High court sides with Ohio in debt collection dispute

WASHINGTON – A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Monday that a pair of Ohio law firms did not use illegal tactics when they sent out debt-collection letters on stationery bearing the name of the state’s attorney general.

The justices said the use of official letterhead to collect money owed to state agencies did not violate the federal fair debt collection law.

Two women who received collection notices from the private firms sued, saying it was misleading to send notices on stationery that had the name of Attorney General Mike DeWine and his office seal.

Ohio officials argued that the firms had permission to use the letterhead and were acting as officers of the state.

A federal appeals court had ruled 2-1 that the letterhead was a “deception” that could inappropriately influence consumers’ decisions. But the Supreme Court reversed.

Writing for the high court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the fact that some outside lawyers perform work for the attorney general’s office means the letters are not misleading. She noted that the Ohio attorney general required these lawyers to use his letterhead, so they were not creating a false impression.

Consumer protection groups argued that using the letterhead is an unseemly way to mislead consumers and make it more likely they will be scared into paying the debt. Ginsburg rejected this argument, saying none of the letters in question threatened anyone with civil or criminal penalties.

Michigan and 11 other states supported Ohio’s position. In a brief to the court, the states argued that a finding against Ohio would undermine the flexibility of state attorneys general to delegate powers to outside lawyers.

The states said debt collection firms are not merely independent contractors — they were authorized to stand in the shoes of the Ohio attorney general for debt-collection purposes.