Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 09 C 7925-James F. Holderman, Chief Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Easterbrook, Chief Judge.
SUBMITTED OCTOBER 21, 2010-DECIDEDFEBRUARY11, 2011
Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and MANION and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.
After being dunned for a debt, Christopher Tinsley retained a lawyer, who sent the debt collector (Integrity Financial Partners) a letter stating that Tinsley refuses to pay and lacks assets that the creditor could seize. The letter concluded: "we request that you cease all further collection activities and direct all future communications to our office." The debt collector has refrained from calling or writing to Tinsley but did call the lawyer with a request for payment. Tinsley then filed this suit under 15 U.S.C. §1692c(c), a section of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act that, Tinsley contends, prohibits debt collectors from contacting a debtor's legal counsel as well as the debtor himself, once the debtor refuses to pay.
Here is the text of §1692c(c):
If a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate further with the consumer with respect to such debt, except- (1) to advise the consumer that the debt collector's further efforts are being terminated;
(2) to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor may invoke specified remedies which are ordinarily invoked by such debt collector or creditor; or
(3) where applicable, to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor intends to invoke a specified remedy.
If such notice from the consumer is made by mail, notification shall be complete upon receipt.
The district court concluded that a lawyer is not "the consumer" and granted summary judgment to the debt collector. The court relied on §1692c(d), which defines the word "consumer" for the purpose of §1692c to include "consumer's spouse, parent (if the consumer is a minor), guardian, executor, or administrator." This list excludes lawyers, the court observed.
Tinsley's principal argument on appeal is that, whether or not a debtor's lawyer is "the consumer", the lawyer is the debtor's agent, so notice to the lawyer should be treated as notice to the debtor. Tinsley observes that 15 U.S.C. §1692a(2) defines "communication" as "the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium." Anything a debt collector says to a debtor's lawyer is an indirect communication to the debtor. Our opinion in Evory v. RJM Acquisitions Funding L.L.C., 505 F.3d 769, 773 (7th Cir. 2007), relied on §1692a(2) when holding that documents sent to a debtor's lawyer must contain the information that is required to be in documents sent directly to the debtor. Accord, Allen v. LaSalle Bank, N.A., 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 587 at *9 (3d Cir. Jan. 12, 2011). It follows, Tinsley maintains, that, once a debtor invokes his rights under §1692c(c), any communication to either the debtor or his lawyer is forbidden, unless it comes within one of the subsection's three provisos. At least one district judge has accepted this argument, Startare v. Credit Bureau of North America, LLC, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54830 (N.D. Ill. June 3, 2010), though as far as we can tell no appellate court has done so. (Nor has any appellate court rejected it; this appears to be the first time the issue has reached a court of appeals.)
The language of §1692c(c), read together with §1692a(2) and the rule that a communication to an agent is deemed to be a communication to the principal, supports Tinsley's argument. But we have yet to consider subsections (a) and (b) of §1692c, which put matters in a different light. Here is the full text of §1692c:
Communication in connection with debt ...