The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in Nigro v. Mercantile Adjustment Bureau, LLC that unsolicited phone calls concerning a dead relative's debt are prohibited by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). The plaintiff asserted that the defendant had sent numerous automated phone calls to his cell phone in violation of the TCPA, seeking to collect from him his deceased mother-in-law's unpaid electric bill. The defendant argued that when plaintiff had originally called National Grid, he provided his phone number to the company, thus creating a business relationship. When the remaining balance was unpaid, National Grid hired the Defendant, Mercantile Adjustment Bureau (MAB) as a debt collector to collect the debt.
Previously, the plaintiff had never received any of his mother-in-law's bills, and the only communications regarding the debt came from 72 automated phone calls over the course of 9 months from MAB. The Court ruled that the plaintiff did not consent to a prior business relationship and MAB did not obtain prior consent of the plaintiff to make these automated telephone calls. Although the plaintiff did provide his telephone number voluntarily, he was not providing his number during a transaction that resulted in the debt owed. He was simply calling National Grid to notify it of his mother-in-law's death and to discontinue the service. Since he was not responsible or even aware of the debt, the number he provided was long after the debt was incurred and cannot establish an existing business relationship.
The Court's ruling affects all lower courts in the Second Circuit, including district courts of New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. Hopefully, this ruling will wipe out additional abuses by debt collection companies seeking to target family members and acquaintances of deceased debtors by unfairly associating them with the debt owed.