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  • 6th Circuit reverses and remands judgment in debt collection suit

    Courts

    On June 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant-appellee law firm, holding that it did not first exhaust all of its efforts to collect from the actual debtor. According to the opinion, the plaintiff’s husband was convicted of embezzlement and willful failure to pay taxes and was sent invoices for his legal fees by another law firm, which he did not pay. The law firm hired the defendant to collect on the debt. The defendant filed a lawsuit against the plaintiff and her husband, arguing under the Ohio Necessaries Statute that the husband was liable to third parties for necessaries, such as food, shelter, and clothing that were provided to his wife. An Ohio state court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and an interlocutory appeal by the defendant was denied. The plaintiff then filed suit against the defendant, alleging that defendant’s underlying suit violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect under the claim that she was liable for her spouse’s debt. The district court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion, which the plaintiff appealed.

    On the appeal, the 6th Circuit found that the defendant did not follow the express commands of the Ohio Supreme Court's 2018 decision in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, which held that spouses who are not debtors are liable only if the debtor does not have the assets to pay the debt themselves. The 6th Circuit found that the defendant did not satisfy those prerequisites to collect from the plaintiff when it filed a joint-liability suit against her and her husband. Thus, the collection efforts against the spouse who incurred the debt must be exhausted “before attempting to collect from a spouse.” The 6th Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

    Courts State Issues Appellate Sixth Circuit Ohio FDCPA Debt Collection Consumer Finance

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  • Supreme Court blocks OSHA mandate

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    On January 13, a divided U.S. Supreme Court issued an order blocking a Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule mandating that employers with 100 or more employees require employees to be fully vaccinated or be subject to a weekly Covid-19 test at their own expense. However, in a separate order the Court allowed a separate rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring Covid-19 vaccinations for health care workers (unless exempt for medical or religious reasons) at Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers and suppliers to take effect.

    In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a nationwide stay on the emergency temporary standard (ETS) that included the mandate to employers, describing enforcement of the ETS illegitimate and calling the OSHA rule “unlawful” and “likely unconstitutional.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) However, last month, the 6th Circuit lifted the stay in a 2-1 ruling, stating that “[b]ased on [OSHA’s] language, structure and Congressional approval, OSHA has long asserted its authority to protect workers against infectious diseases.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The applicants, seeking emergency relief from the Court to reinstate the stay, argued that the rule exceeded OSHA’s statutory authority and is otherwise unlawful.

    In agreeing that the applicants are likely to prevail, the Court majority granted the application for relief and stayed the OSHA rule pending disposition of the applicants’ petitions for review in the 6th Circuit, as well as disposition of any timely petitions for writs of certiorari. “Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly,” the majority wrote. Adding that the ETS is a “blunt instrument” that “draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the majority stated that the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not plainly authorize the rule.

    The dissenting judges argued that the majority’s decision “stymies the Federal Government’s ability to counter the unparalleled threat that COVID–19 poses to our Nation’s workers. Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies.”

    With respect to the Department of Health and Human Services rule, the Government applied to stay injunctions issued by two district courts preventing the rule from taking effect. In granting the application and staying the injunctions, the majority of the Court found that one of the Department’s basic functions authorized by Congress “is to ensure that the healthcare providers who care for Medicare and Medicaid patients protect their patients’ health and safety,” concluding that “[h]ealthcare workers around the country are ordinarily required to be vaccinated for diseases” and that “addressing infection problems in Medicare and Medicaid facilities is what [the Secretary] does.” 

    In dissent, four justices argued that the efficacy or importance of Covid-19 vaccines was not at issue in assessing the injunctions, stating that the district court cases were about “whether [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] has the statutory authority to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo,” and arguing that “the Government has not made a strong showing that Congress gave CMS that broad authority.”

    Courts U.S. Supreme Court Appellate Sixth Circuit OSHA Covid-19 Department of Labor Department of Health and Human Services Fifth Circuit

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  • 6th Circuit: OSHA required testing is allowed

    Courts

    On December 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit lifted the stay on the federal government’s rule requiring employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their employees are vaccinated against Covid-19 or be subjected to weekly Covid-19 testing. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a rule in the Federal Register requiring employers to develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy, unless they adopt a policy requiring employees to choose between vaccination or regular testing for Covid-19 and wearing a face covering at work. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a nationwide stay on the emergency temporary standard (ETS), which mandates that all employers with 100 or more employees require employees to be fully vaccinated or be subject to a weekly Covid-19 test (covered by InfoBytes here). The 5th Circuit stay, which was in response to a legal challenge filed by several states along with private entities and individuals, affirmed the court’s initial stay. The 5th Circuit said OSHA’s enforcement of the ETS is illegitimate and called it “unlawful” and “likely unconstitutional.” Furthermore, the 5th Circuit ordered OSHA to “take no steps to implement or enforce the Mandate until further court order.”

