Judge: Email Attachments Not Covered By Postal Mail 'Common Law'

Email’s standing as a delivery medium had a setback last week when a federal judge ruled that an email attachment does not enjoy the same presumption of receipt as a letter sent by postal mail.  

Judge Debra McVicker Lynch determined that debt collector Met-1 Solutions, had not “sent” notices to plaintiff Beth Lavallee, as required by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), when it included them in email attachments.  

Lynch awarded a summary judgment to Lavallee, along with the requested $1,000 in damages, plus attorney’s fees.

It was not known at deadline whether Med-1 Solutions would contest the ruling, or the progress of a collection suit filed against Lavallee.  

The case began when Med-1 Solutions attempted to collect two hospital debts from Lavallee. As mandated by the FDCPA, it sent “validation” messages to Lavallee, outlining the debts and giving her the chance to respond. It had obtained Lavallee’s email address from the hospital.

These emails ask the recipient to take several steps.

After opening the email, in which the sender is identified in the "from" line as Info@med1solutions.com, the person finds a message, saying: “Please find your message attached.”

It continues that the party can pick up a “secure message” by clicking a link. Anyone who clicks is directed by a browser to a website, and instructed to “accept” the attachment by checking a box to “sign for this Secure Package.”

The consumer who follows these steps is given access to a pdf containing the validation letter.

Lynch noted that Lavallee never opened the emails. And it followed that she never clicked through to the attachments, which Med-1 was able to track.

Med-1 argued that it had complied with the FDCPA simply by sending the email. But Lynch disagreed.

Court rulings in other cases had found that a letter sent by first class mail is “presumed to have been received by the addressee under the common law’s mailbox rule,” with no proof of receipt, she noted.

But Lynch observed that “not opening an email attachment is not the same as failing to open a letter one receives through the United States Postal Service mail system.”

Lynch continued that “while consumers may open emails from companies to which they had given their email addresses, Lavallee would not have seen as safe an email from Med-1 Solutions,” a firm with which she had never dealt. 

The judge also alluded to a larger issue.

“Today, email users are regularly warned and know to beware of email invitations to click on web-based attachments,” Lynch wrote.

She added: “The United States Department of Homeland Security has issued a Security Tip (ST04- 010), originally released in 2009 and updated in 2017, warning the public to use caution with email attachments because they can be sources of viruses.”

Lynch did not comment on whether email by itself has the presumption of delivery.

Unrelated to the emails, Lavallee had one later telephone contact with Med-1, in which she was informed that the firm had filed a lawsuit against her. 

In her opinion, Lynch also described Med-1’s email process.

“Med-1 Solutions uses a vendor (Privacy Data Systems, its sister company) that created a software application called ‘SenditCertifiedTM,” she wrote.

She went on to say that “Med-1 Solutions supplies data through a data batch process to the vendor about debts it seeks to collect. The vendor’s software application extracts the data and inputs it to populate a .pdf document.”

The case is on file with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis division, at which Lynch is a magistrate judge.  

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