If a law firm sends a letter seeking to collect the correct amount, from the correct consumer, on behalf of the correct creditor, can the consumer still sue, claiming the firm violated the FDCPA because no attorney was “meaningfully involved” in preparing the letter? The Sixth Circuit recently held the answer is “no” in Buchholz v. Meyer Njus Tanick,P.A., _F.3d_, 2020 WL 35431 (6th Cir. 2020), because the consumer suffered no “concrete injury” as a result of the letter and therefore lacked standing to pursue the claim in federal court. The Buchholz decision should provide powerful support for creditors rights attorneys who are fighting against “meaningful involvement” claims.
The plaintiff in Buchholz, a Michigan resident, received two letters from a Minneapolis-based law firm, defendant Meyer Njus Tanick, PA (“MNT”) regarding accounts he owed to Synchrony Bank. Id. at *1. Both letters allegedly included a “pre-populated or stock signature” of Karna Harms, who plaintiff claimed was MNT’s only Michigan-based attorney. Id. Buchholz alleged that given the high volume of letters processed by Harms and the other MNT attorneys, no attorney could engage in a “in a meaningful review of the underlying accounts prior to determining whether to send the collection letters.” Id. According to Buchholz, sending the letter on firm letterhead created the impression that an attorney “has reviewed the file and made the professional considered determination to send the letter.” Id. Importantly, however, Buchholz did not claim these were not his accounts, or that the letters contained in any inaccuracies.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, because Buchholz lacked standing under Article III of the Constitution. As the Court noted: “Not all disputes have a home in federal court. Article III limits the judicial power to resolving actual ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies,’ not theoretical questions.” Id. at *2. Plaintiffs are required to show they suffered a “concrete” injury, i.e., an injury that is “real and not abstract.” Id. That injury must also be “fairly traceable” to the challenged conduct of the defendant. Id.
The Buchholz Court rejected the argument that plaintiff had standing to sue because he allegedly suffered undue “anxiety” that he would be sued if he did not promptly pay. Id. at *5. “In other words, Buchholz is anxious about the consequences of his decision to not pay the debts that he does not dispute he owes.” Id. at *6. This type of “self-inflicted” injury does not confer standing. Id.
The Sixth Circuit also rejected the notion that Buchholz had standing to sue based the defendants’ alleged “procedural violation” of failing to conduct a meaningful attorney review before sending the letters. The Court stated:
"[E]ven assuming MNT violated the statute by misrepresenting that an attorney had reviewed Buchholz’s debts, we find ourselves, like we were in Hagy, unable to identify any harm to come from that violation. Buchholz gives us no reason to believe he did not owe the debts. He does not allege, for example, that the statute of limitations has expired, that res judicata precludes MNT from collecting the debts, or even that MNT miscalculated the amounts he allegedly owes. . . .We are at a loss for how MNT’s letters caused any harm, much less harm that Congress intended to prevent when it enacted the FDCPA."
Id. at *9. In sum, because Buchholz was unable to show he suffered the type of harm that Congress tried to prevent when it passed the FDCPA, or harm that was cognizable at common law, the Sixth Circuit held the district court had correctly dismissed his complaint for lack of Article III standing. Id. at *10.
The Buchholz decision contains a well-reasoned application of the Supreme Court’s Article III jurisprudence, but perhaps more-importantly, the outcome of the case just makes sense. The FDCPA does not give a consumer a license to sue the attorney retained by his creditor just because the consumer disagrees with the procedure they think the attorney used when preparing a letter for his client. If the contents of the letter are accurate, then the FDCPA has not been violated. Well done, Sixth Circuit. Well done.