    On the appeal, the 6th Circuit lifted the stay in a 2-1 ruling, stating that “[b]ased on [OSHA’s] language, structure and Congressional approval, OSHA has long asserted its authority to protect workers against infectious diseases." The appellate court also noted that “OSHA relied on public health data to support its observations that workplaces have a heightened risk of exposure to the dangers of COVID-19 transmission.” However, one judge dissented, writing that “[v]accines are freely available, and unvaccinated people may choose to protect themselves at anytime. And because the [Secretary of Labor] likely lacks congressional authority to force them to protect themselves, the remaining stay factors cannot tip the balance.”

    Courts Appellate Sixth Circuit OSHA Covid-19

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  • 6th Circuit affirms decision compelling arbitration in data breach case

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    On December 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision dismissing a nationwide putative class action against an e-commerce provider, holding that challenges raised to the validity of an agreement to arbitrate were for the arbitrator to decide, not the court. According to the opinion, the plaintiff class, including four minor individuals, filed suit after the defendant allegedly failed to protect millions of customers’ personal account information that was then obtained in a 2019 data breach. The opinion noted that the defendant’s Terms of Service contained an arbitration agreement, a delegation provision, a class action waiver, and instructions regarding how to opt-out of the arbitration agreement. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and compel arbitration after rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments that the arbitration clause is “invalid” and “unenforceable” as to the minor plaintiffs under the infancy doctrine.

    On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that there was an issue of fact regarding whether four of the plaintiffs had agreed to the Terms of Service, and that the defenses of infancy and unconscionability rendered the Terms of Service invalid. According to the appellate court, though “a contract exists and . . . the delegation provision itself is valid, the arbitrator must decide in the first instance whether the defenses of infancy and unconscionability allow plaintiffs to avoid arbitrating the merits of their claims.” The appellate court further agreed with the district court that “[i]t’s not about the merits of the case. It’s not even about whether the parties have to arbitrate the merits. Instead, it’s about who should decide whether the parties have to arbitrate the merits.”

    Courts Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Class Action Arbitration Data Breach Appellate Sixth Circuit

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  • 6th Circuit: TCPA robocall claims not invalidated by severance of 2015 amendment in AAPC

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    On September 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc. (AAPC) (covered by InfoBytes here, which held that the government-debt exception in Section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) of the TCPA is an unconstitutional content-based speech restriction and severed the provision from the statute) does not invalidate a plaintiff’s TCPA claims concerning robocalls he received prior to the Court issuing its decision. In the current matter, the plaintiff filed a proposed class action alleging violations of the TCPA’s robocall restriction after he received two robocalls from the defendant in late 2019 and early 2020 advertising its electricity services. Following the Court’s decision in AAPC, the district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that because severance of the exception in AAPC only operates prospectively, “the robocall restriction was unconstitutional and therefore ‘void’ for the period the exception was on the books.” As such, the district court concluded that because the robocall restriction was void, it could not provide a basis for federal-question jurisdiction for alleged TCPA robocall violations arising before the Court severed the exception.

    On appeal, the 6th Circuit conducted a severability analysis, holding that the district court erred in concluding that the court, in AAPC, offered “‘a remedy in the form of eliminating the content-based restriction' from the TCPA.” Rather, the appellate court pointed out that “the Court recognized only that the Constitution had ‘automatically displace[d]’ the government-debt-collector exception from the start, then interpreted what the statute has always meant in its absence,” adding that the legal determination in AAPC applied retroactively and did not render the entire TCPA robocall restriction void until the exception was severed by the court. A First Amendment defense presented by the defendant premised on the argument that “government-debt collectors have a due-process defense to liability because they did not have fair notice of their actions’ unlawfulness” for robocalls placed before AAPC was also rejected. The 6th Circuit opinion emphasized that “[w]hether a debt collector had fair notice that it faced punishment for making robocalls turns on whether it reasonably believed that the statute expressly permitted its conduct. That, in turn, will likely depend in part on whether the debt collector used robocalls to collect government debt or non-government debt. But applying the speech-neutral fair-notice defense in the speech context does not transform it into a speech restriction.”

    Courts Appellate Sixth Circuit TCPA Robocalls U.S. Supreme Court Class Action

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  • 6th Circuit reverses FCRA ruling over misreported debt

    Courts

    On September 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant mortgage servicer, holding that a jury could find the defendant “willfully and negligently” violated the FCRA by incorrectly reporting a past due account status to consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) for over a year after the plaintiff’s mortgage loan was discharged in bankruptcy. The plaintiff discovered the loan was being mis-reported as past due when he checked his credit score in advance of buying a car and found it to be lower than expected. The plaintiff disputed the tradeline, and the CRAs forwarded his dispute to the mortgage servicer. In response to the dispute, the servicer changed the plaintiff’s account status from past due to “no status”—which meant the status had not changed from the prior month—and continued reporting it to the CRAs.

