The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has clarified the type of injury that must be alleged by a plaintiff suing under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This decision, in Church v. Accretive Health, Inc., is the first from the Eleventh Circuit applying the United States Supreme Court’s recent holding in Spokeo v. Robins.
As previously noted in this blog, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Spokeo is expected to have a significant impact on cases in which plaintiffs allege statutory violations but do not allege any specific, concrete harm to them. In Spokeo, a case that dealt with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff does not satisfy Article III standing requirements if he or she “allege[s] a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm.” Rather, a plaintiff must be able to show “real” harm or at least “the risk of real harm.”
In Church, the Eleventh Circuit applied this holding in the context of a FDCPA plaintiff. The plaintiff in Church brought suit claiming that a letter sent to her by the defendant, advising her that she owed a debt for unpaid medical bills, violated the FDCPA. Specifically, she claimed the letter lacked certain written disclosures required by the FDCPA. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant on the basis that the FDCPA was not implicated because the defendant was not a “debt collector” as defined by the FDCPA.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, noting that the debt was not in default when the defendant acquired it, and thus the defendant was not a “debt collector.” The appeals court then went on, however, to address the important issue of whether the plaintiff even had standing to bring suit in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Spokeo.
With regard to the question of standing, the Eleventh Circuit noted that the plaintiff’s allegations of “harm” were merely that when she received the letter in question she became “very angry” and “cried a lot.” Nonetheless, the Eleventh Circuit found it undisputed that the letter sent to the plaintiff lacked all the disclosures required by the FDCPA. Further, the court noted, “[t]he invasion of [the plaintiff’s] right to receive the disclosures is not hypothetical or uncertain.” Although the plaintiff’s injury “may not have resulted in tangible economic or physical harm that courts often expect, the Supreme Court [in Spokeo] has made clear that an injury need not be tangible to be concrete.” Thus, the plaintiff’s allegations that she became angry and “cried a lot” amounted to “a legally cognizable injury” and she therefore had standing to sue under the FDCPA.