Sheriff v. Gillie

PETITIONER: Mark J. Sheriff, et al.
RESPONDENT: Pamela Gillie, et al.
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio

DOCKET NO.: 15-338
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Dec 11, 2015
ARGUED: Mar 29, 2016
DECIDED: May 16, 2016

ADVOCATES:
E. Joshua Rosenkranz - for the respondents
Sarah E. Harrington - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the respondents
Eric E. Murphy - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1977, Congress enacted the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in an effort to combat abusive debt collection practices, which were particularly problematic with third party or independent debt collectors, who are unlikely to have contact with the consumer and therefore have little incentive to act fairly. One of the issues that the FDCPA addressed was independent debt collectors representing themselves as government officials. Therefore, the FDCPA targeted these “debt collectors” while exempting government officials from that definition. The statutory language of the exemption was specific to “any officer or employee of ... any State to the extent that collecting or attempting to collect any debt is in the performance of his official duties.”

The Ohio Revised Code contains a provision that unpaid debts owed to a state entity get “certified” to the Ohio Attorney General, who is then responsible for collecting the debt or disposing of it by other means. The Attorney General may enlist “special counsel” to collect debts on the Attorney General’s behalf. To do so, the special counsel and the Attorney General enter into a retention agreement that, among other terms, allows the special counsel to use the Attorney General’s letterhead in connection with claims arising out of the tax debts the special counsel is authorized to collect.

The plaintiffs in this case are individuals who received debt collection letters that used the seal of the Ohio Attorney General from the defendants, who became special counsel to the Attorney General in 2013. The plaintiffs sued and argued that the defendants violated the FDCPA by using the Ohio Attorney General letterhead. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and held that special counsel are not “debt collectors” under the meaning of the FDCPA because they are officers of the state for the purposes of debt collection, and therefore the use of the Ohio Attorney General letterhead was not false or misleading. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the lower court’s decision and held that special counsel are “debt collectors” under the meaning of the FDCPA and do not fall under the exemption, and that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the use of Ohio Attorney General’s seal on debt collection letters was misleading.

Question

  1. Are special counsel appointed by the state Attorney General to collect debts are “state officers” under the meaning of the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act?
  2. Is it materially misleading for special counsel to use Attorney General letterhead to convey that they are collecting debts owed to the state on the Attorney General’s behalf?

Media for Sheriff v. Gillie

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 29, 2016 in Sheriff v. Gillie

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 16, 2016 in Sheriff v. Gillie

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in case 15-338, Sheriff versus Gillie.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns special counsel engaged by Ohio's Attorney General to assist in the collection of debts owed to the state or a state agency.

Special counsels are private attorneys, retained by the Attorney General as independent contractors.

They send debt collection notices and may litigate and settle claims on behalf of the state.

As required by the Attorney General, special counsels use the Attorney General's letterhead in communicating with debtors.

The Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act targets abusive debt collection practices.

The act regulates debt collectors, individuals who operate debt collection business or regularly collect debts owed to another.

Excluded from the definition of debt collector and therefore outside the governance of the act are offices and employees of the United States or any state who collect debts in the course of their official duties.

The act imposes on debt collectors at General Bar against engaging in false, deceptive or misleading practices.

Respondents before us, plaintiffs below, Pamela Gillie and Hazel Meadows, recipients of debt collection letters from special counsel on the Attorney General's letter head.

The signature blocks of these letters identified special counsel as such and included the names and addresses of their private law offices.

Gillie and Meadows filed a class action complaint in federal court against special counsel and their law firms.

By using the Attorney General's letter head rather than the stationery of their private law firms, Gillie and Meadows alleged special counsel employed a deceptive and misleading debt collection means in violation of the federal statute.

They charge more specifically, that special counsel's letters falsely report to be documents authorized issued or approved by a state official.

They further contended that special counsels dispatch of correspondence on the Attorney General letter head impermissibly used an organization named other than the two name of the debt collectors business.

Ohio intervened in support of the special counsel.

The district court granted summary judgment for special counsel concluding that they qualify for the state office exemption and in any event their use of the Attorney General's letterhead is not false or misleading.

A divided Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, disagreeing with both of the district court conclusions, the majority held that special counsels were not state offices and that their use of the Attorney General's letterhead violated the federal law.

The questions special counsels' petition presents do special counsel qualify as state officers exempt from the debt collection ex-governance?

Is special counsel's use of the Attorney General's letterhead false or misleading?

Our decision bypasses the first question.

We assume arguendo that special counsel do not rank as state officers and instead qualify simply as debt collectors under the federal act.

We hold nevertheless that special counsels' use of the Attorney General's letterhead does not offend the federal law.

Not fairly described as false or misleading, use of the letterhead accurately conveys that special counsel in seeking to collect debts owed to stated do so on behalf of and as instructed by the Attorney General.

The letterhead identifies the principal, Ohio's Attorney General and the signature block names the agent a private lawyer hired as outside counsel to the Attorney General.

Special counsels' use of the Attorney General's letterhead we also hold does not violate the specific prescription against falsely representing that a communication is authorized, issued or approved by a state.

The Attorney General not only authorized the required special counsel to use his letterhead in sending collection notices for debts owed to the state.

Special counsels create no false impression in doing just what the Attorney General instructed them to do.

Nor did special counsels failed to use their true name in their correspondence.

Acting for the Attorney General in debt related matters, special counsels properly used the letterhead the Attorney General gave them and sent out their own names and contact information.

Sarah from Law Aspect

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