T-Mobile and, with her name and address, it had listed her account number with Convergent. The FDCPA prohibits anything other than the collection agency's address appearing on an envelope that carries a collection letter. In this case, the account number was not on the envelope, but the location on the actual letter made it visible.
The appellate panel rejected Convergent Outsourcing's arguments that the account number is meaningless, ruling instead that it is information that possibly could identify the debtor.
Senior Judge Anthony Scirica, referring to plaintiff Courtney Douglass, stated that the disclosure of Douglass' account number raises privacy concerns.
"The account number is a core piece of information pertaining to Douglass' status as a debtor and Convergent's debt collection effort. Disclosed to the public, it could be used to expose her financial predicament. Because Convergent's disclosure implicates core privacy concerns, it cannot be deemed benign."
Both the Fifth Circuit and Eighth Circuit previously have read the FDCPA language to allow an exception for benign markings on an envelope - including "priority letter" and "Personal and Confidential" but those markings did not come with "the potential to cause invasions of privacy," according to Scirica.
"These courts did not confront an envelope that displayed core information relating to the debt collection and susceptible to privacy intrusions," the judge added.
The appeals court vacated the grant of summary judgment to Convergent and remanded the case to the district court for further action.