On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Middlesex County, DC-987-07.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reisner, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 6, 2008
Before Judges Lisa, Reisner and Alvarez.
In this case, we hold that the venue section of the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Act), 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692i, requires that debt collection actions be filed either in the county where the debtor lives or in the county where the debtor signed the contract underlying the debt. We therefore reverse two October 15, 2007 motion orders which denied summary judgment to the debtor, third-party plaintiff Alter Fogel, and granted summary judgment in favor of the law firm he sued for violating the Act, third-party defendant Hayt, Hayt & Landau, L.L.C.
These are the most pertinent facts. On September 19, 1992 and October 25, 1993, Alter Fogel, then a student at Rutgers School of Law -- Newark, signed two $2000 promissory notes for repayment of student loans extended under the Federal Carl D. Perkins Loan program. Both promissory notes concerned debts for "personal, family, or household purposes," see 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692a(5), making their collection subject to the Act.
Although Rutgers University (Rutgers) has its central administrative offices in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey, Fogel attended law school in Newark, Essex County, New Jersey. Consequently, while both notes recited that Fogel would pay "Rutgers--The State University . . . located at New Brunswick," there is no dispute that Fogel signed the notes either in Brooklyn, New York, where he resided at the time, or in Newark, where the law school was located. Fogel's permanent Brooklyn address was included in both notes, enabling a debt collector to serve him there.
Fogel failed to repay the notes and, eventually, Rutgers sought to collect the debt. On December 28, 2006, Hayt, Hayt & Landau (HHL), representing Rutgers, filed a Special Civil Part complaint in Middlesex County, seeking to collect approximately $8000 plus additional interest, costs and counsel fees. HHL successfully served Fogel with the complaint at the same Brooklyn address listed in the loan documents.
Fogel filed a pro se answer to the complaint, asserting as one of his affirmative defenses that the action was filed in the wrong venue.*fn1 He also retained separate counsel to file a third-party complaint against HHL for violating his rights under the Act. In pertinent part, the third-party complaint alleged that HHL had engaged in unconscionable or unfair means to collect the debt by filing the action against Fogel in violation of the venue requirements of 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692i. Fogel sought damages and counsel fees, plus injunctive relief against future violations of the Act. See 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692k(a).*fn2
Fogel filed a motion for partial summary judgment as to liability only on the third-party complaint, and HHL cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing the third-party complaint.*fn3 On October 15, 2007, the Law Division judge denied Fogel's motion and granted HHL's motion. He reasoned that because the notes recited that Rutgers was located in New Brunwsick, Middlesex County, Fogel had "conceded . . . that's where the loan agreement was made for purposes of this action and that by signing the agreement and agreeing that Rutgers is a Middlesex County resident or entity [,] suit is properly brought in Middlesex County under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act."
We review the trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo, employing the same legal standard used by the motion judge: whether there are material facts in dispute and, if not, whether the undisputed facts viewed most favorably to the non-moving party nonetheless entitle the moving party to judgment as a matter of law. See Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998); Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). We owe no deference to a trial court's interpretation of the law. Manalapan Realty v. Manalapan Twp. Committee, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). While the material facts are undisputed on the venue issue, we disagree with the trial court's construction of the Act.
In adopting the Act, 15 U.S.C.A. §§ 1692 to 1692o, Congress left no doubt that its purpose was to protect debtors from abuse and that Congress perceived a need for national uniformity to fulfill that goal:
(a) Abusive practices. There is abundant evidence of the use of abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices by many debt collectors. Abusive debt collection practices contribute to the number of personal bankruptcies, to marital instability, to the loss of jobs, and to invasions of individual privacy.
(e) Purposes. It is the purpose of this title [15 U.S.C.S. §§ 1692 et seq.] 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.A. § 1692 (emphasis added).]
To further the goal of protecting consumers, the Act provides that, with the exception of actions concerning real estate, debt collectors must file collection actions where the consumer lives ...