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Fourth Circuit Affirms Maryland District Court’s Dismissal of Complaint Under Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692e, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)
Kharyn Ramsay v. Sawyer Property Management of Maryland
In Kharyn Ramsay v. Sawyer Property Management of Maryland, Plaintiff, Kharyn Ramsay (“Ramsay”) appealed the district court’s dismissal of her claims asserted under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 through 1692p. Specifically, Ramsay alleged that the rental agent for her former apartment and the agent’s attorney violated the FDCPA by placing language in two (2) court orders, which allegedly caused her to be confused about her obligation to appear at court proceedings. The district court dismissed Ramsay’s complaint, concluding under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) that Ramsay had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Upon review, the Fourth Circuit held that the rental agent was not a “debt collector” bound by the requirements of the FDCPA, and the language added to the court orders by the agent’s attorney was not “false, deceptive, or misleading” within the meaning of the FDCPA. Consequently, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.
By way of background, Ramsay was a tenant of certain residential property owned by SRH Woodmoor LLC (“Woodmoor”), and managed by Sawyer Property Management of Maryland, LLC (“Sawyer”). When Ramsay defaulted on her rent obligations, Sawyer obtained a judgment against Ramsay in Maryland state court in the amount of $1,540.84. Following Ramsay’s failure to pay the judgment amount, Sawyer hired Jeffrey Tapper, an attorney and collection agent licensed by the state of Maryland, to collect the debt from Ramsay. Pursuant to Maryland state court procedures, Tapper served Ramsay with a “DC/CV 32” court order, which was signed by a Maryland district court judge, and which directed Ramsay to appear in court for an oral examination regarding her assets and property. See Md. Rule § 3-633(b). After Ramsay failed to appear, Tapper obtained and served on Ramsey a “DC/CV 33” order from the court, requiring that she appear in court for a show cause hearing. Because Ramsay did not appear for the show cause hearing as ordered, the court found her in contempt of court. Ramsay was arrested later and released on her own recognizance.
On the portion of both orders completed by Tapper requesting court action, Tapper had used an “ink stamp” to add certain language (the stamped language). The stamped language, which was at issue in this case, stated:
Ramsay argued in the district court that: (1) the stamped language was deceptive, causing her to ignore both court orders, see 15 U.S.C. § 1692e; and (2) Sawyer improperly collected debts without obtaining a collection agency license as required by Maryland law, see 15 U.S.C. § 1692f. Ramsay also brought state law claims under the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act. According to Ramsay, Sawyer’s status as a debt collector was established by the fact that Sawyer was Woodmoor’s agent, and regularly acted in that capacity collecting money owed to its principal.
The district court dismissed Ramsay’s FDCPA claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, and dismissed those claims without prejudice. Ramsay appealed timely to the Fourth Circuit.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit disagreed with Ramsay’s argument, and determined that her argument was precluded by the FDCPA’s definition of “debt collector.” According to the Fourth Circuit, the FDCPA was enacted by Congress “to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692. Section 1692e generally prohibits “debt collectors” from using “any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt.” The FDCPA defines a “debt collector” as (1) “any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts,” or (2) any person “who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). Critically, the FDCPA excludes from the definition of “debt collector” “any person collecting or attempting to collect any debt owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another to the extent such activity . . . concerns a debt which was not in default at the time it was obtained by such person.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6)(F)(iii).
First, the appellate court explained that a rental agent generally “obtains” a debt when a lease is executed, which necessarily predates a default under the lease, unless the agent’s relationship with its principal begins at some later date. Carter v. AMC, LLC, 645 F.3d 840, 843 (7th Cir. 2011). Ramsay offered no contrary allegations that undermined the facts plain on the face of the lease document—namely, that Sawyer “obtained” Ramsay’s debt when she first signed the lease. Because Sawyer obtained Ramsay’s debt before the debt was in default, the appellate court determined that Sawyer was not a “debt collector” bound by the requirements of the FDCPA. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6)(F)(iii). Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not err in dismissing Ramsay’s FDCPA claims against Sawyer.
Second, the appellate court addressed Ramsay’s argument that Tapper violated the FDCPA by adding the stamped language to the DC/CV 32 and 33 court orders. In addition to the general prohibition that “[a] debt collector may not use any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt,” Section 1692e also specifies a non-exhaustive list of prohibited conduct. The Fourth Circuit explained that in evaluating claims under Section 1692e, it must determine whether a “least sophisticated consumer” would be misled or deceived by the communication. Absolute Collection Servs., 763 F.3d at 394. After performing an objective inquiry and examining the entirety of the documents on which the language appeared, the appellate court concluded that the stamped language did not reasonably render either document deceptive or misleading, within the meaning of Section 1692e, to a least sophisticated consumer. Rather, the Court opined that both documents plainly stated that they were orders of the court, and set forth both the name of the court and the signature of a judge. The orders directed Ramsay to appear in court in person on a specified date, and explicitly stated the potential penalties for failing to do so, including being held in contempt of court and being subject to arrest. Thus, the Court concluded that such a consumer would not reasonably have been deceived regarding the fact that the documents were court orders requiring the consumer to appear in court. Further, the Court disagreed with Ramsay’s alternative contention that the stamped language employed by Tapper was “false” because the documents were court orders, rather than communications from a debt collector. Tapper’s representation that the orders were “communications from a debt collector” was not false because the communications supplied the necessary information and Tapper took steps to ensure that the orders were entered by the court.
For these reasons, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court properly dismissed the Section 1692e claim against Tapper under Rule 12(b)(6), and affirmed the district court’s judgment dismissing Ramsay’s complaint.
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