Heintz v. Jenkins
514 U.S. 291 (1995)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1994

Syllabus

HEINTZ ET AL. v. JENKINS

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 94-367. Argued February 21, 1995-Decided April 18, 1995

Petitioner Heintz is a lawyer representing a bank that sued respondent Jenkins to recover the balance due on her defaulted car loan. Mter a letter from Heintz listed the amount Jenkins owed as including the cost of insurance bought by the bank when she reneged on her promise to insure the car, Jenkins brought this suit against Heintz and his law firm under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which forbids "debt collector[s]" to make false or misleading representations and to engage in various abusive and unfair practices. The District Court dismissed the suit, holding that the Act does not apply to lawyers engaging in litigation. The Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed.

Held: The Act must be read to apply to lawyers engaged in consumer debt-collection litigation for two rather strong reasons. First, a lawyer who regularly tries to obtain payment of consumer debts through legal proceedings meets the Act's definition of "debt collector"; one who "regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, [consumer] debts owed ... another," 15 U. S. C. § 1692a(6). Second, although an earlier version of that definition expressly excluded "any attorney-atlaw collecting a debt as an attorney on behalf of and in the name of a client," Congress repealed this exemption in 1986 without creating a narrower, litigation-related, exemption to fill the void. Heintz's arguments for nonetheless inferring the latter type of exemption-(l) that many of the Act's requirements, if applied directly to litigation activities, will create harmfully anomalous results that Congress could not have intended; (2) that a postenactment statement by one of the 1986 repeal's sponsors demonstrates that, despite the removal of the earlier blanket exemption, the Act still does not apply to lawyers' litigating activities; and (3) that a nonbinding "Commentary" by the Federal Trade Commission's staff establishes that attorneys engaged in sending dunning letters and other traditional debt-collection activities are covered by the Act, while those whose practice is limited to legal activities are notare unconvincing. Pp.294-299.

25 F.3d 536, affirmed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


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George W Spellmire argued the cause for petitioners.

With him on the briefs were D. Kendall Griffith, Bruce L. Carmen, and David M. Schultz.

Daniel A. Edelman argued the cause for respondent.

With him on the brief were Joanne S. Faulkner and Richard J. Rubin. *

JUSTICE BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue before us is whether the term "debt collector" in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 91 Stat. 874, 15 U. S. C. §§ 1692-16920 (1988 ed. and Supp. V), applies to a lawyer who "regularly," through litigation, tries to collect consumer debts. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that it does. We agree with the Seventh Circuit and we affirm its judgment.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits "debt collector[sJ" from making false or misleading representations and from engaging in various abusive and unfair practices. The Act says, for example, that a "debt collector" may not use violence, obscenity, or repeated annoying phone calls, 15 U. S. C. § 1692d; may not falsely represent "the character, amount, or legal status of any debt," § 1692e(2)(A); and may not use various "unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect" a consumer debt, § 1692f. Among other things, the Act sets out rules that a debt collector must follow for "acquiring location information" about the debtor, § 1692b; communicating about the debtor (and the

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Bar Association by George E. Bushnell; for the Commercial Law League of America by Manuel H. Newburger and Barbara M. Barron; and for the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys by Ronald S. Canter and Rosalie B. Levinson.

Robert J. Hobbs, Joan S. Wise, Deborah M. Zuckerman, and Alan Alop filed a brief for the National Consumer Law Center, Inc., et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance.

Andrew Rosen filed a brief for Sherry Ann Edwards as amicus curiae.


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Full Text of Opinion

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