The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a district court’s finding that a consumer lacked standing to pursue a lawsuit alleging that collection notices sent by a law firm violated the FDCPA because no attorney with the firm conducted a meaningful review of his debts.
The court’s opinion in Buchholz v. Meyer Njus Tanick, P.A. can be found here.
The consumer received two collection letters that were printed on the law firm’s letterhead and signed by one of the firm’s attorneys. The consumer alleged that those letters were sent to him without any meaningful attorney review. In an effort to support this conclusion, the consumer asserted that the law firm sends so many letters that no attorney could possibly review all of them. He also alleged that the signatures on the two letters were identical and appeared to be “stock signatures.”
‘Meaningful Involvement’ Claim Requires Standing
15 U.S.C. § 1692e(3) prohibits debt collectors from falsely representing or implying “that any individual is an attorney or that any communication is from an attorney.” The statute itself makes no mention of “meaningful involvement” or “meaningful review.” Instead, courts created the meaningful-involvement doctrine to evaluate claims asserted under § 1692e(3) with respect to communications that bear an attorney’s name or signature, but that are (in the words of one court) “not ‘from’ the attorney in any meaningful sense of the word.” Avila v. Rubin, 84 F.3d 222, 229 (7th Cir. 1996).
The district court dismissed the consumer’s case, finding that the consumer lacked standing and that he failed to state a claim under the FDCPA. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit limited its review to the issue of standing and affirmed the district court’s dismissal.
A Bare Allegation of Anxiety is Insufficient to Allege an Injury in Fact
To pursue a case in federal court, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he has standing, and an essential element of standing is a showing that the plaintiff suffered an “injury in fact” as the result of the defendant’s alleged conduct. In this case, the consumer alleged that he suffered an injury in fact because the firm’s letters made him feel anxious and caused him to fear that the firm would sue him if he did not pay.
The Sixth Circuit held that although a plaintiff might sometimes recover damages for emotional distress in an FDCPA action, a bare allegation of anxiety is insufficient to allege an injury in fact. The Court also found that the consumer’s alleged anxiety was insufficient to confer standing because it was self-inflicted and thus not traceable to the law firm’s alleged conduct. That is, the Court determined that any anxiety suffered by the consumer was the result of his decision not to pay his undisputed debts, rather than the content of the law firm’s letters.
Consumer’s Procedural Violation Claim Also Insufficient
The consumer also argued that the alleged violation of § 1692e(3) was sufficient, on its own, to confer standing. The Sixth Circuit agreed that a plaintiff need not allege any additional harm when alleging that the defendant has violated a procedural right that was created by Congress to protect a “concrete interest.” However, while it is clear that Congress enacted the FDCPA to protect consumers from abusive debt-collection practices, the consumer could not show that the law firm’s letters caused him any harm that the FDCPA was intended to prevent.
The Court distinguished the procedural violation alleged by the consumer from procedural violations found to be sufficient to confer standing in other cases, such as violations that subjected the consumer to attempts to collect debts that the consumer did not owe and violations that placed consumers at risk of waiving rights protected by the FDCPA.
Standing is Subjective, Not Every Technical Violation is Redressable
Not every technical violation of the FDCPA is redressable in federal court, and some cases are subject to dismissal due to the plaintiff’s lack of standing. But the Supreme Court has noted that it is often difficult to determine when a plaintiff has sufficiently alleged an injury in fact resulting from the violation of a procedural right created by Congress. Standing, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.