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Empie v. Medical Society Business Services Incorporated

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 9, 2014

Aaron Empie, Plaintiff,
Medical Society Business Services Incorporated, Defendant.


BRIDGET S. BADE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Aaron Empie (Empie or Plaintiff), and Defendant Medical Society Business Services Incorporated (Defendant), have filed cross motions for partial judgment on the pleadings, under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on Count III of the Complaint in which Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated section § 1692e of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). (Docs. 29, 33.) As set forth below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion and grants Defendant's motion.

I. Judgment on the Pleadings Standard

Under Rule 12(c), a party may move for judgment on the pleadings "[a]fter the pleadings are closed - but early enough not to delay trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) The standard governing a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is "functionally identical" to that governing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Caffaso, S. ex rel. v. Gen. Dynamics C4 Sys., Inc., 637 F.3d 1047, 1054-55 n.4 (9th Cir. 2011). When analyzing a Rule 12(c) motion, the court accepts the nonmovant's allegations as true, see Hal Roach Studios v. Richard Feiner & Co., Inc., 896 F.2d 1542, 1550 (9th Cir. 1989), and construes factual allegations in a complaint in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Fleming v. Pickard, 581 F.3d 922, 925 (9th Cir. 2009). "Judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is proper when the moving party establishes on the face of the pleadings that there is no material issue of fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Jensen Family Farms, Inc. v. Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control Dist., 644 F.3d 934, 937 n.1 (9th Cir. 2011). Although a court may not consider matters outside the pleadings in ruling on a Rule 12(c) motion, a document is not considered "outside" the complaint if the complaint attaches the document and if the authenticity of the document is not questioned. Cooper v. Pickett, 137 F.3d 616, 622 (9th Cir. 1997).

II. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The FDCPA is a remedial statute designed to "eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors, to insure that those debt collectors who refrain from using abusive debt collection practices are not competitively disadvantaged, and to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses." 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). The FDCPA regulates the conduct of debt collectors, imposing affirmative obligations and prohibiting abusive practices. See 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692-1692p.

The FDCPA does not ordinarily require proof of an intentional violation and is a strict liability statute. See McCollough v. Johnson, Rodenburg & Lauinger, LLC, 637 F.3d 939, 948 (9th Cir. 2011). Moreover, even a single violation of the act is sufficient to support liability. See Taylor v. Perrin, Landry, deLaunay & Durand, 103 F.3d 1232, 1238 (5th Cir. 1997). Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is empowered to enforce the FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 l, aggrieved individuals are also authorized to bring suit under this statute. See Camacho v. Bridgeport Fin., Inc., 523 F.3d 973, 978 (9th Cir. 2008) (noting that the FDCPA is a fee shifting statute to encourage private enforcement of the law).

To establish a violation of the FDCPA, a plaintiff must establish that (1) he is a consumer as defined in 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(3); (2) the defendant is a debt collector as defined in 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6); and (3) the defendant engaged in any act or omission in violation of the FDCPA. See Isham v. Gurstel, Staloch & Chargo, P.A., 738 F.Supp.2d 986, 991-92 (D. Ariz. 2010) (discussing the FDCPA). The parties do not dispute that Plaintiff is a consumer and that Defendant is a debt collector under the FDCPA. (Doc. 33 at 3.) However, as set forth below, the parties dispute whether Defendant's conduct violated the FDCPA.

III. Plaintiff's § 1692e Claim - False or Misleading Representations

Plaintiff alleges that Defendant's collection letters violated § 1692e, which prohibits the "use [of] any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt." 15 U.S.C. § 1692e. That section includes a non-exhaustive list of examples of proscribed conduct, including "the use or distribution of any written communication which simulates or is falsely represented to be a document authorized, issued, or approved by any court, official, or agency of the United States or any State, or which creates a false impression as to its source, authorization, or approval." Id. at § 1692(e)(9).

Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant sent him debt collection letters from the "Bureau of Medical Economics" and that these letters violated the FDCPA because they would likely mislead the least sophisticated consumer to believe that Defendant was affiliated with the government. (Doc. 1 at 6.) Plaintiff asserts that he is not arguing that Defendant's collection letters violated § 1692(e) "just because it calls itself the Bureau of Medical Economics, " or "merely because its name has the word bureau' in it." (Doc. 35 at 1 and 5.) Instead, Plaintiff argues that based on Defendant's name, and the absence of "any indication to alleviate the potential for misunderstanding, " the least sophisticated debtor could conclude that the word "bureau" in Defendant's name indicates affiliation with the federal or a state government. (Doc. 29 at 5-8; Doc. 35 at 5.)

A. The "Least Sophisticated Debtor" Standard

"Whether conduct violates [§] 1692e... requires an objective analysis that takes into account whether the least sophisticated debtor would likely be misled by a communication.'" Donohue v. Quick Collect, Inc., 592 F.3d 1027, 1030 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Guerrero v. RJM Acquisitions LLC, 499 F.3d 926, 934 (9th Cir. 2007)); see also Swanson v. S. Or. Credit Serv., Inc., 869 F.2d 1222, 1227 (9th Cir. 1988). In the Ninth Circuit, a debt collector's liability under § 1692e of the FDCPA is a question of law. Terran v. Kaplan, 109 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1997). The "least sophisticated debtor" standard is "lower than simply examining whether particular language would deceive or mislead a reasonable debtor." Terran, 109 F.3d at 1432.

The standard is "designed to protect consumers of below average sophistication or intelligence, " or those who are "uninformed or naive, " particularly when those individuals are targeted by debt collectors. Duffy v. Landberg, 215 F.3d 871, 874-75 (8th Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the standard also "preserv[es] a quotient of reasonableness and presum[es] a basic level of understanding and willingness to read with care." Rosenau v. Unifund Corp., 539 F.3d 218, 221 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal citation ...

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