In Cagayat v. United Collection Bureau, Inc, No. 19-3431, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 7234 (6th Cir. Mar. 9, 2020), the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit adopted and expanded the Third Circuit’s Douglass decision to apply to an enclosed letter’s text that bleeds through an envelope.
The Letters attached as exhibits do not utterly discredit Cagayat’s assertion that the language is clearly visible. In her Complaint, Cagayat alleges that the words “Collection Bureau” “bleed through” the paper inside the envelope and are “clearly visible through the glassine window to the naked eye.” She further alleges that “[a] person looking at the envelope in normal lighting can, without unusual strain or effort, clearly read” the words “Collection Bureau.” Critically, Cagayat does not allege that the copies of the Letters accurately demonstrate what the Letters look like in “normal lighting.” The district court should have viewed these exhibits with the understanding that there is always some disparity in the quality of a copy versus the actual paper. And even then, the words “Collection [*11] Bureau” are at least moderately visible in the copies Cagayat attached, see R. 1-3 (Letter Copy at 2) (Page ID #12), particularly in the close-up shot, see R. 1-5 (Close-Up Copy at 2) (Page ID #16). Accordingly, contrary to the district court’s conclusion that the exhibits show that the contested language is “at best—barely legible[,]” we find that the exhibits show that the contested language is “at worst—barely legible.” At the Rule 12(b)(6) stage, the district court must decide whether, upon review of the complaint and its attached exhibits, there is a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal [**8] that the contested language is clearly visible. See Cates, 874 F.3d at 534. We find it is reasonable to conclude that discovery will reveal that the Letters, when viewed in normal lighting, display clearly visible language that indicates that the communications pertain to collection of a debt. Thus, we disagree with the district court’s holding that Cagayat’s exhibits contradict her assertion that the words “Collection Bureau” are clearly visible. The district court also improperly applied the least sophisticated consumer standard in coming to its conclusion. HN6 “Courts use the ‘least sophisticated consumer’ standard, an objective test, when assessing whether particular conduct violates the FDCPA.” Weiner, 539 F.3d at 333 (quoting Harvey v. Great Seneca Fin. Corp., 453 F.3d 324, 329 (6th Cir. 2006)). “This standard recognizes that the FDCPA protects the gullible and the shrewd alike while simultaneously presuming a basic level of reasonableness and understanding on the part of the debtor, thus preventing liability for bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretations of debt collection notices.” Currier v. First Resolution Inv. Corp., 762 F.3d 529, 533 (6th Cir. 2014). Here, the district court concluded that the contested language cannot be clearly read without unusual strain or effort because it is upside-down and backwards when the Letters are held right-side up. Cagayat argues that the district court’s holding fails to account for § 1692f(8)’s purpose of protecting the least sophisticated consumer from being embarrassed when someone else realizes she received mail from a debt collector. Contrary to UCB’s contention otherwise, we agree. A person handling or viewing one of the Letters could easily rotate the letter to read the words “Collection Bureau.” If a person grabbed one of the Letters out of the mailbox, he or she could easily grab or turn the letter “upside-down,” such that the address itself would appear upside down and backwards while the words “Collection Bureau” would be clearly visible and right-side up. Thus, the nature of the Letters would be apparent on the face of the envelope to anyone handling the mail. Douglass, 765 F.3d at 302. Indeed, no outside research, consultation, special knowledge, or significant effort would be required to know the nature of the Letters. DeCraene, 300 F. Supp. 3d at 981-82 (rejecting an attempt to add a research element to the least sophisticated consumer analysis, as it would require courts to look beyond what is “on the envelope”). Accordingly, the least sophisticated consumer standard does not excuse UCB’s conduct here. To hold otherwise would obstruct “Congress’s intent to screen from public view information pertinent to the debt collection.” Douglass, 765 F.3d at 302. This decision does not affect what a debt collector can write inside a letter. All it requires is a simple adjustment, such as lighter ink, thicker writing paper or envelopes, or an extra sheet of paper covering the letter inside. A contrary decision would permit an end-run around § 1692f(8) by clever envelope, paper, or font selection. Thus, applying the least sophisticated consumer standard, the fact that the words “Collection Bureau” are upside-down and backwards does not utterly discredit Cagayat’s assertion that the language can be clearly read without unusual strain or effort. B. We also disagree with the district court’s view that barring visible text printed on the Letters would lead to absurd results. According to UCB and the district court, our holding today would prevent debt collectors from sending collection letters at all. Cagayat argues that, to the contrary, a narrow construction of § 1692f(8) would create absurd results by allowing debt collectors to print whatever they want on the inside of the letter, no matter how obvious from the outside, as long as they do not print it on the envelope. Under the FDCPA, a business cannot display on an envelope that a specific person owes a debt. Likewise, a business whose name evidences it is in the debt collection business cannot display its name on the face of an envelope to a debtor, without violating the FDCPA. The concern in both situations is the same—protecting the debtor against embarrassment resulting from their association with debt collection efforts, i.e., protecting against an invasion of privacy. Hence, we do not find that we can disregard a business name that shows on the face of a debt collection letter, like UCB’s, merely because it is written on the inward contents of a letter. Moreover, with the extraordinary breadth of the FDCPA in mind, we find that this understanding best promotes the elimination of abusive debt collection practices without causing a competitive disadvantage to debt collectors that refrain from using such practices. In conclusion, we do not find that the Letters attached to the complaint as exhibits utterly discredit Cagayat’s assertion that someone looking at the envelope in normal lighting could clearly read the words “Collection Bureau” through the glassine window without unusual strain or effort.