Resolving a circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court (the Court) recently held that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s (FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. § 1692) statutory language means what it says: the statute of limitations period for an FDCPA claim begins on the date of the alleged violation, not the date that the claimant discovers the alleged violation. Rotkiske v. Klemm, No. 18-328 (S. Ct. Dec. 10, 2019). Writing for the 8-1 majority, Justice Thomas rejected the claim that the FDCPA’s statute of limitations implicitly adopts the discovery rule when the plain text says otherwise. The Court’s holding underscores that FDCPA actions—commonly filed against debt-collection agencies and financial institutions—must be filed “within one year from the date on which the violation occurs,” unless an equitable doctrine applies. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(d).

The Facts

After Petitioner Kevin Rotkiske failed to pay about $1,200 in credit card debt, the credit card company transferred his debt to a debt collector, Klemm & Associates (Klemm). Klemm then sued Rotkiske in March 2008 for payment on the debt, but Klemm struggled to effect proper service and ultimately withdrew the suit. However, in January 2009, Klemm refiled the suit, and when Rotkiske never responded to the summons, Klemm obtained a default judgment.

Rotkiske alleged that he did not discover the judgment until September 2014, when his mortgage application was denied. In turn, Rotkiske sued Klemm in June 2015. Rotkiske claimed that Klemm violated the FDCPA by filing the January 2009 collection action after the state law statute of limitations period to collect the credit card debt had expired. And Rotkiske argued that his FDCPA claim was timely because he discovered the alleged violation less than one year before filing his lawsuit.

The Decision

At issue was whether the FDCPA’s statute of limitations period begins when a claimant discovers the violation or when the violation occurs. The Court started by analyzing the statute’s text, which states that an action under the FDCPA must be filed “within one year from the date on which the violation occurs.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(d). The Court noted that the statute “unambiguously sets the date of the violation as the event that starts the one-year limitations period.” Rotkiske, slip op. at 5. Without mincing words, the Court described efforts to read an implied discovery rule into the statutory text as “[a] textual judicial supplementation,” affirming that the Court’s proper role is to “simply enforce the value judgments made by Congress.” Id. at 6.

The Court also surveyed statutes that Congress passed around the same time as the FDCPA, noting that Congress knew how to include a discovery rule when it wanted to. Indeed, several statutes included an explicit discovery rule, yet the FDCPA contains no such language. Instead, the FDCPA states that an action “may be brought . . . within one year from the date on which the violation occurs.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(d). In short, an FDCPA claimant must file an action within one year of the violation — no matter when the claimant discovers that violation. The Court left unanswered the question of whether a plaintiff’s failure to discover the FDCPA violation due to a defendant’s fraud could extend the statute of limitations under principles of equity, even though that fraud exception is not written into the statute.

The Upshot

The Court’s decision settles all doubt about when the statute of limitations begins in an FDCPA action — absent allegations of fraud preventing discovery of the violation. To be sure, the decision applies prospectively. But it also extends to pending cases. Under the Court’s 1993 decision, Harper v. Virginia Department of Taxation, courts must give a new rule of federal law “full retroactive effect in all cases still open to direct review and as to all events, regardless of whether such events predate or postdate our announcement of the rule.” 509 U.S. 86, 97 (1993). Thus, defendants to an FDCPA action may want to revisit their statute-of-limitations defenses.

Beyond the FDCPA, Rotkiske serves two key purposes. First, it underscores that in federal litigation, there is no default presumption that a discovery rule applies to extend a statute of limitations. Second, it cautions generally against reading unstated exceptions — like the discovery rule — into an otherwise unambiguous statute. The plain language prevails.