The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a collection agency with no financial stake in a case can sue on behalf of its customers. The 5-4 decision addresses a basic legal point, that courts can only hear cases when plaintiffs suffer actual injuries that are traceable to a defendant's conduct.

In the case, APCC Services Inc. is trying to collect from Sprint Communications Co. and AT&T Inc. for coinless long-distance calls over the networks of Sprint and AT&T. APCC offers billing and collection services on behalf of pay-phone service providers.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said APCC may pursue the claim, even though it has promised to turn over any money from the lawsuit to pay-phone service providers. A federal appeals court said the case could go forward because the pay-phone providers transferred the compensation claims to the collection agency and agreed to finance APCC's lawsuit. Breyer said that for centuries courts have found ways to allow those to whom compensation claims are assigned to bring suit.

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said APCC has "nothing to gain from their lawsuit" and that under settled legal principles, that fact required dismissal of their complaint. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined the dissent.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that pay-phone companies that complained they had not been adequately compensated could sue long-distance carriers. The case is Sprint v. APCC, 07-552.

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