The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama recently issued a decision in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) case highlighting the importance of clear and unambiguous communication in debt collection practices and the need for debt collectors to have robust procedures in place to handle disputes.

In Kirkland v. I.C. Systems, Inc., the plaintiff incurred debts to two separate entities, both of which went into default. These debts were subsequently assigned to the defendant for collection. Subsequently, the plaintiff’s counsel sent two identical dispute letters to the defendant. The dispute letters stated they were to serve as written notice that counsel represented the plaintiff “for all debts that he or she may have.” They also stated, “the above referenced individual(s) disputes the debt which you are attempting to collect.” Both letters listed the plaintiff’s name, her social security number, and identified a P.O. box as her address. The defendant was able to identify one debt in its database by matching the plaintiff’s name and social security number to the information in the letters. After being unable to verify the accuracy of the debt, the defendant requested the consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) to delete the account. However, because the other debt had no associated social security number and contained a different address than the one in the letters, the defendant did not identify it as belonging to the plaintiff and therefore did not mark it as disputed.

The plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that the defendant violated § 1692e of the FDCPA by failing to report to the CRAs that she disputed both debts. She also claimed that the defendant’s actions constituted unfair or unconscionable means to collect a debt under § 1692f. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment.

The court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff’s § 1692f claim, finding it duplicative of her § 1692e claim, but denied summary judgment for both parties on the § 1692e claim. The court found that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the defendant knew or should have known that the plaintiff disputed the debt at issue based on the information and language in the dispute letters. The letters were deemed ambiguous, referencing both “all debts” and a single “debt,” creating a question of material fact for the jury.

The court also denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on its bona fide error defense concluding that reasonable jurors could disagree over whether the defendant’s procedures were reasonably adapted to avoid the error at issue. The defendant’s procedures for handling dispute letters were found to be potentially insufficient, particularly when applied to debts without social security or date of birth information.