Pierre v. Midland Credit Management, Inc. (7th Cir.)-Consumer who received a dunning letter from a debt collector seeking to collect a time-barred debt did not experience sufficient concrete injury to have Article III standing to assert FDCPA claims.
The following is a case update written by the Hon. Meredith Jury (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge, C.D. CA., Ret.), analyzing a recent decision of interest:
Joining the litany of recent cases which address standing in Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) actions, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the Court) ruled that a consumer who received a dunning letter from a debt collector seeking to collect time-barred debt did not experience sufficient concrete injury to have Article III standing to assert the federal claims. Pierre v Midland Credit Management, Inc., 2022 WL 986441 (7th Cir. April 1, 2022).
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In 2006 Plaintiff Renetrice Pierre (Plaintiff) opened a credit card account with Target National Bank. After she defaulted on the account, Target sold the debt to Midland Funding, LLC (Funding), which sued Plaintiff in 2010, then voluntarily dismissed the suit. In 2015, Midland Credit (Credit), which collects debts for Funding, sent Plaintiff a letter seeking payment of the debt, setting forth various options to repay at a discount. The letter recognized the staleness of the debt and stated that Credit would not sue her nor report her default to any credit reporting agency.
Plaintiff was confused by the name on the letter, especially since Funding had dropped its suit against her. She called Credit to dispute the debt, then called an attorney who sued Credit, claiming a violation of the FDCPA because the letter was a deceptive means to attempt to collect the stale debt. Plaintiff sought to represent a class of Illinois residents who had received similar letters from Credit. Despite Credit twice asking the district court judge to dismiss the suit for lack of Article III standing, the district court certified the class and granted summary judgment for Plaintiff on liability. After a jury awarded $350,00 in damages, Credit appealed to the Court, which (over a lengthy dissent) vacated the judgment for lack of Article III standing and remanded with instructions to dismiss the action.
The Court first articulated the long-recognized elements of Article III standing: a plaintiff must have (1) a concrete and particularized injury in fact (2) that is traceable to the defendant’s conduct and (3) that can be redressed by judicial relief. Its focus was on the concreteness requirement. A concrete injury is “real, and not abstract” as specified by the Supreme Court in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016). Qualifying injuries are those with “a close relationship to harm traditionally recognized as providing a basis for a lawsuit in American courts.” TransUnion v. Ramirez, 141 S. Ct. 2190 (2021). The Court acknowledged that Congress can create a statutory cause of action which may elevate to the status of legally cognizable injuries specific de facto injuries that were previously inadequate in law. However, the Supreme Court has opined that Congress may not transform something that is not remotely harmful into something is. The mere risk of harm is insufficient.
The Court discussed its own precedent in cases where it had or had not granted standing, with each case analyzing the nature of the alleged injury in fact. It then addressed the Plaintiff’s assertions of harm. Those assertions were (1) that the letter created a risk that she might make a payment or promise to pay which would revitalize the stale debt, (2) that the letter confused her as to whether she could be sued for the debt, and (3) that she experienced emotional distress arising from her concern about being sued for the debt. The Court rejected all such claims since she had not in fact paid or promised to pay the debt and confusion and minimal emotional distress were insufficiently concrete to establish the type of harm that traditionally had been redressed in American courts. Accordingly, it vacated the judgment for lack of standing.
Circuit Judge Hamilton dissented, arguing that Congress had the power to create private causes of action under the FDCPA to redress injuries such as emotional distress, stress, and harm to reputation. Such harms are “all real and foreseeable results of unfair and deceptive debt-collection practices aimed directly” at parties such as the Plaintiff here. He bemoaned the Court’s recent rulings denying standing as threatening to undermine congressional efforts to protect consumers by enacting protections such as the FDCPA.
I lack sufficient knowledge of the Seventh Circuit to know whether the lengthy dissent here is a precursor to a grant of en banc review of this case. What I can observe is that the Ninth Circuit, most recently in Tailford v. Experian Information Systems, 2022 WL 599318 (9th Cir. March 1, 2022), which I reviewed for CFN, has a different, less-restrictive take on the Supreme Court’s Spokeo and TransUnion decisions when it comes to finding sufficient concrete injury to establish Article III standing. One would think that after two rulings in the last five years on consumer standing by the Supreme Court the parameters would be well-settled, but they are clearly not. Will the Supreme Court take another shot at clarifying what it means by “concrete?” The circuits’ differing interpretations seem to cry out for more direction, especially when it comes to intangible harms such as emotional distress, damage to credit, and risk of reviving stale debt. Congress created statutes which attempt to give the consumer redress, yet judicial constraints in the current setting seem to have crippled those attempts, at least in some jurisdictions.
This review was written by the Hon. Meredith Jury (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge, C.D. CA., Ret.), a member of the ad hoc group. Thomson Reuters holds the copyright to these materials and has permitted the Insolvency Law Committee to reprint them. This material may not be further transmitted without the consent of Thomson Reuters.
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