The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently reversed and remanded a plaintiff’s successful summary judgment motion for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the “FDCPA”). See Wadsworth v. Kross, Lieberman & Stone, Inc., 2021 WL 3877930 (7th Cir. Aug. 31, 2021). In the case, plaintiff Audrey Wadsworth had been hired by Pharmaceutical Research Associates, Inc. (“PRA”). The job offer included a signing bonus - $3,750 payable after 30 days of employment, followed by another $3,750 payable after 180 days of employment. But, if Wadsworth voluntarily ended her employment or PRA fired her for cause within 18 months of the second payment, she was obligated to repay the full bonus. In her employment agreement, Wadsworth agreed to promptly reimburse PRA for any amounts owed as of the final date of her employment. Wadsworth collected both signing payments, but in September 2017, after completing one year of employment, PRA fired her. PRA quickly hired Kross, Lieberman, & Stone (“Kross”), a debt-collection agency, to recoup the bonus payments. Kross mailed Wadsworth a collection letter shortly after her employment ended, and in the coming weeks, a Kross employee called Wadsworth by telephone four times. Wadsworth then sued Kross, claiming that its letter and phone calls violated the FDCPA because Kross failed to provide complete written notice of her statutory rights within five days of the initial communication, and because the Kross employee who called her never identified herself as a debt collector or stated that she was attempting to collect a debt. Both parties moved for summary judgment. Kross did not contest Wadsworth’s allegations about its conduct but argued instead that the FDCPA is inapplicable for two reasons: the signing bonus was not a “debt” within the meaning of the FDCPA and the firm was not acting as a “debt collector” under the FDCPA because Wadsworth’s debt was not in default at the time of the letter and phone call. The District Court rejected both arguments and entered summary judgment for Wadsworth. Kross timely appealed.
The Court granted Kross’s appeal, reversing the District Court’s decision and remanding for further proceedings. Instead of analyzing the meanings of “debt” and “debt collector” that the parties and lower court had focused on, the Court based its reversal on the fact that Wadsworth had not suffered a concrete injury traceable to Kross’s alleged FDCPA violations. The Court cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo that, to establish standing to sue in federal court, the plaintiff must have “suffered an injury in fact” among other requirements, and that injury is “real and not abstract.” See Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540, 1547-48 (2016). The Court cited Seventh Circuit precedent applying Spokeo to FDCPA cases, saying that when a debt collector fails to inform a debtor of his statutory rights, the debtor has suffered a concrete injury “only if it impairs the [debtor’s] ‘ability to use [that information] for a substantive purpose that the statute envisioned.’” See Bazile v. Fin. Sys. of Green Bay, Inc., 983 F.3d 274, 280 (7th Cir. 2020) (quoting Robertson v. Allied Sols., LLC, 902 F.3d 690, 694 (7th Cir. 2018)). The Court held that Wadsworth’s injuries, which were not monetary in nature and instead consisted of “personal humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, and emotional distress,” were “quintessential abstract harms that are beyond our power to remedy.”