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Beane v. RPW Legal Services, PLLC

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

May 6, 2019

KIMBERLY BEANE, Plaintiff,
v.
RPW LEGAL SERVICES, PLLC and ROBERT P. WILLIAMSON, Defendants.

          ORDER

          The Honorable Richard A. Jones United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Dkt. # 12) and Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. # 14). Both parties have responded to the others' motion, but neither has filed a reply. Dkt. ## 16, 17. For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART both motions. Dkt. ## 12, 14.

         II. BACKGROUND

         This case concerns Plaintiff Kimberly Beane's (“Plaintiff”) contacts with Defendant Robert P. Williamson (“Defendant” or “Mr. Williamson”), who is an attorney and solo practitioner at his law firm, Defendant RPW Legal Services, PLLC. Dkt. # 15, ¶ 1. In 2017, Mr. Williamson was hired by the Marysville Estates Property Owners' Association (“MEPOA”) to collect unpaid dues from Plaintiff, a property owner in the MEPOA neighborhood in Tulalip, WA. Id. at ¶ 9, Ex. A.

         On May 16, 2017, the MEPOA, through its attorney Mr. Williamson, filed suit against Plaintiff for monies due in Snohomish County District Court. Id., Ex. A. This lawsuit sought recovery in the amount of $2, 180.37 in allegedly unpaid annual assessments from 2005 to June 2017, including interest and late charges. Id. at ¶¶ 2.4-2.7.

         On September 12, 2017, Mr. Williamson sent Plaintiff a letter on his firm's letterhead, titled “Marysville Estates Property Owners' Association Assessment Collection, ” purportedly addressing “several objections to the Association's collection efforts.” Dkt. # 15, Ex. B. Mr. Williamson's letter indicated that the unpaid assessments charges now totaled $902.09 (as the MEPOA could only collect dues for the past six years), but this total “will increase” as Mr. Williamson's actions in the case proceeded to summary judgment. Id. at 1-2. Mr. Williamson stated that if Plaintiff was interested in “discussing any payment amount, to settle the assessment and collection fess charges, please call me.” Id. at 2.

         On October 9, 2017 Mr. Williamson sent Plaintiff another letter, also titled “Marysville Estates Property Owners' Association Assessment Collection, ” purportedly responding to Plaintiff's request for “verification” of the assessments owed to MEPOA. Dkt. # 15, Ex. C. Mr. Williamson included with this letter copies of the annual invoices sent to Plaintiff from 2014 to 2017, and a copy of Plaintiff's account spreadsheet. Id. The last page of this communication included a “Debt Validation Notice, ” which stated that the “Balance” of the debt was “approximately $3, 000.” Id. at 7. The “Debt Validation Notice” also stated that Plaintiff would have thirty (30) days to dispute the validity of the debt, otherwise “the debt will be assumed to be valid by any attorney or debt collector engaged to assist with collection of the debt.” Id. The footer of both the first and last pages of the letter included the following statement: “This letter, communication, or notice pertains to collection of a debt, and any information provided herein or obtained from you will be used for that purpose. I am acting as an attorney or debt collector for the creditor.” Id. at 1. This language was not present in the September 12, 2017 letter.

         On October 24, 2017, Mr. Williamson, acting on behalf of MEPOA, filed a motion for summary judgment in the Snohomish County District Court case. Dkt. # 15, Ex. D at 2-8. This motion argued that Plaintiff's account balance as of November 2017 was $910.11, and requested summary relief in this amount and attorney's fees. Id. at ¶¶ 2.7, 5.3. The same day, Mr. Williamson sent Plaintiff another letter, which included the motion and supporting materials. Id. at 1. This letter contained the same “Collection” subject line and footer language as the previous communication. Id. This letter did not contain any other information on the exact amount of the debt or Plaintiff's ability to contest the debt.

         On May 15, 2018, Plaintiff filed this suit against Defendants, alleging several violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq. (“FDCPA”). Dkt. # 1. Defendants answered and asserted a counterclaim against Plaintiff for filing the lawsuit in bad faith in violation of 15 USC § 1692k(a)(3). Dkt. # 5. On October 4, 2018, Plaintiff served a series of Requests for Admissions on Defendants. Dkt. # 13, Ex. A. After receiving these Requests, Mr. Williamson served his responses, and made several admissions on behalf of both Defendants, including that for (1) Plaintiff is a consumer; (2) Defendants attempted to collect a debt; and (3) Defendants were debt collectors. Dkt. # 13, Ex. B.

         On February 27, 2019, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on her FDCPA claims. Dkt. # 12. On March 12, 2019, Defendants countered with a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Standing. Dkt. # 14. Both motions are now before this Court.

         III. ANALYSIS

         This action is premised in large part on alleged violations of the FDCPA. Congress enacted the FDCPA to counter the “abusive, deceptive and unfair debt collection practices sometimes used by debt collectors against consumers.” Turner v. Cook, 362 F.3d 1219, 1226 (9th Cir. 2004). The FDCPA's restrictions on debt collectors run from the very broad (such as a prohibition on unfair or deceptive communication) to the very narrow (such as a prohibition on using post cards). Courts must give the Act a liberal interpretation. Clark v. Capital Credit & Collection Servs., Inc., 460 F.3d 1162, 1176 (9th Cir. 2006). The validity of the alleged debt does not bear on FDCPA violation analysis. Baker v. GC Serv. Corp., 677 F.2d 775, 777 (9th Cir. 1982).

         Because the FDCPA is a strict liability statute, a debt collector's intent to deceive or mislead a consumer is irrelevant. Clark, 460 F.3d at 1175. Courts apply the FDCPA using a “least sophisticated debtor” standard, which ensures that the “FDCPA protects all customers, the gullible as well as the shrewd … the ignorant, the unthinking, and the credulous.” Id. at 1171. “The ‘least sophisticated debtor' standard is ‘lower than simply examining whether particular language would deceive or mislead a reasonable debtor.'” Id. (quoting Terran, 109 F.3d at 1432). “Most courts agree that although the least sophisticated debtor may be uninformed, naive, and gullible, nonetheless [their] interpretation of a collection notice cannot be bizarre or unreasonable.” Evon v. Law Offices of Sidney Mickell, 688 F.3d 1015, 1027 (9th Cir. 2012). The “least sophisticated consumer” standard presents a lower bar for a plaintiff to overcome than does the familiar “reasonable person” standard. Terran v. Kaplan, 109 F.3d 1428, 1431-32 (9th Cir. 1997).

         Here, Plaintiff identifies three alleged violations of the FDCPA. Dkt. # 1 at ¶¶ 10-12; Dkt. # 12 at 6-7. First, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated Section 1692e(11) by sending an initial communication to Plaintiff in an attempt to collect a debt without disclosing they were debt collectors. Dkt. # 1 at ¶ 11; Dkt. # 12 at 6. Second, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated Section 1692g(a) by failing to timely provide a validation notice of the debt and including “a balance statement that was uncertain.” Dkt. # 1 at ¶ 10.[1] Finally, Plaintiff claims that Defendants violated Section 1692g(b) by filing a motion for summary judgment for the debt in question within thirty (30) days of the Validation Notice, thereby “overshadowing” Plaintiff's right to contest the debt ...


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