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Debt Collectors May Not Call Numbers After Reassignment to New Owner - Soppet v. Enhanced Recovery Co.

June 30, 2013

Vincent Howard and our San Bernardino County consumer protection attorneys represent people suing laws intended to protect ordinary people from corporate interference. One of those is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a law intended to stop telemarketers from repeatedly calling cell phones or calling using automated dialers that don't connect the recipient to an actual person. The TCPA is sometimes used in lawsuits against debt collectors using automatic dialers, and that was the case in Soppet v. Enhanced Recovery Co.. The calls at issue were from a debt collector hired by AT&T, to telephone numbers at which customers had previously agreed to receive calls. However, the numbers belonging to these plaintiffs had all been reassigned, and thus the calls were going to new people who had not agreed to receive the calls. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld class certification for them.

The bill collector in this case, Enhanced, used a predictive dialer, which dials automatically and doesn't involve a human on the bill collector's end until a human answers the call on the other end. At that time, the predictive dialer assigns the call to a call center employee. Because no human working for Enhanced was working the phone until someone answered, no one noticed that the numbers had been reassigned and was able to redirect the calls. Lead plaintiffs Teresa Soppet and Loidy Tang received a total of 47 calls between the two of them, to cell phones where they had never agreed to receive calls, and where they were charged for the minutes used by the voicemail left by Enhanced. They sued under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act on behalf of a class to include people who, like them, were getting calls intended for a previous owner of their phone numbers. The district court certified the class, finding that consent to receive calls does not follow the number, but the person who gave it.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld. The issue had not been considered by any federal appeals court before, it noted. The TCPA outlaws calls using an automatic telephone dialing system or a prerecorded voice, or to a cell phone, unless the dialer has the "prior express consent of the called party." The Seventh looked at the statute and concluded that "called party" must refer to the current subscriber to the number, because it later refers to "any service for which the called party is charged for the call." And after all, the court noted, the prior subscriber couldn't be charged for the call, only the current one. It rebuffed Enhanced's invitation to find otherwise, finding several logical problems with it. For example, Enhanced conceded that it would have to stop calling someone whose number was added to its list by mistake; the Seventh found a reassigned number is no different. Nor is the outcome "absurd" because it would make debt collection more expensive, the Seventh said.

Vincent Howard and our Costa Mesa consumer protection lawyers believe it's common sense that "called party" must refer to the party receiving the call--not the person the collection agency merely wished to reach. Of course, common sense is less important to bill collectors like Enhanced than avoiding added expense, but federal law, and courtesy to people who never agreed to receive calls, requires collection agencies to spend a bit extra in order to reach the people they actually intended to reach. The fact that collection agencies are willing to go to court rather than locate the correct debtor suggests that they aren't terribly concerned with whether they get the right person in the first place, so long as somebody pays them. This is the reason for the bill collection horror stories that our Norco fair debt collection attorneys sometimes hear, and why TCPA and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act lawsuits remain relevant.

If you've been harassed, deceived or otherwise mistreated by a bill collector and you're ready to fight back, call Vincent Howard and the team at Howard Law, P.C. today. You can contact us through our website or call 1-800-872-5915.

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