In Smith v. GC Servs. Ltd. P’ship, No. 19-3494 (7th Cir. Jan. 21, 2021), the Seventh Circuit affirmed a decision by the Southern District of Indiana finding that the plaintiff had not suffered any concrete injury and therefore, lacked standing to assert a claim under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.
The plaintiff, Franny Smith, received a debt collection letter that included the following statement:
If you dispute this balance or the validity of this debt, please let us know in writing. If you do not dispute this debt in writing within 30 days after you receive this letter, we will assume this debt is valid.
Smith asserted that the letter violates §1692g(a)(3) of the FDCPA, which requires a debt collector to send each consumer:
A statement that unless the consumer, within 30 days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector.
Because § 1692g(a)(3) does not specify how a consumer may dispute the validity of a debt, Smith alleged that the letter she received violated the provision by requiring her to dispute her debt in writing.
In reaching its decision, the Seventh Circuit did not address the merits of Smith’s claim that the letter at issue violates § 1692g(a)(3). Rather, it focused on whether she had sufficiently alleged the existence of an actual injury.
The court noted that although Smith said that she was confused by the letter, she did “not contend that the letter’s supposed lack of clarity led her to take any detrimental step, such as paying money she did not owe.”
Smith, however, asserted that she suffered harm because if she had known she could dispute the debt orally, she would have done so. The court cast doubt on this assertion, noting that when her standing was challenged in the district court, Smith replied that whether she “intended to dispute the debt cannot be said at this point in the litigation” and stating, “If she had not made up her mind even after ﬁling suit, she cannot have had an intent to dispute the debt within 30 days of receiving the letter.”
More importantly, the court held that Smith failed to allege the existence of an injury because she did not show what good a dispute would have done her. Because the court found that Smith was “no worse oﬀ than if the letter had told her that she could dispute the debt orally,” it affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the suit for lack of standing.
This case, along with several other recent decisions by the Seventh Circuit — see, e.g. Larkin v. Fin. Sys. of Green Bay, 982 F.3d 1060 (7th Cir. 2020) and Brunett v. Convergent Outsourcing, Inc., 982 F.3d 1067 (7th Cir. 2020) — shows that merely alleging the existence of a FDCPA violation is not sufficient. To have standing to bring a claim, a plaintiff must allege that the purported violation resulted in some actual harm.