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11th Circuit Defines “Concrete Injury” For Consumers Filing FDCPA Claims Post-Spokeo

It is a basic element that a plaintiff must have constitutional "standing" to maintain a suit in federal court. The "case or controversy" clause of Article III of the Constitution imposes a minimal constitutional standing requirement on litigants attempting to file suit.

To meet this constitutional standing requirement, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) he/she has suffered a distinct and palpable injury as a result of the putatively illegal conduct of the defendant; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct; and (3) it is likely to be redressed if the requested relief is granted. Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 472 (1982).

In Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U.S. No. 11-56843, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), the Supreme Court addressed the first and foremost of the three standing requirements, i.e., whether the mere violation of a statute itself constitutes an "injury in fact" sufficient to invoke standing. The Supreme Court explained that for an injury to be particularized, it must affect the plaintiff in a “personal and individual way.” The injury-in-fact also must be “concrete,” meaning the injury must be “real” and “not abstract.” However, the Court noted that “concrete” is not necessarily synonymous with “tangible.”

The Eleventh Circuit applied Spokeo to a recent case and held that a debtor who allegedly did not receive certain disclosures required by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) suffered an injury-in-fact to her statutorily created right to receive this information, and therefore had standing to pursue an FDCPA claim against the debt collector in question.

In Church v. Accretive Health, Inc., No. 15-15708, the plaintiff filed a putative class action against Accretive Health, Inc. ("AHI") for FDCPA violations, alleging that AHI sent her a letter claiming that she owed a debt to another party, Providence Hospital, but failed to include certain FDCPA disclosures. Church failed to allege any actual damages from AHI’s failure to include these disclosures.

In Church, the Eleventh Circuit interpreted Spokeo to mean that a violation of a statutory right may be sufficient to constitute an injury-in-fact without the need for additional harm. With its enactment of the FDCPA, Congress provided Church with a substantive right to receive certain disclosures, once she alleged the violation of this right by AHI, she also sufficiently alleged that she had suffered a concrete injury-in-fact.

However, because the debt at issue was not in default at the time AHI obtained the debt, the district court had correctly concluded that the FDCPA did not apply to its letter to Church. Thus, the decision of the district court was affirmed.

Later, in Nicklaw v. CitiMortgage, No. 15-14216 (October 6, 2016), in examining the same issue, the Eleventh Circuit held that “[a] plaintiff has injury in fact if he suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent. A ‘concrete’ injury must be ‘de facto’ -- that is, it must actually exist.” To invoke federal jurisdiction, an injury must involve some actual harm.

Thus, Nicklaw contradicts the Eleventh Circuit's reasoning  in Church by requiring some clear injury beyond the mere violation of a substantive right. To wit, "the requirement of concreteness under Article III is not satisfied every time a statute creates a legal obligation and grants a private right of action for its violation. A plaintiff must suffer some harm or risk of harm from the statutory violation to invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court.” The opinion concluded that “[b]y alleging only that CitiMortgage recorded the certificate late and nothing else, Nicklaw has failed to establish that he suffered or could suffer any harm that could constitute a concrete injury.”

At Loan Lawyers, our South Florida consumer rights and debt defense attorneys can help individuals determine the existence and extent of violations of federal and state collection law by debt collectors. For a no-risk, no-cost consultation, contact one of our South Florida consumer defense attorneys today by calling (888) FIGHT-13 (344-4813).