Debt Collectors Can’t Impersonate Lawyers

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector cannot misrepresent themselves as attorneys if they are not licensed legal practitioners. Debt collectors are subject to fines for this sort of behavior.

15 U.S.C. Section 1692e makes “false or misleading representations” by debt collectors illegal, including Section 1692e(3), which prohibits:

The false representation or implication that any individual is an attorney or that any communication is from an attorney.

Can a Debt Collector Pretend to be a Lawyer?

No. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector can’t pretend to be an attorney. This section of the law (15 U.S.C. Section 1692e(3)) is intended to protect consumers from being misled by debt collectors.

There are two tactics that debt collection agencies often use that violate this provision of the FDCPA. The first is when an actual attorney gives form letters to a debt collection agency, but doesn’t otherwise participate in the collection efforts. The debt collection agency sends these letters out to consumers, implying that there’s an attorney involved, when that’s not actually the case.

The second tactic is for a debt collection agency to send out a mass-produced letter that lists its general counsel’s name on the letterhead and the attorney’s reproduced signature at the end of the letter. In truth, the lawyer hasn’t actually reviewed each individual consumer’s file or the specific debt collection letter in relation to each consumer.

Does an Attorney Review Debt Collection Letters?

The workflow described in Irwin v. Mascott (U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, 112 F. Supp. 2d 937) illustrates how this section of the FDCPA can be violated. Commonwealth Equity Adjustments would send attorney Owen Mascott spreadsheets of data about consumers so he could review names, addresses, and amounts. Mascott was never involved in the decision about whether or not to send a letter, and didn’t actually review any consumer information in detail unless the company actually considered filing a lawsuit.

In its opinion, the court wrote: “If the attorney did not first conduct an individual review of the debtor’s case, or if the attorney did not determine if a particular letter should be sent, or if the attorney did not know the identity of the person to whom the letter was sent, the communication from the attorney is false and misleading under Section 1692e(3).”

Similarly, in Clomon v. Jackson (988 F.2d 1314, 1321 2d Cir.1993), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that an attorney violated this provision of the FDCPA when he authorized sending out debt collection letters with his signature without first reviewing the letters or the files of the consumers who received the collection letters. While the court acknowledged that mass mailings are sometimes the only practical way of contacting consumers who owe money, mailings that are misleading violate the FDCPA.

In its opinion, the court wrote:

“[T]he use of an attorney’s signature on a collection letter implies that the letter is ‘from’ the attorney who signed it; it implies, in other words, that the attorney directly controlled or supervised the process through which the letter was sent…. [T]he use of an attorney’s signature implies…that the attorney signing the letter formed an opinion about how to manage the case of the debtor to whom the letter was sent. In a mass mailing, these implications are frequently false: the attorney whose signature is used might play no role either in sending the letters or in determining who should receive them. For this reason, there will be few, if any, cases in which a mass-produced collection letter bearing the facsimile of an attorney’s signature will comply with the restrictions imposed by Section 1692e.”

Are There Any Exceptions?

There may be an exception. In Lilly v. RAB Performance Recoveries (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee, No. 2:12-CV-364), the court ruled that a prominent disclaimer on the letter lets the debt collection agency – and attorney – off the hook. In that case, the disclaimer read, “At this time, no attorney with this firm has personally reviewed the particular circumstances of your account.” However, recent developments in other cases may offer rulings to the contrary.

Misled by Debt Collectors? Get the Justice You Deserve

If you’ve received debt collection correspondence signed by an attorney, the debt collection agency may have run afoul of the law. Lemberg Law can help. Under the FDCPA, you can sue a debt collector and receive up to $1,000, plus court costs and attorney fees. You can turn the tables on debt collectors and get the justice you deserve without paying a dime.

Lemberg Law attorneys protect consumers from abusive debt collection agencies. If you are receiving unwanted collection calls at work, then you could have a case against the collection agency. Contact Lemberg Law at 844-685-9200 ☎ or complete our online form for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation.

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