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Pepper v. Routh Crabtree

This appeal in the Supreme Court of Alaska raised a questions of first impression concerning the extent to which litigation abuses by debt collectors are protected by the First Amendment. Public Citizen was asked by Alaska Legal Services to handle an appeal from a decision holding that the First Amendment’s Petition Clause (which guarantees the right of access to the courts) immunizes a debt collector from liability under the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act for otherwise actionable debt collection practices in the context of litigation. The court below was the first and only court to reach that conclusion. In this particular case, the debt collector was accused of having failed to provide notice to the debtor of a collection lawsuit filed against her. We argued that the debt collector’s alleged conduct was not constitutionally protected because there is no First Amendment right to withhold notice and because the debt collector’s conduct threatened to deprive the debtor of *her* access to the courts. Public Citizen argued the appeal in May 2009.

On November 20, 2009, the Alaska Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in our favor, reversing the lower court. The court held that subjecting the debt collector to potential liability would not chill their exercise of the right to petition. “As Pepper contends,” the court stated (quoting our brief), “‘no debt collector has a legitimate interest in pursuing collection litigation without notifying debtors, or in seeking to default incompetent debtors without notice to their lawyers or guardian.’”