Friday, February 16, 2018
The Sixth Circuit ruled today that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue a law firm for sending a letter without a disclosure that it was a "communication . . . from a debt collector" in violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
The ruling is the latest application of the Supreme Court's 2016 ruling in Spokeo that a plaintiff has to show an actual harm for Article III standing purposes, even if Congress purports to create a harm through legislation. (In other words, a Congress-created harm alone isn't enough: a plaintiff still has to show actual harm under the standing rules in order to satisfy Article III.)
The case, Hagy v. Demers, arose when Demers, an attorney for a mortgage lender, wrote to the Hagys' attorney saying that his client wouldn't seek to collect on any deficiency balance on the Hagys' mortgage loan. But Demers didn't include a statement that this was a "communication . . . from a debt collector," as required by the FDCPA. So after the mortgage lender nevertheless hassled the Hagys for payment, the Hagys sued Demers, arguing that the FDCPA created an individual right to a notice that a communication is from a debt collector, and that Demers's failure to include the notice harmed them.
The Sixth Circuit rejected that argument. The court held that under Spokeo the Hagys had to show actual harm to establish Article III standing even if Congress purported to create a harm under the FDCPA, and that they couldn't show that Demers's letter harmed them in any concrete way. (In fact, the court said it helped them.)
The court analogized this separation-of-powers problem to a familiar federalism problem to illustrate the limits on Congress:
Congress may not use its enforcement power under the Fourteenth Amendment to redefine the "free exercise" of religion however it wishes and in the process intrude on the States' existing powers in the area. So too with the horizontal separation of powers at the national level. Congress may not enact a law that eliminates Article III safeguards that permit federal courts only to use the "judicial Power" to hear "Cases" and "Controversies."
We know of no circuit court decision since Spokeo that endorses an anything-hurts-so-long-as-Congress-says-it-hurts theory of Article III injury. Although Congress may "elevate" harms that "exist" in the real world before Congress recognized them to actionable legal status, it may not simply enact an injury into existence, using its lawmaking power to transform something that is not remotely harmful into something that is.
The court acknowledged the challenges in drawing a line "between what Congress may, and may not, do in creating an 'injury in fact.'" ("Put five smart lawyers in a room, and it won't take long to appreciate the difficult of the task at hand.") But the court said this case was easy: The Hagys didn't even try to show that they suffered some harm outside of the "procedural harm" that Congress created in requiring the disclosure under the FDCPA.
The ruling means that the Hagys' case is dismissed.