- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

CINCINNATI (AP) - A debt collector’s use of official Ohio Attorney General letterhead violated the federal fair debt collection law, according to an appeals court ruling.

At issue are the tactics of law firms hired by the Attorney General’s office to perform debt-collecting services for the state agency.

Two women who received debt collection notices lawyers at the firms sued, saying it was misleading for the firms to send the notices on stationary that had the name of Attorney General Mike DeWine and the seal of his office on top.

A judge originally sided with the two Columbus firms, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the letterhead a “deception” that could inappropriately influence consumers’ decisions by making them pay promptly, regardless of their circumstances or the accuracy of the debt they were alleged to owe.

“Intimidation is at the heart of this case,” the court said in a Friday ruling. “There is no compelling reason for special counsel to use the OAG letterhead, other than to misrepresent their authority and place pressure on those individuals receiving the letters.”

The law firms and DeWine argued that the attorneys were acting as officers of the state when sending the letter. The court disagreed in a 2-1 ruling that returned the case to the judge with instructions to have a jury determine whether the letters were actually confusing to “the least sophisticated consumer.”

Judge Jeffrey Sutton dissented, saying the lawyers hired by the state lawyers become the Attorney General’s agents for the purpose of collecting debts.

Neither of the letters evokes unjustified fear, Sutton said.

“Not even the least sophisticated consumer could infer anything from these letters other than the reality that these were indeed state debts,” he wrote.

One of the letters involved a medical claim, while the other involved a University of Akron loan.

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