On January 29, the District Court in Georgia, in Jones v. Jason A. Craig and Associates, P.C., denied a motion for judgment on the pleadings by a defendant-collections law firm seeking dismissal of a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claim. Plaintiff John Jones alleges that the law firm’s use of “& Associates,” as part of its name in a debt collection letter, was a violation of the FDCPA.
The collection letter at issue reads “JASON A. CRAIG & ASSOCIATES, ATTORNEYS AT LAW” in the letterhead. The letter is also signed by “JASON A. CRAIG & ASSOCIATES, ATTORNEYS AT LAW.” Jones claimed a violation of Section 1692e of the FDCPA because the only lawyer allegedly associated with the defendant is Jason A. Craig. His theory is that there is a violation of the FDCPA because the defendant allegedly seeks to intentionally mislead consumers into believing that it is a law firm comprised of many attorneys, not just Jason A. Craig. Yet, at the time the letter at issue was provided, the defendant had “Jason A. Craig & Associates” registered with the Georgia Secretary of State. In responding to Jones’s claim and allegations, the defendant argued that even if the collection letter was deemed to be misleading, the conduct at issue did not rise to the level of being material enough to be actionable under the FDCPA. The District Court held:
The Defendant contends that even if its name on the letter was deceptive and/or misleading, that does not rise to the level of material misrepresentation to be actionable under § 1692e. Doc. 11-1 at 8. This argument is contingent on the Court applying materiality requirement to actions under § 1692e. Both parties correctly note that the Eleventh Circuit has not yet adopted the materiality requirement for claims brought under the FDCPA, specifically, § 1692e. […] The Court agrees ‘the materiality requirement is a corollary of the least sophisticated debtor standard’ and that only material misrepresentations are actionable under § 1692e.
Contrary to the Defendant’s assertion, the Court finds the Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts suggesting that the Defendant’s misrepresentation of its name as a firm with multiple attorneys is material in the eyes of the least sophisticated consumer. Given that at this stage all well-pleaded facts are accepted as true, the question becomes, why would a debt collector, in its collection letter to a debtor, represent itself as a law firm with multiple attorneys knowing it is actually a single-attorney law firm? The question is largely rhetorical, but it serves to highlight the materiality of the Defendant’s misrepresentation.
(internal citations omitted).
Based on the District Court’s decision, certain factual disputes between the parties in Jones will need to be resolved in discovery. Relatedly, the District Court’s decision signals that a determination as to “materiality,” at least in the Eleventh Circuit, is more properly decided on summary judgment than as part of a motion for judgment on the pleadings, in the context of the type of factual allegations present in Jones.