There must be an art to reading what is really going on by the questionings of Justices at oral argument. If there is such an art, I haven’t mastered it yet. Case in point, we previously discussed a case that appeared to raise the question of whether Chevron deference would survive, here. On June 8, 2022, Justice Kavanaugh wrote a unanimous opinion for the court completely ignoring the Chevron question and holding that the case could be resolved strictly by a matter of statutory interpretation. So, we will have to wait for another day to see if the Supreme Court wants to take on Chevron deference in a way that it took on Auer deference in Kisor, which we discussed here.

 

The case of the day, Pierre v. Midland Credit Management, Inc. is actually a dissenting opinion filed in response to the denial of a request for an en banc rehearing denial and its dissenting opinion here, involving the question of whether emotional distress was sufficient to confer standing on a plaintiff when the defendant violated her rights under the FDCPA (FDCPA), in trying to collect zombie debts- debts where the defendant knew the statute of limitations had expired. The panel had said there was not standing and the plaintiff asked for a rehearing en banc. A majority of the Seventh Circuit decided against granting the rehearing but four judges dissented. The dissenting opinion as to why emotional distress justify standing in FDCPA cases is instructive because it become crystal clear that such arguments will not carry over to title III or for that matter to title II of the ADA. As usual the blog entry is divided into categories and they are dissenting opinion as to why emotional distress justifies standing under the FDCPA, and thoughts/takeaways. The nature of this blog entry pretty much assumes that the reader will read the whole thing, but I suppose you could have a reader that focuses on either of the categories as well.

 

I

Dissenting Opinion as to Why Emotional Distress Justifies Standing under the FDCPA

 

  1. The Supreme Court has made clear that an intangible injury can be a concrete injury for purposes of standing. The question is when is an intangible injury sufficiently concrete.
  2. In figuring out whether an intangible injury is sufficiently concrete, both history and the judgment of Congress play important roles. In particular, courts have to consider whether an alleged intangible harm has a close relationship to a harm that has traditionally been regarded as providing a basis for a lawsuit in English or American courts. Courts also have to treat the judgment of Congress as, “instructive and important.”
  3. Plaintiff proved all elements of a FDCPA claim for deceptive and unfair practices. She also offered evidence of harms lying close to the heart of the protection Congress reasonably offered consumer debtors in the FDCPA. Also, those harms bear a very close relationship to harms long recognized under the common law and constitutional law.
  4. The FDCPA in its statutory finding talks about marital instability and the prohibitions on using threats, obscene language, and harassing calls. As such, Congress recognized how such abusive practices can upset the lives of those targeted by debt collectors.
  5. The emotional distress, confusion, and anxiety suffered by the plaintiff in response to the zombie debt collection effort fits well within the harms expected from many of the abusive practices listed in the statute.
  6. The opinion cited another Seventh Circuit concurring opinion that highlighted Congress’s judgment about the need to protect consumers from abusive debt collection practices and its choice to rely on private enforcement. In particular, it ignores the findings of Congress, constitutes a direct affront to a congressional prerogative at the core of legislative function, and ignores the reality of everyday life when a person receives a letter demanding money that is not owed. The failure to recognize an injury that Congress saw and addressed testifies to the failure of courts to appreciate how the people courts judicially govern live. It also testifies to the court’s failure to defer to congressional appreciation as to how citizens live.
  7. The emotional distress, anxiety, fear, and stress experienced by the plaintiff was foreseeable, even intended, responses to defendant’s attempt to collect a zombie debt. Congress authorized damages for such harms and that demand is well within congressional legislative power over interstate commerce to go beyond the common law.
  8. Other FDCPA violations parallel the tort of invasion of privacy, including its branches for intrusion upon seclusion, unreasonable publicity given to a person’s private life, and false light. None of those torts involve tangible injuries and all of those have been around for some time.
  9. The tort of assault is the fear and emotional distress of being attacked and standing is never an issue there.
  10. With respect to intentional and reckless conduct, the common law has long supported damages for emotional distress.
  11. Congress is not required in its enactments to have congruence with the common law.
  12. The fear, anxiety, confusion, and more general emotional distress fits comfortably within the common law of torts.
  13. The Seventh Circuit’s pattern jury instruction for §1983 claims say jurors have to consider mental and emotional pain and suffering.
  14. Damages for intangible injuries are appropriate for denials of free speech, free exercise of religion, or due process of law as well. They are also available for intrusions on privacy and for excessive force cases under the fourth amendment.
  15. The general rule is that nominal damages are available and even presumed where a plaintiff proves a violation of her legal rights. If that is correct under both the common law and on the constitutional law, it is difficult to see why Congress cannot authorize a modest damage remedy under the FDCPA when a plaintiff’s statutory rights are violated.
  16. The idea that intangible harms like emotional distress are not sufficient to support article III standing is simply wrong-especially when Congress has authorized such claims under a federal statute.
  17. The Seventh Circuit cases of late have restricted standing so sharply that the FDCPA very close to being completely neutered in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
  18. Plaintiff testified in detail about the letter demanding that she pay a debt that was known longer owed and her reaction to that letter.
  19. The panel got it wrong when it said that emotional distress and other psychological states can never support standing under the FDCPA.
  20. With respect to figuring out when nominal damages are authorized under a statute, a good idea would be to look to Justice Thomas’s opinions in the Supreme Court cases of Spokeo and TransUnion (TransUnion we discussed here). In those opinions, Justice Thomas talked about private rights and public rights with courts having jurisdiction over actions without a showing of actual damages for rights privately held by an individual and not for rights broadly owed to the community. Adopting Justice Thomas’s private versus public right distinction could go a long way to clearing up Supreme Court precedents on nominal damages with its recent opinions on standing for intangible injuries. It also provides a clear and manageable line between standing when a private right under the statute is involved v. the universal standing feared by the panel in this case and similar cases.

