Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States published an opinion in a fascinating case examining the legality of third-party debt collection agencies using the official letterhead of a government office.
According to the facts of the case, Sheriff v. Gillie, people in the state of Ohio were sent collection letters on the official stationary of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine by a law firm retained by his office for debt collection efforts. These letters, which accurately conveyed such pertinent information as the type and amount of debt owed, ultimately formed the foundation of a class action lawsuit alleging a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
For those unfamiliar with the FDCPA, it’s a nearly 40-year-old law designed to protect consumers from abusive debt collection tactics and ensure equitable debt collection in the industry.
The Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals originally sided with the plaintiffs, determining that the collection letter practices were indeed a violation of the FDCPA.
The Ohio Attorney General’s office ultimately appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that there is a pronounced need to retain the services of third parties to assist with “core state duties,” including the collection of government debt (back taxes, student loans, etc.).
Indeed, the Ohio Solicitor General argued that there are only 15 assistant attorneys general in his state who are available to collect billions of dollars in debt spread out among 88 counties.
In addition to this argument, which was supported by an amicus brief filed by AGs from 12 other states (not Florida), the Ohio Attorney General’s office reasoned that use of the official letterhead was appropriate given that the law firm was essentially acting as an officer of the state when pursuing government debt.
For their part, the plaintiffs, who were supported via amicus briefs filed by everyone from the National Consumer Law Center to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, argued that use of the letterhead was misleading to unsophisticated consumers and an illegal invocation of state power.
These arguments proved unavailing, however, as SCOTUS unanimously ruled to overturn the decision of the Sixth Circuit, holding that the use of the official stationary was permissible.
“Far from misrepresenting special counsel’s identity, letters sent by special counsel accurately identify the office primarily responsible for collection of the debt (the Attorney General), special counsel’s affiliation with that office, and the address (special counsel’s law firm) to which payment should be sent,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
It’s important to understand that if you are contacted by debt collectors, you are not without options. Indeed, a skilled legal professional can help you explore these options and pursue solutions.