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The Little Guy Loses: SCOTUS Decides Clapper, Marx

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 26, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court ruled against Amnesty International and a delinquent debtor this morning, dispelling any misconceived notions that the plight of the little guy can melt the cold heart of justice.

In two split decisions, the Court decided journalists, lawyers and human rights groups cannot challenge a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendment, and that a woman who defaulted on her student loans owes court costs after bringing a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) claim against a debt collector.

The FISA decision, Clapper et al v. Amnesty International et al, stemmed from a challenge to a federal law which allowed the government to use electronic surveillance to monitor the international communications of people -- including American citizens on U.S. soil -- suspected of having ties to terrorist groups. In 2011, a Second Circuit panel ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to pursue their case because they had demonstrated reasonable fear that their communications would be monitored and had taken "costly measures to avoid being monitored."

The government petitioned the Supreme Court to review that decision, arguing that plaintiffs must prove they're being monitored under the program for the suit more forward.

Tuesday, Justice Samuel Alito explained for the 5-4 majority that the groups didn't have legal standing to sue because they could not show they had suffered any injury, Reuters reports. Alito went on to write that the groups' claims were based on a "highly speculative fear" that the government would target their communications.

The second opinion of the day, Marx v. General Revenue Corporation, will likely dissuade debtors from pursuing FDCPA claims.

After appellant Olivea Marx defaulted on her student loan, General Revenue Corporation (GRC) tried to collect on the account. Marx later sued, alleging that GRC violated the FDCPA by making abusive and threatening phone calls and sending a facsimile to her workplace. The district court, after a one-day trial, found that the challenged collection practices were neither abusive nor threatening, and ordered Marx to pay $4,500 in costs to GRC.

Marx moved to vacate the award, arguing that the court's discretion under FRCP 54(d)(1) was displaced by 15 USC §1692k(a)(3), which says "on a finding by the court that an action under this section was brought in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment, the court may award to the defendant attorney's fees reasonable in relation to the work expended and costs." The Supreme Court disagreed.

In a 7-2 opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court held "Had Congress intended the second sentence of §1692k(a)(3) to displace Rule 54(d)(1), it could have easily done so by using the word 'only' be­fore setting forth the condition 'on a finding by the court that an action ... was brought in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment,'" Courthouse News Service reports.

All in all, not such a good day for the legal little guys.

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