The Seventh Circuit recently issued an interesting decision in two consolidated consumer cases. Dekoven v. Plaza Associates, Nos. 09-2016, 09-2249 (7th Cir. 3/17/10).  In the two closely related class action suits under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692-1692p, which the appeals court had consolidated for decision, the plaintiffs complained about dunning letters sent to them by the a debt collection agency.

What is most interesting to our readers is not the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act issues, perhaps, but the court’s guidance on survey evidence. In both cases the district court had entered summary judgment in favor of defendant after rejecting the survey evidence prepared by the plaintiffs’ expert witness, Howard L. Gordon.   Indeed, while the court could see a potential for deception of the unsophisticated debtor in letters sent offering some kind of compromise of their debts, it had no way of determining whether a sufficiently large segment of the unsophisticated were likely to be deceived to enable the court to conclude that the statute had been violated.

For that conclusion, evidence is required, the most useful sort, observed the court, being the kind of consumer survey described in Johnson v. Revenue Management Corp., 169 F.3d 1057, 1060-61 (7th Cir. 1999); see also Hahn v. Triumph  Partnerships LLC, 557 F.3d 755, 757 (7th Cir. 2009); Williams v. OSI Educational Services, Inc., 505 F.3d 675, 678 (7th Cir. 2007). (But see, for criticism of the use of survey evidence, Judge Jolly’s dissenting opinion in Gonzalez v. Kay, 577 F.3d 600, 609-11 (5th Cir. 2009).)

Here, the plaintiffs’ expert did conduct a survey. But both trial court  judges considered it  inadmissible under the standards governing the admission of survey evidence (a form of expert evidence) in federal court. See, e.g., Muha v. Encore Receivable Management, Inc., 558 F.3d 623, 625-26 (7th Cir. 2009); Peaceable Planet, Inc. v. Ty, Inc., 362 F.3d 986, 992 (7th Cir. 2004); United States v. Curtin, 588 F.3d 993, 997-98 (9th Cir. 2009); Vail Associates, Inc. v. Vend-Tel-Co., Ltd., 516 F.3d 853, 864 n. 8 (10th Cir. 2008).

Judge Posner agreed.  One of the issues was the high percentage of people in the control group in the survey who answered “don’t know/not sure.”   The control approach was thus not adequate and may have confused respondents, maybe even others besides those who answered “don’t know/not sure.”  Therefore the entire survey was no good, as the judges below found.

It was no good for another reason: if the don’t know/not sure respondents were eliminated, the control group would shrink to 27 persons. Determining the minimum sample size from which reliable extrapolations can be made to the sampled population is tricky, said the court. See Fowler, Survey Research Methods 45 (4th ed. 2008). But 27 is too small a sample, concluded the appeals court.  Especially since the sample drawn by the plaintiffs’ expert was what is called a “convenience” sample — convenient to the sampler — as distinct from a “representative” sample —  representative of the population sampled.

A properly designed control group is vital in such a survey, including one intended to reveal whether a debt collector is confusing debtors. Cf. Free v. Peters, 12 F.3d 700, 705-06 (7th Cir. 1993); Penney v. Praxair, Inc., 116 F.3d 330, 333-34 (8th Cir. 1997); United States v. Aguilar, 883 F.2d 662, 706-08 (9th Cir. 1989). The debt collector can’t be blamed if consumers don’t understand his dunning letter unless he should have added or subtracted something to make it clearer. The plaintiff  thus has to show that the additional language of the letters unacceptably increased the level of confusion; many unsophisticated consumers would be confused even if the letters they received contained nothing more than a statement of the debt and the statutory bare bones notice.

Interestingly, the court said that district judges may want to consider exercising the clearly authorized but rarely exercised option of appointing their own expert to conduct a survey in FDCPA cases. Fed. R.Evid. 706(a); General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 149-50 (1997) (Breyer, J., concurring); In re High Fructose Corn Syrup Antitrust Litigation, 295 F.3d 651, 665 (7th Cir. 2002); Indianapolis Colts, Inc. v. Metropolitan Baltimore Football Club Ltd. Partnership, 34 F.3d 410, 414-15 (7th Cir. 1994).  Judges can assure themselves of the expert’s neutrality by (as in arbitration) asking the parties’ own experts to nominate a third expert to be the court-appointed expert.  The decision to appoint an expert is within the discretion of the trial judge, of course.