Ruling Reverses Decision that Let California Debt Collector Write to Employers

Monday, August 06, 2012
Judge John A. Mendez

A U.S. District Court judge in California was reversed and chastized by an appeals court for his finding that a debt collector could send a debt notice to a woman’s employer in apparent violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.   

The split decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District said U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez erred in finding against Catherine Evon, ruled he shouldn’t have dismissed the request it be classified a class-action lawsuit and assigned the case to another judge, citing the jurist’s hostile attitude.

“As we review the record below,” the court wrote, “we are struck by the district judge’s forceful statements: the case was ‘unnecessary,’ a ‘waste of time,’ ‘not worth a dime,’ and ‘should never have been filed.’ Indeed, the record reflects an unfortunate dismissive attitude by the district judge both toward Lemberg and the class Evon seeks to represent.”

Evon brought the lawsuit in 2010 after lawyer Sidney Mickell of Montclair (in Southern California) sent a collection letter “in care of” to her North Highlands (Sacramento area) employer. The letter, which said she owed money which could result in legal action, was opened on the premises and made its way to the legal department there before Evon received it.

According to the appellate court decision, the 1968 law passed by Congress was in response to “abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices by many debt collectors, (which) contribute to the number of personal bankruptcies, to marital instability, to the loss of jobs, and to invasions of individual privacy.”

One of those abusive practices, the court noted, was sending letters to an alleged debtor’s place of employment in an attempt to embarrass and pressure them. That, the court said, was “precisely what the act is designed to prevent.”

Circuit Judge John T. Noonan disagreed. He dissented from the three-judge panel’s decision because, although the letter was sent to her employer’s address, it had Evon’s name on the envelope. He thought it odd that anyone but Evon would open the letter, which prominently displayed Mickell’s law firm as the sender.

“Is there a general rule that letters to a person in care of the person's employer will be opened?” Noonan asked. “Nothing in my experience suggests that such is the rule or common practice in the United States. The majority invents a custom to confirm its conclusion.”  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Sacramento Federal Court's Debt-Collection Ruling Reversed on Appeal (by Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee)

Catherine Evon v. Law Offices of Sidney Mickell (U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)

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