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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Barrett Denies Consumer Any Chance to Enforce Her Debt Collection Rights

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“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.

Trump 7th Circuit judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote an opinion in Casillas v. Madison Ave. Associates Inc. ruling that Paula Casillas did not have standing to enforce a clear violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Even though that decision directly contradicted a previous ruling by another federal court of appeals, the majority of the 7th Circuit, including the other three Trump appointees, refused to reconsider the decision. Three other judges, including one Republican appointee, strongly dissented, explaining that the holding would make it “much more difficult” for consumers to enforce the Act’s protections against abusive debt collection practices.

Madison Ave. Associates sent Paula Casillas a letter attempting to collect a debt she allegedly owed to a credit union. But the letter failed to state, as required by the FDCPA, that she had to communicate with the company in writing in order to trigger her rights under the FDCPA. These rights include, for example, the right to demand verification of the underlying debt and stop debt collection until the debt is verified. Ms. Casillas thus filed suit against Madison, on behalf of herself and other consumers who had been similarly treated.

Both the district court and the court of appeals, however, dismissed her suit because they claimed she lacked standing since she did not show a specific injury. Barrett minimized Madison's omission as a “bare procedural” error, and claimed that Casillas had not shown that Madison’s violation of the Act “presented an appreciable risk of harm to the underlying concrete interests Congress sought to protect.”

Because Barrett’s opinion directly contradicted a decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the opinion was sent to the other active judges on the Seventh Circuit to vote on whether the full court should rehear the case under its local rules. A majority, including Trump judges Brennan, St. Eve, and Scudder, voted not to reconsider the decision.

But Chief Judge Diane Wood, joined by Judges David Hamilton and Ilana Rovner, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, strongly dissented. Barrett’s decision, the dissent wrote, “will make it much more difficult for consumers” to enforce the FDCPA’s “protections against abusive debt collection practices.” Failure to notify consumers that they must communicate in writing, the dissent went on, “is anything but a picky procedural gaffe” because a consumer’s written complaint can require a collector to stop collection altogether until the debt is fully verified. This “right to be left alone is a crucial part” of FDCPA’s effort to “eliminate abusive and unfair tactics,” the dissent explained, and the collector’s failure to provide written notification “equals greatly diminished protection under the Act.” Casillas should not have been required to “spell out the various types of harm that loomed” because of Madison’s statutory violation.

In short, the dissent concluded, the “likelihood of ongoing injury from forfeited rights, misunderstandings, and abusive practices” was “great enough to support standing” for [Ms.] Casillas and other consumers. Barrett’s decision to the contrary, and the failure of her and the other Trump judges to even vote for rehearing in light of the contrary decision of the Sixth Circuit endangers consumers’ rights in the Midwest.