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3rd Circuit Rules Against Debt Collector Who Harassed Consumer over $25 bill

John Daubert went to Wilkes-Barre General Hospital for treatment of lower back pain and was billed $46 by a radiologist for X-rays. Daubert’s insurer contributed $21, so Daubert was responsible for the remaining $25. He failed to pay the small bill so his account was transferred to NRA, a debt collector. NRA was also given Daubert’s cell number. In addition to sending a collection letter, NRA called Daubert sixty-nine times in ten months. He answered just once.

Suit was Filed in Wilkes-Barre Federal Court

Daubert sued NRA  alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

When discovery closed Daubert asked for summary judgment on his FDCPA and TCPA claims.

Judge Caputo, of the federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, granted summary judgment in the plaintiff’s favor on the TCPA claim, but granted judgment as a matter of law in the defendant’s favor on the FDCPA claim.

Third Circuit Rules for Debtor

In a precedential opinion filed on July 3, 2017, and written by Judge Fisher, the Third Circuit affirmed on the TCPA but reversed on the FDCPA, handing the debt collector a total defeat.

Judge Fisher noted that Congress passed the TCPA to protect individual consumers from receiving intrusive and unwanted calls” and bars “any person within the United States” from making calls to a phone number assigned to a “cellular telephone service” using an “automatic telephone dialing system.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii), which was what NRA used.

The question to be addressed under the TCPA was whether, by giving his cell number to the hospital, Daubert consented to receiving phone calls from the Radiologist Creditor. The Court held he did not:

“Daubert, of course, could’ve indicated on his Hospital intake form (assuming one exists) that he consented to have his number transferred to Radiology Associates for billing or other purposes. But no evidence of such prior express consent exists in the record….” “The court rightly held that no reasonable jury could find that Daubert expressly consented to receive calls about his bill from NRA.”

The Third Circuit then reversed Judge Caputo’s decision to grant summary judgment to the defendant on the FDCPA claim. The question in that claim was whether the creditor violated the FDCPA by mailing a collection letter to Daubert that revealed his account number and bar code on the letter’s envelope. The bare account number and barcode on the collection letter’s envelope, he claimed, could’ve revealed his private information. The Court said:

“Congress enacted the FDCPA to “eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors….To further that goal the FDCPA bars debt collectors from using ‘unfair or unconscionable means’ to collect a debt.”

The 3rd Circuit ruled that Judge Caputo was wrong to have ruled against Daubert on this claim. The case was a complete loss for the collection company.

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