    The plaintiff sued the servicer for violating the FCRA, claiming the defendant knew the loan had been discharged but still reported it as past due for more than a year. The defendant countered, among other things, that because the plaintiff “chose not to apply for a car loan” he could not prove that he was harmed by negligence due to the mis-reporting. The district court ultimately ruled that (i) the plaintiff did not have standing to allege a negligent violation of the FCRA, and (ii) no “reasonable jury” would find that the defendant had willfully violated the statute.

    On appeal, the 6th Circuit disagreed, finding that the plaintiff had standing to assert a negligence claim under FCRA and that a reasonable jury could find a negligent and willful violation. The court pointed out that the plaintiff’s credit score increased by almost 100 points once the tradeline was removed, suggesting the servicer’s mis-reporting did harm the plaintiff and gave him standing to sue in negligence. The court also found the defendant “knew that [the plaintiff’s] loan had been discharged but for more than a year told the credit-reporting agencies that the loan was past due. A jury could therefore find that [the defendant] was either incompetent or willful in its failure to correct its reports sooner.” The 6th Circuit added that the defendant’s implementation of policies to guide its analysts through resolving credit disputes “hardly disproves as a matter of law that [the defendant] acted willfully.” The court held the defendant was not entitled to summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

    Courts FCRA Credit Report Credit Reporting Agency Consumer Finance Credit Furnishing Sixth Circuit Appellate Mortgages Mortgage Servicing

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  • 6th Circuit: Consumer lacks standing to bring FDCPA voice message claims

    Courts

    On August 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held 2-1 that a plaintiff lacked Article III standing to bring claims against a debt servicer defendant for allegedly violating the FDCPA by failing to properly identify itself in voice messages. The plaintiff filed suit in 2019 alleging violations of three FDCPA provisions, including that the defendant: (i) failed to identify itself as a debt collector in its voice messages; (ii) failed to identify the “true name” of its business, thus causing the plaintiff to send a cease-and-desist letter to the wrong entity; and (iii) placed calls without meaningfully disclosing its identity. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that because the defendant did not qualify as a “debt collector” under the FDCPA it was not subject to the statute’s requirements.

    On appeal, the 6th Circuit raised the issue of standing “for the first time on appeal,” concluding that the plaintiff “does not automatically have standing simply because Congress authorizes a plaintiff to sue a debt collector for failing to comply with the FDCPA.” Pointing out that the appeal “centers on whether [the plaintiff] suffered a concrete injury,” the appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that the defendant’s statutory violations constituted a “concrete injury” and “that the confusion he suffered, the expense of counsel, and the phone call that he received from [the defendant] qualify as independent concrete injuries.” Among other things, the 6th Circuit noted that although the plaintiff claimed that the FDCPA “created an enforceable right to know who is calling about a debt and that [the defendant’s] failure to identify its full name concretely injured him,” the plaintiff ultimately failed to demonstrate that the defendant’s “failure to disclose its full identity in its voice messages resembles a harm traditionally regarded as providing a basis for a lawsuit.” Additionally, the appellate court determined that “confusion alone is not a concrete injury for Article III purposes,” and that the plaintiff “cannot show concrete harm simply by pointing to the cost of hiring counsel.” Moreover, because the plaintiff “did not clearly assert in his complaint that he received—let alone was harmed by—an additional phone call, [the appellate court] need not decide whether an unwanted call might qualify as a concrete injury.” The 6th Circuit vacated the district court’s order entering summary judgment and remanded the case to be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

    Courts Debt Collection FDCPA Appellate Sixth Circuit

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  • 6th Circuit: CDC was not authorized to implement eviction moratorium

    Courts

    On July 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that statutory language did not authorize the CDC to implement a moratorium on evictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs, a group of rental property owners and managers, filed a lawsuit seeking declaratory judgment and a preliminary injunction, claiming the CDC’s order exceeded the government’s statutory grant of power and violated the Constitution and the Administrative Procedures Act. The district court found that the moratorium exceeded the government’s statutory authority under 42 U.S.C. § 264(a) and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the declaratory judgment claim. The 6th Circuit denied the government’s motion for an emergency stay pending appeal, citing that the government was unlikely to succeed on the merits.

