Ohio Attorney General Special Counsel Now Subject to FDCPA: Gillie v. Law Office of Eric A Jones, LLC
In May, the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined in Gillie v. Law Office of Eric A. Jones, LLC, No. 14-3836, that attorneys working as contracted debt collectors for the Ohio Attorney General are subject to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The Attorney General’s office, which is responsible for collecting debts owed to the State, often contracts attorneys to act as debt collectors under the title of “special counsel.” Along with this special counsel title came the letterhead of the Ohio Attorney General’s office, which was used when collecting consumer debt on behalf of the State. It is now likely a deceptive act under the FDCPA to use that letterhead, and thus a violation of federal law.
The FDCPA was passed in 1977 to protect consumers from abusive debt collection practices. Congress found that debt collection agencies often operated with the mentality that debt was to be collected at any cost, creating incentives to mislead, or sometimes bully consumers into paying their debts. However, in passing the act, Congress made exemptions for employees and officers of the State when collecting debts owed to the government. Whether or not Ohio Attorney General special counsel was protected under these exemptions was a fundamental issue that the Sixth Circuit Court had to decide.
The plaintiffs, Pamela Gillie and Hazel Meadows, filed a lawsuit against several law firms acting as special counsel for the Ohio Attorney General. They argued that the use of the Attorney General’s letterhead was intentionally misleading, and therefore a violation of the FDCPA. After a lower district court ruled in favor of the defendants, the decision was appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court. The court determined that whether or not the special counsel debt collection letters were misleading was a matter best left for a jury, but held the FDCPA did apply to special counsel acting for the Ohio Attorney General when collecting medical debts for the State.
The Sixth Circuit Court determined that special counsel was in no way considered to either be employees or officers of the State of Ohio, despite their use of the Attorney General letterhead. Because of their nature as contractors for the State, the court determined that any special counsel attempting to collect consumer debt for the Ohio Attorney General was subject to the FDCPA. In this case, special counsel was acting to collect past due OSU medical debts.
The Sixth Circuit Court determined that special counsel is subject to the FDCPA when attempting to collect consumer debts for the State, due to the nature of their relationship with the Ohio Attorney General. Because they were contracted by the Attorney General, and not hired or appointed, they are not protected under the exemptions they claimed. This firm believes that the letters will likely be determined to violate the law, and that the consumer/debtors will recover under the FDCPA. If you think that you may have been affected by this practice, then please call Doucet & Associates at (614) 944-5219.