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Pennsylvania Court Rules Law Firm Letterhead Misleading Under FDCPA

June 23, 2010

Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, one of the numerous restrictions on debt collectors' behavior is a prohibition against misrepresenting themselves as attorneys. So our Chino Hills unfair debt collection lawyers were pleased to see an article from the Legal Intelligencer June 18 about a court decision penalizing a law firm that used its letterhead to try to collect a debt, even though no attorney had reviewed the case and no lawsuit was contemplated. The ruling came from a federal magistrate judge in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in a case involving attempts to collect on home loan debt after the borrower fell behind on payments. In ruling, Magistrate Judge Andrew Smyser granted summary judgment to the borrower, meaning that borrower won without a trial.

The plaintiff was Darwin Lesher, who went into default on a home equity loan from Washington Mutual. He received two collection letters from the Law Office of Mitchell N. Kay. Both were on law firm letterhead, and both contained language saying no attorney at the firm had reviewed Lesher's account. Lesher sued, saying the law firm letterhead was misleading because it implied a threat of litigation not contemplated and that a lawyer was on the case. An attorney for Kay argued that the letter was not misleading under 2005's Greco v. Trauner Cohen & Thomas, a Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision saying law firm letterhead is not misleading if it contains a statement saying no attorney has reviewed the account. But Smyser rejected that ruing in favor of a ruling from the Third Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania. Rosenau v. Unifund Corp. said a letter is deceptive if the least sophisticated debtor can find more than one meaning in it -- which Smyser ruled was the case here.

As Westminster abusive debt collection attorneys, we strongly agree. Legal letterhead communicates that the letter is from an attorney, which communicates a threat of litigation. In our experience, most people outside the legal industry don't realize that some attorneys act as debt collectors without using their legal skills. As Smyser said, an unsophisticated debtor would be likely to assume that a law firm is an organization made up of lawyers doing legal work. Including a line saying otherwise in the body of the letter is certainly better than nothing, but it still has the potential to mislead people who are sent into a panic by the letterhead before they even get that far. Collection agencies know this, which is why they try tactics like this to get around the clear prohibition in the FDCPA against misrepresenting themselves as attorneys.

Howard Law PC represents people who were harassed, abused, threatened, deceived or outright lied to by debt collectors. Unfortunately, this behavior is more common than you might think, which is why federal law and the laws of most states, including California, specifically forbid it. Debt collectors may not call continuously, threaten violence or arrest, use obscenities, contact anyone other than the debtor and much more. However, some debt collectors continue with these bad and illegal practices because they work, and they know many people don't understand their rights. Our job as Escondido debt collection harassment lawyers is to make sure our clients know their rights -- and that those rights are fully enforced with a lawsuit, if necessary. In a FDCPA claim, you can claim $1,000 for violations of the law, plus all court costs, attorney fees and any financial or personal losses caused by the illegal behavior.

If you're being harassed and verbally abused by debt collectors and you're ready to fight back, you should call Howard Law for help. To set up a free evaluation of your case, contact us through the Internet or call 1-800-872-5925.