July 17, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Collection Agency’s Bold and All-Caps Statement Would Be Confusing to Least Sophisticated Consumer

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Garrett v. Credit Bureau of Carbon County on Thursday, October 18, 2018.

Debt CollectionColorado Fair Debt Collection Practices ActLeast Sophisticated Consumer.

Credit Bureau of Carbon County (Credit Bureau) is an agency that collects or attempts to collect debts owed, due, or asserted to be owed or due to another. It sent Garrett two collection notices demanding payment on a consumer debt. Garrett sued Credit Bureau, asserting that the language of its communications overshadowed and contradicted the statutory requirements of the Colorado Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the Act). The district court concluded that Credit Bureau’s notices had not violated the Act and denied Garrett’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, granted Credit Bureau’s motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the case.

On appeal, Garrett contended that the district court wrongly concluded that Credit Bureau did not violate the Act because the format and content of Credit Bureau’s notices overshadowed or contradicted the statutorily required disclosures. The Act requires debt collectors to provide a debt validation notice describing the debt. It prohibits debt collectors from using false, deceptive, or misleading representations when collecting a debt. Overshadowing occurs when a collection letter contains the requisite validation notice, but that information is obscured or diminished by the letter’s presentation or format. Contradiction occurs when language accompanying the validation notice is inconsistent with the substance of the rights and duties that the statute imposes. In Flood v. Mercantile Adjustment Bureau, LLC, 176 P.3d 769 (Colo. 2008), the Supreme Court adopted the “least sophisticated consumer” test to determine whether a collection agency’s notice was confusing with respect to the statutorily required disclosures. Here, Credit Bureau’s use of the bold and capitalized phrase “WE CANNOT HELP YOU UNLESS YOU CALL” in the second notice would confuse the least sophisticated consumer because it was capable of being reasonably interpreted as changing the manner in which the consumer was required by law to dispute the debt or its amount. As a matter of law, the notice was deceptive or misleading in violation of the Act.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for the district court to enter judgment for Garrett and award her statutory damages, costs, and a reasonable amount of attorney fees incurred on appeal.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.