 

II

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. It is absolutely true that the Supreme Court has held that testers have standing when it comes to the Fair Housing Act. However, the Fair Housing Act has specific references to foreseeable emotional harms within its statute (see this blog entry for a further discussion).
  2. Title III of the ADA only allows for injunctive relief and attorney fees.
  3. As we discussed here, the Rehabilitation Act does not allow for emotional distress damages.
  4. Hard to believe that in a title II or III matter that a court could find a history showing how damages for discrimination against a person with a disability have been around for a long time. A court is also going to have a problem with the judgment of Congress prong as well because of the statutory provisions of both the Rehabilitation Act and title III of the ADA. The statutory provisions of the Rehabilitation Act are important because title II of the ADA specifically hooks into Rehabilitation Act for its remedies. The remedy provisions for §504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §794a, do not mention emotional distress damages being available for §504 violations.
  5. There isn’t anything in 42 U.S.C. §12101 (the ADA’s findings section), explicitly addressing intangible harms. You simply do not see language like you do in the FDCPA that foreseeably leads to the conclusion that emotional distress is in play.
  6. Applying Justice Thomas’s private versus public right distinction is of no help because disability discrimination would be a public right.
  7. One can expect that defense counsel when dealing with architectural accessibility cases or website accessibility cases under title III of the ADA in particular to reflectively take the position that an ADA tester can never have standing. They could also do that with respect to title II, assuming a tester is involved, because of the remedies for title II linking to the Rehabilitation Act remedies, which the Supreme Court has held emotional distress damages are not available, as we discussed in this blog entry. To phrase it another way, the argument against testers having standing under the ADA or §504 of the Rehabilitation Act is that the injury being alleged as the basis for standing is not something contemplated as an injury allowed by the statute or by Supreme Court decision.
  8. With respect to employment matters, assuming testers can be in play in that situation, you get to a completely different place because the relevant statutory provisions do authorize emotional distress damages as we discussed when mentioning the petition for rehearing in Cummings, here. Whether that petition gets granted is anybody’s guess. If that petition gets granted, what the Supreme Court opinion would look like is also anybody’s guess.
Photo of William Goren William Goren

William Goren is one of the country’s foremost authorities on the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Since 1990, he has been advising on ADA compliance as both an attorney and professor—of which during his time as a…

William Goren is one of the country’s foremost authorities on the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Since 1990, he has been advising on ADA compliance as both an attorney and professor—of which during his time as a full-time academic at various institutions in Chicago, he won numerous teaching awards and achieved tenure.