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Jones v. Economic Recovery Consultants, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, El Dorado Division

August 14, 2018

HEATHER JONES a/k/a HEATHER DEMPSEY, individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated PLAINTIFF


          Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge

         Before the Court is a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by Defendant Economic Recovery Consultants, Inc. (“Defendant”). ECF No. 7. Plaintiff has filed a response. ECF No. 13. The Court finds this matter ripe for its consideration. For the reasons explained below, Defendant's motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action arises under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692, et seq. (“FDCPA”). Defendant is a “debt collector” within the meaning of FDCPA, with its principal place of business in Searcy, Arkansas. ECF No. 1, ¶ 6. According to the Complaint, Plaintiff allegedly incurred a debt to Ouachita County Medical Center (“Ouachita Medical”) for medical services provided to Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 20. Defendant contracted with Ouachita Medical to collect the alleged debt. Id. at ¶ 23. On January 31, 2018, Plaintiff received a collection letter from Defendant demanding payment on her past due account with Ouachita Medical. Id. at ¶ 25. The top paragraph of the letter reads “Please be advised that your account has been assigned to [Defendant]. You are directed to address all future correspondence and payments concerning this account to the address below.” Id. at ¶ 30. Plaintiff alleges, however, that the letter “fails to provide any address below this language where the consumer can dispute or get information about the debt.” Id. at ¶ 31. It is further alleged that the only information below the paragraph is a phone number for Defendant's collection department. Id. at ¶ 31.

         On April 27, 2018, Plaintiff, on behalf of herself and all other similarly situated consumers, filed a putative class action complaint against Defendant, alleging two violations of the FDCPA stemming from the collection letter. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant “made deceptive and misleading representations when [it] sought to collect a debt from Plaintiff but failed to provide an address where [it] could be contacted, in violation of 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 and 1692e(10).” Id. at ¶ 37. In addition, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant violated 15 U.S.C. § 1692g because the letter failed “to clearly display the address to send disputes” and only provided a phone number, thereby causing consumers' rights to be limited. Id. at 42.

         On June 6, 2018, Defendant filed the instant motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), arguing that Plaintiffs allegations regarding the collection letter are unsupported by the contents of the letter. Specifically, Defendant asserts that its address is listed below the directive to “address all future correspondence and payments concerning this account to the address below.” Defendant further contends that its address is listed at the top of the letter. According to Defendant, an unsophisticated consumer would not be misled as to its mailing address. Thus, the letter is not deceptive or violative of the FDCPA as a matter of law, according to Defendant. With this background in mind, the Court will turn to the merits of the instant motion.


         For a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c), a court shall apply the same legal standard as it does for a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Ashley Cnty., Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009). A pleading must state “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). To meet this standard and to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint need only state factual allegations sufficient to raise a right to relief above the speculative level that is plausible on its face. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, courts are required to accept all of the complaint's well-pled allegations as true and resolve all inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Miller v. Redwood Toxicology Lab., Inc., 688 F.3d 928, 933 n.4 (8th Cir. 2012). However, this tenet does not apply to legal conclusions, “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, ” or naked assertions which are so indeterminate as to require further factual enhancement. Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 594 (8th Cir. 2009). “Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate only when there is no dispute as to any material facts and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Wishnatsky v. Rovner, 433 F.3d 608, 610 (8th Cir. 2006).

         When considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a court must generally ignore all materials outside the pleadings. Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999). However, courts may consider “some materials that are part of the public record or do not contradict the complaint . . . as well as materials that are necessarily embraced by the pleadings.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, the Court will decide the instant motion under the Rule 12(b)(6) standard.


         A. Whether the Complaint Fails to State a Claim Under 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(10)

         Defendant first argues that it is entitled to judgment on the pleadings as to Count I of Plaintiff's Complaint. Count I of the Complaint alleges that Defendant violated 15 U.S.C. § 1692e, which prohibits debt collectors from using “any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692e. Section 1962e(10) makes it unlawful to use “any false representation or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect any debt or to obtain information concerning a consumer.” “In evaluating whether a debt collection letter is false, misleading or deceptive, the letter must be viewed through the eyes of the unsophisticated consumer.” Duffy v. Landberg, 215 F.3d 871, 873 (8th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). “This standard is designed to protect consumers of below average sophistication or intelligence without having the standard tied to the very last rung on the sophistication ladder.” Haney v. Portfolio Recovery Assocs., L.L.C., No. 15-1932, 2016 WL 11265606, at *4 (8th Cir. Sept. 21, 2016) (citations and quotations omitted). Although the standard “protects the uninformed or naive consumer . . . [it] also contains an objective element of reasonableness to protect debt collectors from liability for peculiar interpretations of collection letters.” Id. “Language in a debt-collection letter cannot be viewed in isolation; the letter must be viewed ‘as a whole' to determine whether it runs afoul of the FDCPA.” Hubbell v. Am. Accounts & Advisors, Inc., No. 13-1157, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160315, at *6 (D. Minn. Oct. 7, 2013) (citing Adams v. J.C. Christensen & Assocs., Inc., 777 F.Supp.2d 1193, 1196 (D. Minn. 2011)).

         In the instant motion, Defendant takes the position that “no reasonable consumer could be harassed, misled or deceived as to [its] mailing address by the contents” of the letter. ECF No. 8, p. 7. In support of this position, Defendant points to a payment slip located at the bottom of the letter which directs the recipient, in bold text, to “detach and return with your payment.” ECF No. 8-1. Defendant maintains further that its mailing address is also located in the top left corner of the letter. Id. In addition, Defendant asserts that its local and toll-free telephone numbers are printed at the top and in the body of the letter, and its ...

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