The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington recently granted a debt collector’s motion for summary judgment on a debtor’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claims stemming from a collection letter sent in an effort to collect on unpaid bills for medical services.
In McBroom v. Syndicated Office Systems d/b/a Central Financial Control, No. 2:18-cv-00102-JCC (Nov. 28, 2018), plaintiff Charles McBroom received medical treatment from Franciscan Medical Group West Seattle, which commonly transacts business as “FMG West Seattle.” McBroom failed to pay the balance due for his medical treatment. As a result, FMG West Seattle placed McBroom’s account with a debt collector—defendant Central Financial Control—who sent a letter to McBroom notifying him of the debt.
The letter sent to McBroom identified FMG West Seattle as the relevant “facility” and listed an account number, patient reference number, the date of service, and an account summary with the account’s balance. The letter not only identified Central Financial Control as a “debt collector,” but also stated that McBroom’s account had been placed with Central Financial Control for collection of the balance, and that McBroom could contact Central Financial Control for financial assistance or a payment arrangement.
In addition to the above, the letter provided a second phone number and website “for more information about financial assistance.” This phone number and website belonged to CHI Franciscan Health. Franciscan Medical Group is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Franciscan Health Systems d/b/a CHI Franciscan Health.
McBroom filed suit against Central Financial Control, in which he alleged that this letter violated the FDCPA by failing to clearly identify the creditor of the debt under 15 U.S.C. §1692g(a)(2) and by failing to meaningfully convey the name of the creditor under 15 U.S.C. § 1692e. Central Financial Control moved for summary judgment seeking dismissal of both FDCPA claims.
In evaluating McBroom’s section 1692g(a)(2) claim, the Court noted that the letter’s “account” section listed FMG West Seattle as the only facility and that a separate section of the letter indicated that amounts owed may vary based on other coverage for medical services “received from FMG West Seattle.” The Court further noted that the letter identified Central Financial Control as a debt collector and, although it directed that payments be made to Central Financial Control, it described McBroom’s account as being “placed” with Central Financial Control. Finally, the Court noted that although CHI Franciscan Health’s contact information was provided at the close of the letter, this section is entirely devoted to financial assistance. Taken together, the Court found that these statements did not render the identity of the account’s creditor unclear.
The Court used these same factors to evaluate McBroom’s section 1692e claim. In particular, the Court noted that the letter failed to indicate that ownership of the account had been transferred to Central Financial Control, and that the limiting language used to describe the assistance provided by CHI Franciscan Health meant that it could not reasonably be interpreted as a creditor. Accordingly, the Court granted Central Financial Control’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed both of the plaintiff’s FDCPA claims.
Troutman Sanders will continue to monitor and report on developments in this area of the law.