Is this the new Hunstein, where a widely used practice generally accepted as compliant suddenly becomes a risk? A federal trial court in Chicago concluded that a debt collector could be violating the FDCPA when broadcasting a local area code on its Caller ID when the caller did not have a physical presence in that area. 

In Brown v. MRS, the plaintiff filed suit alleging that the defendant violated the FDCPA by calling him from outside of Illinois but displaying an Illinois area code on the caller ID. Plaintiff further claimed that the local caller ID was designed to induce plaintiff to answer calls under the misleading impression that the person calling was local to him – in summary: The defendant failed to provide meaningful disclosure of its identity. 

The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, with an evidentiary record that included an agreement that the defendant was the exclusive owner of the telephone numbers used to place the calls, even though it did not have offices in Illinois. Had plaintiff actually placed a call to the number displayed on the Caller ID, the call would have reached MRS.

The court denied defendant’s motion related to the adequacy of disclosure of the caller’s identity when using a local caller ID when not present in that area code. The court found that MRS’s use of a local area code, rather than the out-of-state area codes for its office location, was a communication that could be without meaningful disclosure of the caller’s identity. The court ruled that there was a disputed factual issue on whether this practice was done with the intent to harass.  

Ignoring many other rulings permitting this caller ID procedure, the judge ruled that the plaintiff had created enough of a factual dispute, because the use of a local caller ID could be evidence of MRS’s steps to hide its identity and suggested an intent to harass.

The court also denied plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, finding an equally reasonable jury could find that, regardless of area code, defendant made a meaningful disclosure of its identity, because it displayed true and accurate numbers that belonged to defendant. Importantly, the telephone numbers would have connected plaintiff with MRS. 

What does this mean? A jury will be called upon to decide whether there was meaningful identification of the debt collector’s identity in the content of the caller ID transmission. This decision reverses what had been uniform agreement from the courts that the use of the local caller ID did not violate the FDCPA. 

The question now is whether this represents a one-off outlier ruling, or the newest arrow in the plaintiff attorney quiver.

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