    In affirming the district court’s ruling and addressing the merits in the current order, the 6th Circuit reviewed whether Section 264(a) of the Public Health Act of 1944 allowed the CDC to issue its moratorium. The appellate court held that while the statute allows the Surgeon General, with the approval of the Secretary, to make and enforce such regulations as are “necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession,” it “does not grant the CDC the power it claims.” Additionally, the appellate court concluded that an eviction moratorium did not fit the mold of actions permitted under the statute’s language. The 6th Circuit emphasized that even if the language of the statute could be construed more expansively, it could not “grant the CDC the power to insert itself into landlord-tenant relationships without clear textual evidence of Congress’s intent to do so.” Writing that “[a]gencies cannot discover in a broadly worded statute authority to supersede state landlord-tenant law,” the appellate court explained that the government’s interpretation of the statute presented a nondelegation problem, which “would grant the CDC director near-dictatorial power for the duration of the pandemic, with authority to shut down entire industries as freely as she could ban evictions.” Furthermore, the appellate court concluded that any potential ratification taken by Congress last December when former President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which, among other things, extended the expiration date of the eviction moratorium, “did not purport to alter the meaning of § 264(a), so it did not grant the CDC the power to extend the order further than Congress had authorized.”

    Courts Appellate Sixth Circuit Covid-19 CDC Administrative Procedures Act Evictions

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  • 6th Circuit: “Anxiety and confusion” not an injury under FDCPA

    Courts

    On May 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a consumer’s alleged “confusion and anxiety” does not constitute a concrete and particularized injury under the FDCPA. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s debt collector, an attorney’s office, violated the FDCPA when it communicated with him, on behalf of a bank, by sending a letter stating the plaintiff’s mortgage loan was sent to foreclosure. The letter also informed the plaintiff that the bank “might have already sent a letter about possible alternatives,” further explaining how the plaintiff could contact the bank “to attempt to be reviewed for possible alternatives to foreclosure.” The plaintiff also alleged that the attorney’s office “sent a form of this letter to tens of thousands of homeowners and that it did so without having any attorney provide a meaningful review of the homeowners’ foreclosure files, so the communications deceptively implied they were from an attorney.” The plaintiff alleged the letter confused him because he was unsure if it was from an attorney, and that, moreover, the letter “raised [his] anxiety” by suggesting “that an attorney may have conducted an independent investigation and substantive legal review of the circumstances of his account, such that his prospects for avoiding foreclosure were diminished.”

    The 6th Circuit found the plaintiff’s allegations to “come up short” in regard to proving that the statutory violations caused him individualized concrete harm. In addition, the appellate court said that “confusion doesn’t have a close relationship to a harm that has traditionally been regarded as providing a basis for a lawsuit.”

    Courts Appellate Sixth Circuit Debt Collection FDCPA Standing Spokeo

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  • 6th Circuit: SBA can’t prioritize race or sex for Covid relief

    Courts

    On May 27, the majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the Small Business Administration (SBA) cannot allocate limited Covid-19 relief funds based on the race and sex of the applicants. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming the SBA’s practice of giving priority to certain Restaurant Revitalization Fund applicants (i.e. restaurants owned and controlled at least 51 percent by women, veterans, or the “socially and economically disadvantaged”) during the first 21 days violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause by impermissibly granting priority based on race and gender classifications. The plaintiff applied for funding on the first day the application period opened, but because the restaurant he co-owned 50/50 with his Hispanic wife was not owned 51 percent by a woman or a veteran, he faced an added evidentiary burden to show he qualified as “socially and economically disadvantaged” to get priority status. The plaintiff requested a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to prohibit the SBA from granting funds unless it did so in a manner that ignored race and sex. The district court denied the request, as well as subsequent requests made by the plaintiff, ruling that he was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims.

    On appeal, the majority of the Sixth Circuit disagreed, concluding that the district court should have issued an injunction pending appeal since the SBA “failed to justify its discriminatory policy.” According to the majority, the SBA “injected explicit racial and ethnic preferences into the priority process” by “presume[ing] certain applicants are socially disadvantaged based solely on their race or ethnicity.” Additionally, the majority stated that the “added evidentiary burden faced by white men and other non-presumptively disadvantaged groups stands in marked contrast with lenient evidentiary standards set by the American Rescue Plan Act,” and pointed out that “broad statistical disparities cited by the government are not nearly enough” to suggest intentional discrimination. Because “an effort to alleviate the effects of societal discrimination is not a compelling interest,” the majority stated, “the government’s policy is not permissible.” The majority also rejected the SBA’s argument that the issue was moot because the priority period for the program has ended, commenting that race and sex preferences continue to factor in whether an applicant receives funds before the program’s money runs out.

    The dissenting judge argued, however, that the “Constitution permits the government to use race-based classifications to remediate past discrimination,” and added that the plaintiff has not demonstrated that he will be irreparably harmed by the way the program’s funds are distributed.

    Courts Appellate Sixth Circuit Covid-19 SBA

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