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Lavallee v. Med-1 Solutions, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 8, 2019

Beth Lavallee, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Med-1 Solutions, LLC, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued May 30, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. l:15-cv-01922-DML-WTL Debra McVicker Lynch, Magistrate Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Sykes and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          SYKES, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Debt collector Med-1 Solutions, LLC, attempted to recover two unpaid medical bills on behalf of Beth Lavallee's healthcare provider. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA" or "the Act") required Med-1 to disclose certain information to Lavallee about her debts within a specific time frame. 15 U.S.C. § l692g(a). Med-1 could satisfy its § l692g(a) disclosure obligations by including the required information in its "initial communication" with Lavallee or by sending "a written notice containing" the disclosures within five days after that "initial communication." Id.

         In March and April 2015, Med-1 sent Lavallee two emails, one for each debt. The emails contained hyperlinks to a Med-1 vendor's web server. Once there, a visitor had to click through multiple screens to access and download a .pdf document containing the disclosures required by § l692g(a). Lavallee never opened these emails. When the hospital called her in November to discuss a different medical debt, she learned about the earlier debts and was told that they had been referred to Med-1 for collection. She then called Med-1 to inquire about them, but the debt collector didn't provide the required disclosures. Nor did it send a written notice within the next five days.

         Lavallee sued Med-1 for violating § l692g(a). She alleged that Med-1 never provided the statutory disclosures, either during the November phone call or within five days as required. Med-1 responded that its March and April emails were the "initial communication[s]" and argued that they contained the mandatory disclosures. A magistrate judge, presiding by consent, 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), granted Lavallee's motion for summary judgment.

         We affirm. Med-1 concedes its failure to send Lavallee a written notice within five days of her phone call. This appeal rests on Med-l's contention that its emails were initial communications that contained the required disclosures. But the emails do not qualify under the Act's definition of "communication" because they did not "convey[] ... information regarding a debt." 15 U.S.C. § l692a(2). Nor did the emails "contain" the statutorily mandated disclosures. § l692g(a). At most the emails provided a means to access the disclosures via a multistep online process. Because Med-1 violated § l692g(a), the judge was right to enter judgment for Lavallee.

         I. Background

         Lavallee incurred two debts for medical services provided by a hospital. The hospital referred the debts to Med-1 for collection. Med-1 emailed Lavallee on March 20 and April 17, 2015, sending the messages from "info@medlsolutions.com" to the email address Lavallee had provided to the hospital. The emails stated that "Med-1 Solutions has sent you a secure message" and featured an embedded hyperlink inviting the recipient to "View Secure-Package":

         (Image Omitted)

         Neither email was returned to Med-1 as undelivered, but Lavallee doesn't recall seeing them in her inbox. If Lavallee had opened either email and clicked on the hyperlink, she would have been directed via a web browser to a server operated by Privacy Data Systems, Medl's sister company. She would have seen a screen asking her to check a box to sign for the "SecurePackage." Checking that box would have activated the "Open SecurePackage" button at the bottom of the screen, and clicking that button would have revealed a screen with "SecurePackage Display" written across the top. Had she selected the "Attachments" tab on that screen, a .pdf file would have appeared. Had she clicked on that .pdf file, she would have seen a pop-up window asking her if she wanted to open the attachment with Adobe Acrobat or save it to her hard drive. Only then could she have viewed the document or downloaded the file and then opened it.

         The file contained the disclosures required by § l692g(a), including the amount of the debt, the consumer's right to dispute the debt, and how to obtain more information about the alleged creditor. This type of notice is commonly called a "validation notice." Durkin v. Equifax Check Sews., Inc., 406 F.3d 410, 412 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Med-1 received reports from Privacy Data Systems indicating which email recipients had downloaded validation notices. Privacy Data Systems' records show that Lavallee never clicked the "Open SecurePackage" hyperlink and thus ...


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