Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Few Thoughts on the Opinions of Amy Coney Barrett

 This post was originally intended to be about the bankruptcy jurisprudence of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. That would have been a very short post. She has been on panels which issued seven per curiam unpublished opinions in bankruptcy matters, none of which were very remarkable. Instead, I will look at three of her opinions dealing with consumer financial services and cases where she did not rule for law enforcement or employers,  traditional favorites of conservatives. While most of her writing is workmanlike, she occasionally reaches for a memorable turn of phrase.

The Consumer Protection Decisions

In determining a case under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Judge Barrett lamented that the provision in question was "enough to make a grammarian throw down her pen." Gadelhak v. AT&T Services, 950 F.3d 458 (7th Cir. 2020).  She succinctly stated that:

We'll save the intense grammatical parsing for the body of the opinion—here, we'll just give the punchline. We hold that "using a random or sequential number generator" modifies both "store" and "produce." The system at issue in this case, AT&T's "Customer Rules Feedback Tool," neither stores nor produces numbers using a random or sequential number generator; instead, it exclusively dials numbers stored in a customer database. Thus, it is not an "automatic telephone dialing system" as defined by the Act—which means that AT&T did not violate the Act when it sent unwanted automated text messages to Ali Gadelhak.

While Judge Barrett may have wanted to throw down her pen, she did follow the grammar.

However, the statutory language did not keep her from ruling against an FDCPA plaintiff who alleged a technical notice violation. In Casillas v. Madison Ave. Associates, 926 F.3d 329 (7th Cir. 2019), a debt validation notice failed to state that any requests for validation must be made in writing. The consumer did not attempt to make a written or verbal request for validationbut did file an FDCPA class action. Judge Barrett wrote that under the Supreme Court's Spokeo decision that a plaintiff cannot claim "a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III."

Judge Barrett also wrote an opinion affirming a summary judgment for the defense in a case under the FDCPA and FCRA in Walton v. EOS CCA, 885 F.3d 1024 (7th Cir. 2018).  This was a case about verification of a debt to ATT in the amount of $268.47. When ATT sent the debt to the debt collector, it transposed several of the digits in the account number. The clever consumer wrote to the debt collector stating that she did not "own (sic) AT&T any money under the account number listed above." The debt collector responded that it had verified that her name, address and the last four digits of her social security number matched the debt report it had received from AT&T. The debt collector reported the debt to two credit reporting agencies but indicated that it was disputed.   The consumer filed two complaints with the credit reporting agencies. In the second, she stated that the account number was incorrect. At that point, the debt collector deleted the trade line. The consumer sued under FDCPA contending that the debt collector failed to verify the debt with the original creditor and under FCRA asserting that it failed to reasonably investigate the disputed information.

Judge Barrett went to the dictionary to see what the term "verification" meant but then noted that the "question here is what the debt collector is supposed to be verifying." The consumer argued that the debt collector was required to verify the original debt while the debt collector argued that it was required to verify that the notice it provided to the consumer matched the information it had received from the creditor. Judge Barrett agreed with the debt collector.

Judge Barrett also ruled that the debt collector properly investigated the dispute made to the credit reporting agencies. The first dispute asserted that the debt was not hers. The debt collector properly verified that the information that it received from the creditor identified the account as belonging to the consumer. When she clarified that the account number was wrong, the debt collector deleted the trade line. 

These opinions demonstrate that Judge Barrett has a passing familiarity with the three major federal consumer protection statutes and that she appears to take these issues seriously.

Judge Barrett Does Not Always Rule for the Authority Figure

In the classic film, School of Rock, Jack Black's character tells his young charges that the purpose of rock and roll is to stick it to the man. Although Judge Barrett is a conservative judge, there are definitely opinions in which she has been willing to stick it to the man. This was the most interesting thing that I found in examining her slight judicial record of less than one hundred published opinions.

 Judge Barrett has ruled against the employer in several cases involving discrimination on the basis of sex. Judge Barrett affirmed a judgment against Costco for failing to prevent a hostile work environment when a customer relentlessly stalked and harassed a female employee. While Costco argued that other unsuccessful Title VII plaintiffs had alleged far worse conduct, Judge Barrett found that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to find in the EEOC's favor.  EEOC v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 903 F.3d 618 (7th Cir. 2018).  In a male on male sexual harassment case, Judge Barrett affirmed the jury verdict. Where male employees grabbed another man's buttocks and genitals and reached down his pants among other actions, there was sufficient evidence to conclude that he was harassed based on sex where there was no evidence that female employees were subject to the same treatment. (He was also told to go back to Africa which would indicate racial discrimination as well). Smith v. Rosebud Farm, Inc., 898 F.3d 747 (7th Cir. 2018). These decisions show a willingness to uphold jury verdicts based on evidence. However, they also show a lack of judicial activism to protect employers from being sued.

 Judge Barrett was also unwilling to reverse a district court's determination that a detective was not entitled to qualified immunity in a Section 1983 case. The detective contended that even though he lied in his probable cause affidavit, his lies were not material. Judge Barrett wrote that "when the lies are taken out and the exculpatory evidence is added in" there was not sufficient evidence to arrest a man for the murder of his mother.  The fact that he had a key to his mother's apartment, checked on her and stood to inherit was not enough to establish probable cause. Rainsberger v. Benner, 913 F.3d 640 (7th Cir. 2019). 

In another case, the DEA arrested a suspect and then went to search his apartment. A woman wearing a bathrobe let them in. The agents did not ask her who was or why she was there until partway through the search.  Judge Barrett reversed the trial court's decision not to suppress the evidence obtained during the search. She wrote that "A bathrobe alone does not clothe someone with apparent authority over a residence, even at 10:00 in the morning." United States v. Terry, 915 F.3d 1141 (7th Cir. 2018).

Judge Barrett also ruled that a defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing before a different judge after the judge refused to recuse himself.  The judge had previously been a prosecutor in the same U.S. Attorney's office which was prosecuting the defendant. It came to light that the judge had had over 100 ex parte communications with the U.S. Attorney's office about other cases. As a result, the Chief Judge removed the judge from any cases involving his former office. The defendant raised the judge's failure to recuse for the first time on appeal because the ex parte contacts were not disclosed until after sentencing. Judge Barrett wrote that "Allowing Atwood's sentence to stand would undermine the public's confidence in the fairness of this sentence and in the impartiality of the judiciary." United States v. Atwood, 941 F.3d 883 (7th Cir 2019).

There are other similar cases that I could discuss as well. To me, this second set of cases demonstrates that Judge Barrett displays judicial independence in cases where business and law and order advocates might have preferred a different result. The decisions appear to be carefully thought out and correct. If Judge Barrett is a dangerous idealogue, she has not provided her critics with evidence in this handful of cases.