United States District Court, D. New Jersey
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
For DANIEL BOCK, JR., Plaintiff: PHILIP D. STERN, PHILIP D. STERN ATTORNEY AT LAW, LLC, MAPLEWOOD, NJ.
For PRESSLER AND PRESSLER, LLP, Defendant: MITCHELL L WILLIAMSON, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRESSLER & PRESSLER, LLP, Parsippany, NJ.
HON. KEVIN MCNULTY, United States District Judge.
The Plaintiff, Daniel Bock, Jr., ran up charges on a credit card and owed money to the issuer bank. His debt was purchased by Midland Funding LLC (" Midland" ), which in turn engaged Defendant Pressler and Pressler (" Pressler" ) to collect the debt. Pressler sent Bock a collection letter, and then, on Midland's behalf, filed a complaint against Bock in the Superior Court of New Jersey. That state action was settled, but while it was pending, Bock brought this federal court action against Pressler. Here, Bock alleges that Pressler made a false or misleading representation in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (" FDCPA" ), 15 U.S.C. § 1692e, by filing the state complaint without meaningful review by an attorney. Now before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.
FDCPA prohibits a broad range of false, misleading or overreaching tactics in connection with the collection of a debt. See generally 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. ; McLaughlin v. Phelan Hallinan & Schmieg, LLP, No. 13-2015, 756 F.3d 240,
(3d Cir. June 26, 2014). Case law establishes that it is false and misleading, within the meaning of FDCPA, for an attorney to send a debt collection letter without having meaningfully reviewed the case. See Lesher v. Law Offices of Mitchell N. Kay, PC, 650 F.3d 993, 1001-1003 (3d Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1143, 181 L.Ed.2d 1030 (2012). One issue in this case is whether a civil complaint filed in court, like a collection letter, is governed by the FDCPA. Although there are cogent policy arguments for limiting the scope of the FDCPA, I am constrained by the language of the statute, as interpreted by the Third Circuit and other U.S. Courts of Appeals, to hold that a complaint is not exempt from its scope.
The process by which Pressler prepares complaints almost entirely involves automation and non-attorney personnel. There is nothing wrong with that; the FDCPA does not mandate drudgery or enshrine outmoded business methods. The state court complaint filed in the state action here, however, was reviewed by an attorney for approximately four seconds. The case law is sparse, and it is possible for reasonable people to disagree as to what constitutes reasonable attorney review. But whatever reasonable attorney review may be, a four-second scan is not it.
Applying the law to the substantially undisputed facts, I find that Pressler violated the FDCPA when it signed, filed, and served a state-court complaint against Bock without substantial attorney review.
1. Procedural Background
Pressler is a law firm based in Parsippany, New Jersey. It specializes in collection law and is a debt collector within the meaning of FDCPA. Pressler was retained by a creditor, Midland, to pursue a debt owed by Bock that allegedly exceeded $8,021.57.
Pressler opened an electronic file concerning Bock's debt on September 12, 2011. (Pressler's L. Civ. R. 56.1 Statement at ¶ 2). Then, on September 15, 2011, it mailed an initial collection letter to Bock. ( Id. at ¶ 3). The letter requested that he pay the $8,021.57. The letter, although it was on attorney letterhead, contained a disclaimer: " As of this time, no attorney with this firm has personally reviewed the particular circumstances of your account." Bock did not respond and did not remit any funds. (Certification of Mitchell L. Williamson, Esq. at Ex. A).
On October 21, 2011, Pressler commenced a collection action against Bock by filing a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Special Civil Part. (Pressler's Statement at ¶ 4). The complaint was signed on behalf of Pressler by Ralph Gulko, Esq., " the attorney who reviewed, read, and signed the complaint." ( Id. at ¶ 4-5). That one-page complaint states:
It [ i.e., the plaintiff, Midland Funding LLC] is now the owner of the defendant(s) HSBC BANK NEVADA, N.A.
account number 5458001561298245 which is now in default. There is due plaintiff from the defendant(s) DANIEL BOCK JR the sum of $8,021.57 plus interest from 05/31/2010 to 10/20/2011 in the amount of $102.98 for a total of $8,124.55.
WHEREFORE, plaintiff demands judgment for the sum of $8,124.55 plus accruing interest to the date of judgment plus costs.
(Williamson Cert. at Ex. B).
That form complaint generally refers to " an account" by number and a corporate bank name. In fact it is a MasterCard revolving credit account, although that fact ...