Tuesday, December 10, 2019

SCOTUS Decision in Rotkiske v. Klemm: The Discovery Rule and the FDCPA Statute of Limitations

Today, the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision in Rotkiske v. Klemm, covered earlier here. Here’s the first paragraph of Justice Thomas’s opinion for the Court:

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) authorizes private civil actions against debt collectors who engage in certain prohibited practices. 91 Stat. 881, 15 U. S. C. §1692k(a). An action under the FDCPA may be brought “within one year from the date on which the violation occurs.” §1692k(d). This case requires us to determine when the FDCPA’s limitations period begins to run. We hold that, absent the application of an equitable doctrine, the statute of limitations in §1692k(d) begins to run on the date on which the alleged FDCPA violation occurs, not the date on which the violation is discovered.

Although the majority criticizes a “general ‘discovery rule’” as a “bad wine of recent vintage,” it leaves open the possibility that “an equitable, fraud-specific discovery rule” can apply in particular cases:

This Court has noted the existence of decisions applying a discovery rule in “fraud cases” that is distinct from the traditional equitable tolling doctrine. Merck & Co. v. Reynolds, 559 U. S. 633, 644 (2010); Gabelli v. SEC, 568 U. S. 442, 450 (2013) (referring to the “fraud discovery rule”). And it has repeatedly characterized these decisions as applying an equity-based doctrine. California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. ANZ Securities, Inc., 582 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2017) (slip op., at 10–11); Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez, 572 U. S. 1, 10–11 (2014); Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC v. Simmonds, 566 U. S. 221, 226–227 (2012); Young v. United States, 535 U. S. 43, 49–50 (2002). Rotkiske failed to preserve this issue before the Third Circuit, 890 F. 3d, at 428, and failed to raise this issue in his petition for certiorari. Accordingly, Rotkiske cannot rely on this doctrine to excuse his otherwise untimely filing.

Justice Sotomayor authors a brief concurring opinion, emphasizing that a fraud-specific discovery rule is a “historical exception” that the Supreme Court has “long recognized and applied.”

Justice Ginsburg dissents. Although she states at the outset that “[g]enerally, I agree with the Court, the ‘discovery rule’ does not apply to the one-year statute of limitations contained in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA),” she writes: “I do not agree that Rotkiske failed to preserve a fraud-based discovery rule argument in the Court of Appeals. . . . Nor do I agree that Rotkiske forfeited the issue by not raising it in his petition for certiorari.” Considering the merits of his statute of limitations argument, Justice Ginsburg explains:

Rotkiske’s FDCPA complaint, in my view, falls comfortably within the fraud-based discovery rule’s scope. See Brief for Samuel L. Bray et al. as Amici Curiae 12–14. Rotkiske alleged that Klemm engaged in “sewer service”—intentionally serving process in a manner designed to prevent Rotkiske from learning of the collection suit. Klemm did so, according to Rotkiske, in order to ensure that Klemm’s untimely suit would result in a default judgment that would remain undiscovered until time to oppose that judgment, and to commence an FDCPA suit, ran out.





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