Supreme Court Finds No Discovery Rule in the FDCPA
Business Litigation Update
Date: December 12, 2019
In its December 10, 2019, decision in Rotkiske v. Klemm, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s (FDCPA) statute of limitations includes a discovery rule that delays the start of the one-year limitations period until the individual knows, or should know, of the alleged violation. The court held that the plain language of the FDCPA governs and that, as a result, absent the application of equitable tolling doctrines such as fraudulent concealment (that were not at issue on appeal in Rotkiske), the FDCPA’s statute of limitations begins to run when the violation occurs, not when the individual discovers it.
Congress enacted the FDCPA in 1977 to protect consumers from abusive debt collection practices. It allows individuals to bring claims against “debt collectors” “within one year from the date on which the violation [of the FDCPA] occurs.” 15 U.S.C. 1692(k)(d).
In 2009, lawyers at Klemm & Associates filed a debt collection lawsuit against Kevin Rotkiske. Because the complaint was served at an address where he did not live, Rotkiske alleged that he did not find out about the lawsuit until he attempted to obtain a mortgage in 2014 and that the lawyers knew he did not live at the address but still filed a false affidavit of service.
In June 2015, Rotkiske filed a FDCPA claim against the lawyers, alleging that the lawsuit was improper because it was not filed within the statute of limitations. The lawyers responded that the FDCPA claim itself was time-barred because the violation occurred in 2009. Rotkiske argued that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until he discovered the alleged FDCPA violation in 2014 and that, as a result, his FDCPA claim was timely.
The district court rejected Rotkiske’s arguments and held that his FDCPA claim was time-barred. The Third Circuit affirmed.
Supreme Court Decision
Acknowledging that the phrase “discovery rule” has no generally accepted meaning, the Supreme Court acknowledged two distinct concepts Rotkiske raised under the umbrella of a discovery rule: “the application of a general discovery rule as a principle of statutory interpretation” and “a fraud-specific discovery rule as an equitable doctrine.”
With respect to the first concept, the court noted that by its terms, an FDCPA claim must be brought “within one year from the date on which the violation occurs.” 15 U.S.C. 1692(k)(d). According to standard principles of statutory interpretation, this language “unambiguously sets the date of the violation as the event that starts the one-year limitations period.” The court rejected Rotkiske’s proposal that a general discovery rule applies in all FDCPA actions because this would require the court to rewrite the statute. It reasoned that if Congress had intended the statute of limitations to run from the date a violation is discovered, it could have so stated, and cited other statutes that expressly provide for a discovery rule. The court further stated that if Congress had intended for there to be a discovery rule in the FDCPA, it would have written the statute to include one, and it simply did not.
The court did not substantively address whether the one-year statute could be tolled by fraud, finding that Rotkiske failed to preserve the issue on appeal.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor agreed that the FDCPA’s statute of limitations “typically begins to run when the alleged violation ‘occurs,’ not when the plaintiff discovers it,” but said that the fraud-specific discovery rule that the majority declined to address is a long-recognized basis to forgive otherwise untimely filings. Justice Sotomayor wrote separately to emphasize that nothing in the majority opinion “prevents the parties from invoking that well-settled doctrine.” However, she also agreed that Rotkiske failed to preserve this issue.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsberg also recognized that the statute of limitations in FDCPA cases ordinarily begins to run on the date the violation occurs but that this rule “does not apply when fraud on the creditor’s part accounts for the debtor’s failure to sue within one year of the creditor’s violation.” Justice Ginsberg stated that, based on the allegations in Rotkiske’s complaint, because the lawyers served Rotkiske at an address where they knew he no longer lived and filed a false affidavit of service, the case should be remanded for the parties to address whether a fraud exception could apply.
Although the Rotkiske decision clarifies that there is no general discovery rule applicable to the statute of limitations in FDCPA claims, the court expressly declined to address whether an equitable, fraud-based discovery rule would apply distinct from equitable tolling. Given Justice Sotomayor’s concurring opinion and Justice Ginsberg’s dissent, however, private litigants are likely to continue to rely on a fraud-based discovery rule until the court reaches this question.
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