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Federal Court Rejects Spanish-Speaking Plaintiffs’ Claims Against Debt Collection Agency for Violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

We’ve blogged before about the importance of translating English contracts into different languages when one of the contracting parties does not speak English, especially when your company does business in California and needs to comply with the California Translation Act. The case below involves a situation in which the contract in dispute was available in both English and Spanish languages to the contracting party. The parties later disputed the enforceability of the contract on several different grounds.

In Bibbins v. McCarthy, the plaintiffs brought claims pursuant to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) stemming from the plaintiffs’ personal cell phone contracts with Verizon Wireless. The plaintiffs sued the debt collection agency that Verizon used to collect plaintiffs’ unpaid debts, claiming that the company engaged in false and deceptive practices by sending letters threatening to report the debts to the IRS.

Plaintiffs Enter into Cell Phone Contracts With Verizon.

The plaintiffs were Illinois residents who entered into cell phone contracts with Verizon Wireless. One of the plaintiffs, a Mexican citizen before he was nationalized, had been living and working in the United States since 1998. As part of the contract, this plaintiff agreed to the “My Verizon Wireless Customer Agreement” which essentially stated that Verizon would charge late fees and/or collection fees for past-due payments.

Both plaintiffs eventually defaulted on their accounts. One of the plaintiffs owed over $1,500 and the other plaintiff owed in excess of $3,000. Verizon hired the defendant, a debt collection company, to try to recover the plaintiffs’ debts on its behalf. In response to these collection attempts, the plaintiffs hired legal aid attorneys to assist in managing these debts, and plaintiffs subsequently filed lawsuits in federal court which were later consolidated into one lawsuit.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that the Verizon agreement was unconscionable because it was an adhesion contract that required an excessive collection fee. The Mexican plaintiff also claimed that he did not understand the terms of the agreement because he could not speak and read English fluently.

Spanish-Speaking Plaintiff Admits He Had Access to Both an English and a Spanish Version of the Contract.

The plaintiff was deposed with the assistance of a Spanish deposition interpreter. During his deposition, the plaintiff testified that he had, in fact, signed the cell phone contract and that he had reviewed the provision involving unpaid balances and collection fees. He also admitted that Spanish translation of the service agreement was available to customers on Verizon’s website.

Court Finds Defendant’s Practices Were Not Deceptive; Rejects Spanish-Speaking Plaintiff’s Arguments on Enforceability of Contract Due to Language Issues.

After the close of discovery, the plaintiffs moved for summary judgment. In analyzing the plaintiffs’ claims, the court began by explaining that, according to federal law, “debt collectors cannot take misleading actions in connection with debts, such as threatening to take impermissible actions, or making false representations to coerce payment.” See 15 U.S.C. Section 1692d(5) and (10).

However, the court noted that the inclusion of statements that implicate the possibility of reporting are not deceptive on their face, as they do nothing more than give forewarning that something could happen. See Moses v. LTD Fin. Servs. I, 275 F.Supp.3d 893, 897 (N.D. Ill. 2017). As to the plaintiffs’ claims about the illegality of the letters threatening to report their debts to the IRS, the court held that the statement in the letters was actually correct, as reporting to the IRS is “sometimes required for discharge of a debt above $600.”  In addition, the court found that the collection fee was fairly and clearly communicated to the plaintiff. As such, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims on their merits.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the contract was unenforceable because one of the plaintiffs could not read or understand English. The court reasoned that the plaintiff testified that he had access to both the English and the Spanish versions of the contract and that he chose to accept Verizon’s terms instead of going with another carrier. The court also noted that the plaintiff admitted that he signed the contract with the understanding that it was an agreement with Verizon about a cell phone account.

Based on the factors described above, the court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

The case is Bibbins v. Burgess, Case No. 16-cv-02829m decided on March 29, 2018 by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Contact certified translation service All Language Alliance, Inc. to retain court-certified interpreters for depositions involving non-English-speaking witnesses, and to obtain certified evidentiary translations of foreign language documents from Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Russian, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Chinese, French to English to use in court.

**This legal document translation blog article should not be construed as legal advice. You should always consult an attorney regarding your specific legal needs.

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