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Buchholz v. Meyer Njus Tanick, PA

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

January 3, 2020

Gustav Buchholz, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Meyer Njus Tanick, PA, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: June 20, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan at Grand Rapids. No. 1:18-cv-00607-Gordon J. Quist, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Philip D. Stern, STERN THOMASSON LLP, Springfield, New Jersey, for Appellant.

          Kathleen H. Klaus, MADDIN HAUSER ROTH & HELLER, Southfield, Michigan, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Philip D. Stern, Andrew T. Thomasson, Francis R. Greene, STERN THOMASSON LLP, Springfield, New Jersey, for Appellant.

          Kathleen H. Klaus, MADDIN HAUSER ROTH & HELLER, Southfield, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: COOK, NALBANDIAN, and MURPHY, Circuit Judges.

          NALBANDIAN, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which COOK, J., joined, and MURPHY, J., joined in part. MURPHY, J. (pp. 19-25), delivered a separate opinion concurring in part and in the judgment.

          OPINION

          NALBANDIAN, Circuit Judge.

         Gustav Buchholz received two letters from law firm Meyer Njus Tanick, PA ("MNT") about two debts he owed to Synchrony Bank. The letters, which appeared on MNT letterhead and were signed by an MNT attorney, informed Buchholz that MNT was acting as a debt collector and provided contact information for him to either challenge or pay the debts. Buchholz does not dispute the debts, but he alleges that the letters made him feel anxious and fear that MNT would sue him if he did not promptly pay.

         So Buchholz sued MNT. Buchholz alleges that MNT violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., by giving the impression that an attorney had reviewed his case and determined that he owed the debts. Buchholz alleges that MNT processes so many debt collection letters each day that no MNT attorney could possibly engage in a meaningful review of individual claims.

         But Buchholz's case fails before we can even consider its merits. Because Buchholz has shown no injury in fact that is traceable to MNT's challenged conduct, he lacks standing to sue, and we lack jurisdiction to hear his case. We affirm the district court's dismissal of Buchholz's complaint.

         I.

         Buchholz, a Michigan resident, received two letters in May 2018 about overdue payments he owed on two accounts with Synchrony Bank.[1] The letters came from MNT, a Minneapolis-based law firm, and appeared on MNT's letterhead. As Buchholz explains in his complaint, each letter referred to a specific account, but the content is identical and "formulaic in nature," save for the "information regarding the specific account the letter was referencing." (R. 12, First Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 14-15.) MNT attorney Kara Harms signed both letters, but Buchholz alleges that because the signatures are identical, MNT must have inserted "some sort of pre-populated or stock signature." (Id. at ¶ 17-18.)

         Although MNT is a law firm, the letters do not threaten legal action. Indeed, the letters purport to be "communication[s] [ ] from a debt collector" and explain that MNT "has been retained to collect the above-referenced debt[s]." (See, e.g., R. 14-2, Letter.) Still, Buchholz alleges that after he received the letters, he "felt an undue sense of anxiety that he would be subjected to legal action if prompt payment was not made." (R. 12, First Am. Compl. at ¶ 32.) Because of that anxiety, Buchholz "conferred with his counsel" about MNT's letters. (Id. at ¶ 33.) And then Buchholz sued MNT.

         Buchholz alleges that MNT violated the FDCPA-specifically, 15 U.S.C. § 1692e, e(3), and e(10). His claim relies on a series of inferences, including that Synchrony Bank "clearly works with [MNT] on a regular basis" and that Synchrony Bank has a "proportionally large number of accounts that are subjected to collection activities." (Id. at ¶ 23, 22.) Buchholz asks the court to infer that because MNT works with Synchrony, MNT must send "a large number of collection letters to consumers on a daily basis." (Id. at ¶ 23.) And Buchholz alleges that because Kara Harms (whose signature appears on the two letters he received) is MNT's only Michigan-based attorney, "it is unlikely" she devoted "much time to Plaintiff's accounts, let alone the additional letters she sends out on a daily basis." (Id. at ¶ 29.) Indeed, Buchholz claims that MNT processes such a high volume of debt-collection letters that Harms and other MNT attorneys cannot engage "in a meaningful review of the underlying accounts prior to determining whether to send the collection letters." (Id. at ¶ 30). But the letters, which appear on law firm letterhead, create the impression that the attorney "has reviewed the file and made the professional, considered determination to send the letter." (Id. at ¶ 41.) And this, according to Buchholz, violates the FDCPA.

         MNT moved to dismiss Buchholz's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failing to state a claim. The district court granted MNT's motion, holding that Buchholz lacked standing to sue MNT. Alternatively, the court held that even if it had subject-matter jurisdiction, it would have dismissed Buchholz's complaint for failing to state a claim. Buchholz appeals the dismissal of his complaint.

         II.

         This court reviews de novo a district court's dismissal of a complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. See, e.g., Cartwright v. Garner, 751 F.3d 752, 760 (6th Cir. 2014). In doing so, we take the allegations in the complaint as true. Id. at 759.

         A.

         Not all disputes have a home in federal court. Article III limits the judicial power to resolving actual "Cases" and "Controversies," not theoretical questions. U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. And one "telltale" of a case or controversy is that "the parties have standing to bring it." Hagy v. Demers & Adams, 882 F.3d 616, 620 (6th Cir. 2018). Although the term "standing" does not appear in Article III, our standing doctrine is "rooted in the traditional understanding of a case or controversy" and limits "the category of litigants empowered to maintain a lawsuit in federal court[.]" Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016). The effect is to confine "the federal courts to a properly judicial role[.]" Id.

         There are three elements to standing. The plaintiff "must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision." Id. The plaintiff carries the burden of establishing those three elements, and at the pleading stage, the plaintiff must clearly allege facts demonstrating each element. Id. Moreover, the injury in fact must be both "(a) concrete and particularized, . . . and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical[.]" Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Buchholz must first show that he has suffered an injury in fact, which itself includes two sub-elements, concreteness and particularization. Id. The parties do not dispute that Buchholz's injury is particularized, but as the Supreme Court has repeatedly underscored, particularization is not enough. Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1548; Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, 573 U.S. 149, 158 (2014); Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497, 517 (2007). The injury must also be concrete, and the parties dispute if the alleged injury here meets that criteria.

         A concrete injury is, like it sounds, "real and not abstract." Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1548 (punctuation and internal quotation marks omitted). But that does not mean all concrete injuries must be tangible economic or physical harms. Spokeo noted that "intangible injuries can nevertheless be concrete." Id. at 1549. Specifically, the Court cited cases that vindicate First Amendment values as examples in support. Id. (citing Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460 (2009) (free speech); Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993) (free exercise)); see also Rachel Bayefsky, Psychological Harm and Constitutional ...


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