Sixth Circuit Holds That Debtor’s Anxiety Caused by Receiving Debt Collection Letters Was Insufficient to Confer Standing

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently held that the anxiety felt by a debtor upon receiving a dunning letter was insufficient to bring a claim under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).  See Buchholz v. Meyer Njus Tanick, PA, 2020 WL 35431 (6th Cir. Jan. 3, 2020).  In the case, plaintiff received two debt collection letters from the defendant law firm.  The letters did not threaten any legal action but explained that defendant was “retained to collect the above-referenced debt.”  Plaintiff brought this action alleging that the letters violated the FDCPA because they falsely implied meaningful attorney review, and that receiving the letters caused plaintiff to feel “an undue sense of anxiety that he would be subject to legal action if prompt payment was not made.”  The debt collector moved to dismiss the action, and the District Court granted the motion, finding that plaintiff lacked standing.

On appeal, the Court affirmed.  In order to have standing, the Court found that plaintiff must allege an injury that is both concrete and particularized.  Citing to the Supreme Court, the Court here found that a concrete injury must be “real and not abstract” and that a plaintiff cannot “allege a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.”  See Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016).  The Court then found that, under Spokeo, there are two ways plaintiff could allege an injury in fact here:  either that the anxiety itself was a concrete harm, or defendant’s alleged FDCPA violation in and of itself was an injury. 

First, the Court stated that it could find no case holding that anxiety alone is an injury in fact.  Moreover, even if it could find that the anxiety was an injury, the Court found that it could not trace the injury here to defendant’s conduct.  Defendant’s letters did not make any threats, so “even if anxiety is a cognizable injury—and we have our doubts—the anxiety that [plaintiff] alleges is not traceable to anyone but him” for failing to pay these debts. 

Second, the Court found that the alleged procedural violation—the false implication of attorney review—also was not an injury in fact.  The Court found that plaintiff did not allege that he does not owe the debt, nor does he allege that the debt is uncollectable or that defendant’s letter contained any misstatement or omission.  “The letters simply informed [plaintiff] of the two debts and contained boilerplate language—required under the FDCPA—about how to pay or challenge the debts. . . . We are at a loss for how [defendant’s] letters caused any harm, much less harm that Congress intended to prevent when it enacted the FDCPA.”  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the action.  Finally, one judge issued a concurrence in which he stated that he believed anxiety alone could be an injury in fact but that, in this case, he agreed that the anxiety was not traceable to defendant’s conduct.

For a copy of the decision, please contact Michael O’Donnell at modonnell@riker.com, Michael Crowley at mcrowley@riker.com, or Anthony Lombardo at alombardo@riker.com.