In Johnson v. Heuer Law Offices, No. 19-CV-1171-JPS-JPS, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56709 (E.D. Wis. Mar. 25, 2021), Judge Stadtmueller granted summary judgment to a debt collection law firm who was alleged not to have “meaningful involvement” in the sending of dunning letters. The Judge Stadmueller held that although the Plaintiff clearly had emotional distress tied to the law firm’s filing of the debt collection lawsuit, Plaintiff could not demonstrate that the emotional distress was tied to the actual FDCPA violation; i.e. the attorney’s lack of meaningful involvement.
Johnson avers that she suffered another injury in fact—namely, emotional distress—as the result of Heuer Law’s alleged false representation that it was professionally involved in the collection of her debt. While Heuer Law does not contest that Johnson suffered emotional distress and the physical effects thereof (as she described during her deposition), Heuer Law does argue that such injuries are not fairly traceable to its conduct. (Docket #17 at 26-30). This “fairly traceable” requirement ensures that there is a “causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of . . . not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560 (citation, internal quotations, and alterations omitted). In FDCPA cases, the alleged injury must be traceable to the alleged violation, as opposed to the filing of a valid lawsuit. Diehm, 426 F. Supp. 3d at 585. See also Boerner v. LVNV Funding, LLC, 358 F. Supp. 3d 767, 781 (2019) (noting that the plaintiff could not claim damages “just because he [was] being sued” but that “he must demonstrate that his damages stem” from the alleged misrepresentation). To be sure, Johnson testified that she experienced a host of physical symptoms indicating that she was suffering from emotional distress. Yet, based on a review of Johnson’s own deposition, the Court finds that she has only shown that her injury is traceable to the lawsuit, and not Heuer Law’s alleged misrepresentation. For example, in her response brief, Johnson claims that her reactions “were caused by the fact that it was a lawyer who was suing her” but she does not cite to anything in the record to support this claim. (Docket #25 at 23). Unfortunately for Johnson, the citations she provides suggest that it was in fact the lawsuit that caused her to experience emotional distress. During her deposition, to opposing counsel’s question about her injuries as a result of “this lawsuit,” Johnson responded that she was “sick to her stomach,” “went back and forth with her husband,” “felt distracted a lot,” and was losing sleep. (Docket #24-2 at 10, 11). Further, she does not suggest that her work-related anxiety was the result of Heuer Law’s lack of meaningful involvement. (See id. at 15). To be fair, in Johnson’s last proposed finding of fact, she claimed that Aurora’s being represented by a lawyer made the lawsuit different for her than if she had received the letter directly from Aurora. (Docket #32 at 19). However, she herself stated that her inexperience with legal matters made the lawsuit stressful. Johnson cites to Boerner to support her proposition that a plaintiff’s fear that a state lawsuit would result in garnishment of wages, which led to fear regarding his workplace reputation, had demonstrated emotional distress. (Docket #25 at 23). But in Boerner, in addition to a “meaningful involvement” claim, the plaintiff alleged that the creditor falsely represented the legal status of a debt in violation of § 1692(e)(2)(A). Boerner, 358 F. Supp. 3d at 773. The court found that the plaintiff had sufficiently explained the physical and mental effects of the lawsuit. Id. at 780-81. Further, the court found that, based on citations to the record, the plaintiff’s heightened stress “appeared to be directly related to the acceleration of the debt and the initiation of the state court lawsuit without the opportunity to cure the default.” Id. at 781. As it did in Boerner, the Court has reviewed the record in this case and does not find a direct relation between Heuer Law’s alleged lack of involvement and Johnson’s alleged distress. Based on the foregoing, as well as Section 4.1.1 supra, the Court finds that Johnson does not have sufficient standing to bring this action.