Wallace v. Diversified Consultants, Inc., No. 13-2214 (6th Cir. 2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692g(a)(3) a collector must notify the individual from whom it seeks payment that it will assume the validity of the debt unless he disputes it “within thirty days after receipt of the notice.” Diversified wrote to Wallace that it would assume the validity of a debt unless he disputed it “within 30 days of receiving this notice.” Based on the letter’s use of “of” rather than “after,” as in the Act, Wallace sued Diversified. The district court granted the debt collector judgment on the pleadings. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. A collector need not parrot the Act to comply with, but only must communicate with enough clarity to convey the required information to a reasonable but unsophisticated consumer. The Act and the letter mean the same thing.

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RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION Pursuant to Sixth Circuit I.O.P. 32.1(b) File Name: 14a0054p.06 UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT _________________ CARL WALLACE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. No. 13-2214 > DIVERSIFIED CONSULTANTS, INC., Defendant-Appellee. Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit No. 2:13-cv-10427 Robert H. Cleland, District Judge. Decided and Filed: March 26, 2014 BEFORE: SUHRHEINRICH, ROGERS and SUTTON, Circuit Judges. _________________ COUNSEL ON BRIEF: Brian P. Parker, Bingham Farms, Michigan, for Appellant. OLSON LAW GROUP, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellee. Charity Olson, _________________ OPINION _________________ SUTTON, Circuit Judge. This is a case about prepositions about the difference, if any, between of and after as used here. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a collector dunning another for payment must notify the individual that it will assume the validity of the debt unless he disputes it within thirty days after receipt of the notice. 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(3). Diversified Consultants wrote to Carl Wallace that it would assume the validity of a debt unless he disputed it within 30 days of receiving this notice. R. 1-1. Seizing on the 1 No. 13-2214 Wallace v. Diversified Consultants, Inc. Page 2 use of of in the letter in contrast to the use of after in the Act, Wallace sued Diversified. The district court granted the debt collector judgment on the pleadings. We agree and affirm. A collector need not parrot the Act to comply with it. A statement works if it speaks with enough clarity to convey the required information to a reasonable but unsophisticated consumer. See Smith v. Transworld Sys., Inc., 953 F.2d 1025, 1029 (6th Cir. 1992). The letter to Wallace did that. It informed him that he had thirty days to dispute the debt, that the clock would start running when he received the letter (rather than, say, when Diversified sent the letter), and that if he did not act the collector would assume the debt s validity. It makes no difference that the letter said within 30 days of receiving this notice rather than within 30 days after receiving this notice. Both mean the same thing. From the most venerable sources to the most contemporary, authors have used these phrases interchangeably. The King James Version of Leviticus 25:29 allows the seller of a dwelling house in a walled city to buy it back within a whole year after it is sold, while the English Standard Version allows the seller to buy it back within a year of its sale. The original version of Appellate Rule 4 required the appellant to file a notice of appeal within 30 days of entry of judgment, but today s version requires him to file a notice of appeal within 30 days after entry of judgment. A Committee Note from 1979 explains that the switch worked only a stylistic change, since the word of in the [original] rule appears to be used to mean after. More examples appear in the United States Reports. Many an opinion uses within . . . of when describing a law that uses within . . . after. Compare Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Cent. Pension Fund, 134 S. Ct. 773, 779 (2014) ( within 30 days of ), with Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(1)(A) ( within 30 days after ); compare Sebelius v. Auburn Reg l Med. Ctr., 133 S. Ct. 817, 822 (2013) ( within 180 days of ), with 42 U.S.C. § 1395oo(a)(3) ( within 180 days after ); compare John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, 552 U.S. 130, 135 (2008) ( within six years of ), with 28 U.S.C. § 2501 ( within six years after ). All of this explains why we have assumed, without being asked to think about it, that statements telling consumers they may dispute the debt within thirty days of receiving notice suffice. See Fed. Home Loan Mortg. Corp. v. Lamar, 503 F.3d 504, 507 13 (6th Cir. 2007); No. 13-2214 Wallace v. Diversified Consultants, Inc. Page 3 Smith, 953 F.2d at 1029. Now that we have been asked to think about it, we agree with the assumption. The two words operate interchangeably in this setting and indeed in most settings. Wallace points out that of and after are different words, and that they can bear different meanings. True enough. A speaker might even use within thirty days of something to mean within thirty days before something as in The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act regulates political advertisements aired within thirty days of a primary. But this possibility does not make Diversified s choice of preposition improper. No reasonable consumer, even an unsophisticated one, would read the letter as an instruction to travel back in time (though no more than thirty days back) to dispute the debt. Wallace has something else in mind. He complains that the phrase within thirty days of receiving this notice suggests to the consumer that the clock starts ticking the instant he gets the letter, while the phrase within thirty days after receiving this notice does not carry that connotation. In one sense, Wallace is on to something. The law doth reject all fractions and divisions of a day, and so for the most part excludes the day of an event when measuring time from that event. Clayton s Case, 5 Co. Rep. 1a, 1b (K.B. 1585); see Burnet v. Willingham Loan & Trust Co., 282 U.S. 437 (1931) (Holmes, J.). Wallace thus has a good argument that the day a consumer gets notice does not count toward the thirty-day deadline for disputing the debt. But he does not have a good argument that Diversified s chosen preposition misleads the reader on this point. Neither of nor after says anything either way about when to start counting. That means Diversified spoke with enough clarity to comply with the Act. See Smith, 953 F.2d at 1029. Truth be told, both within thirty days of receiving notice and within thirty days after receiving notice are ambiguous about when to start counting. Does this mean that Wallace would have won had he taken aim, not at the choice of preposition, but at the absence of a clarifying parenthetical had he argued the letter should have read, within thirty days of receiving this notice (not counting the day of receipt) ? We doubt it. A collector complies with the law so long as it effectively conveys the information specified in the statutory text, see Lamar, 503 F.3d at 510, and the text says nothing about whether the day of receipt counts. Besides, [t]he fiction that a day has no parts is a figurative recognition of the fact that people do No. 13-2214 Wallace v. Diversified Consultants, Inc. Page 4 not trouble themselves without reason about a nicer division of time. Burnet, 282 U.S. at 440. Because the law s disregard of fractions of days reflects common usage, id. at 439, we suspect that a consumer reading Diversified s letter would ignore the day of receipt anyway, no matter the absence of a clarifying parenthetical. For these reasons, we affirm.