Notifying Represented Consumer Instead of Attorney Not Enough for Plaintiff to Have Standing to Sue, Appeals Court Rules

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has overturned a lower court’s ruling in favor of a plaintiff, determining that he lacked standing to pursue a claim in federal court after suing a collection law firm for allegedly violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in relation to communicating with the plaintiff rather than the attorney who was representing him.

A copy of the ruling in the case of Ojogwu v. Rodenburg Law Firm can be accessed by clicking here.

The defendant obtained a default judgment against the plaintiff in relation to an unpaid debt. An attorney sent the defendant a letter after the default judgment was granted, claiming that the plaintiff never received service of the summons and complaint and asking for a copy of the affidavit affirming service, while also indicating that the defendant was to no longer directly contact the plaintiff.

The defendant sent the attorney the information that was requested.

A month later, the defendant mailed the plaintiff information about a garnishment summons instead of mailing it to the plaintiff’s attorney, following Minnesota law that requires the information be sent to the debtor. The attorney threatened a lawsuit and the dispute was resolved without litigation. A year later, the defendant again sent garnishment documents to the plaintiff instead of to the attorney, and the plaintiff filed suit against the defendant for violating the FDCPA.

A District Court judge granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that following Minnesota law did not preempt the defendant from having to comply with Section 1692c(a)(2) of the FDCPA, which requires a collector to communicate only with an attorney if the debtor is represented by one. Ruling that state law and the FDCPA were in conflict, the District Court judge ruled that the state law preempted the FDCPA in this case.

On appeal, the panel of judges from the Eighth Circuit noted that serving the documents to the debtor is a benefit, not a negative. “This beneficial notice is hardly evidence of tangible injury in fact,” it wrote.

The plaintiff promptly turned the information he received over to his attorney and the injuries he claimed to have suffered — fear of answering the telephone, nervousness, restlessness, and irritability — fall short of establishing standing for him to sue, the Appeals Court ruled.

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