9th Circuit holds plaintiff must establish defendant’s net worth to seek damages under FDCPA
On August 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing a defendant’s net worth when seeking an award of class statutory damages in an FDCPA action. The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s class action, which alleged a law firm’s letters violated the FDCPA by using “false, deceptive, or misleading representation[s].” The panel found that the language of the FDCPA’s class statutory damages provision—"not to exceed the lesser of $500,000 or 1 per centum of the net worth of the debt collector"— makes it clear that a defendant’s net worth is a prerequisite to establishing statutory damages. The court noted that the FDCPA is silent as to which party bears the burden, but the “ordinary default rule” establishes the burden upon the party seeking relief and there is no reason to believe Congress intended otherwise under the FDCPA. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that because the defendant has “superior access” to the evidence of net worth, it must bear the burden because it is “not uniquely difficult for consumer plaintiffs to acquire the debt collector’s financial information.” Because the plaintiff failed to present evidence of the law firm’s net worth, the 9th Circuit concluded the lower court was correct in dismissing the action.