|Heintz v. Jenkins (94-367), 514 U.S. 291 (1995). |
[ Breyer ]
NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
HEINTZ et al. v. JENKINS
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit
Petitioner Heintz is a lawyer representing a bank that sued respondent Jenkins to recover the balance due on her defaulted car loan. After 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excluded "any attorney at law collecting a debt as an attorney on behalf of and in the name of a client," Congress repealed this exemption in 1986 without creating a narrower, litigation related, exemption to fill the void.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--(1) 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 not--are unconvincing. Pp. 3-8.
Breyer, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.