United States District Court, D. New Jersey
JESSICA NAPOLITANO, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
RAGAN & RAGAN, A Professional Corporation and JOHN DOES 1-25, Defendants.
WOLFSON, United States District Judge:
Ragan & Ragan (“Defendant”), pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), moves for Judgment on the Pleadings with
respect to Plaintiff Jessica Napolitano's
(“Plaintiff”) Complaint, which accuses Defendant
of violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
(“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. §§1692 et
seq. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated the FDCPA
when it mailed four collection letters on its law firm letter
head with electronically produced, facsimile attorney
signatures that were in fact not “from” an
attorney in any meaningful sense. In the instant matter,
Defendant seeks dismissal, arguing, inter alia, that
Plaintiff has not established Article III standing or stated
a claim under the FDCPA. Plaintiff opposes Defendant's
Motion, and cross-moves to amend her Complaint. For the
reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS
Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and
DENIES Plaintiff's Cross-Motion to Amend
the Complaint. However, in lieu of dismissal, Plaintiff may
file, before the Magistrate Judge, a second motion for leave
to amend her Complaint.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
point prior to July 8, 2014, an obligation was incurred by
Plaintiff, owed to “various medical facilities, i.e.,
Kimball Medical Center and Community Medical Center.”
Compl., ¶ 14. Also prior to that date, the debt incurred
by Plaintiff was assigned, or sold, to Senex Services Corp.
(“Senex”). Id. at ¶ 15. As alleged,
Defendant, a law firm, was in the business of collecting
debts incurred for personal, family, or household purposes on
behalf of creditors. Id. at ¶ 20.
mailed Plaintiff four substantially similar collection
letters, generic in form, dated July 8, 2014. Id. at
¶¶ 21-22, 25. Each of the collection letters were
printed on Defendant's law firm letterhead stating:
“This is to advise you that we have been retained by a
creditor for the collection of this debt.” Id.
at ¶ 21; see Montoya Decl. Ex. A. Furthermore,
all four letters informed Plaintiff that she has
“received a previous letter from this office. Be
advised that there was an error in the previous letter and it
should be ignored. This letter contains the correct
information.” Id. at ¶ 24. The letters
also stated the amount due to Defendant on behalf of a
particular creditor, as well as the creditor account number
and Defendant's file numbers. Id. at ¶ 25.
Lastly, and most importantly, the collection letters all bore
a mechanically reproduced, facsimile signature of W. Peter
Ragan, Jr., an attorney at Defendant's law firm.
Id. at ¶ 26; see Montoya Decl. Ex. A.
April 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed this putative class action,
one-count Complaint, individually and on behalf of a class of
all others similarly situated, id. at ¶¶
4, 11, alleging that Defendant violated §§ 1692e,
1692e(3), and 1692e(9) of the FDCPA by mailing collection
letters on its firm letterhead, containing an attorney
signature without it being “from” an attorney in
any meaningful sense. Id. at ¶¶ 27, 30-35.
To that end, Plaintiff alleges that, “[t]he collection
letters created the false and misleading impression that the
communications were from an attorney when, in fact, they were
not really ‘from' an attorney in any meaningful
sense of the word.” Id. at ¶ 27. Stated
differently, Plaintiff's sole theory of the case is that
the form letters, containing the electronically reproduced
attorney signature, give the semblance that the attorney who
signed the letter personally reviewed Plaintiff's file,
when in reality he did not conduct any meaningful review
before signing the letters. Based on that conduct, Plaintiff
alleges that Defendant's debt collection efforts violated
15 U.S.C. §§ 1692e, 1692e(3), and 1692e(9) of the
FDCPA. Id. at ¶ 31.
filed its Answer on June 12, 2015, denying the allegations in
Plaintiff's Complaint. As an affirmative defense,
Defendant claims that Plaintiff lacked standing to bring suit
because neither she nor the putative class had suffered an
injury-in-fact. Def.'s Answer, p. 6. The Magistrate
Judge, on September 10, 2015, entered a Scheduling Order,
which set a deadline of November 13, 2015, to file a motion
to amend the pleadings. The Scheduling Order also initially
set discovery to close by February 26, 2016.
engaging in dispositive motion practice, discovery commenced.
While some issues with respect to discovery arose, the
Magistrate Judge scheduled a settlement conference on March
28, 2016, and intended to extend discovery deadlines if the
matter did not settle. Ultimately, the parties were unable to
settle. Thereafter, the Magistrate Judge permitted Defendant
to file its Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings on May 27,
2016, and stayed discovery pending a decision on this motion.
Plaintiff then sought consent from this Court to file an
amended complaint. I denied that request, and directed
Plaintiff to file a motion for leave to amend the complaint.
instant matter, Defendant move for judgment on the pleadings,
arguing that Plaintiff lacks standing to bring suit, and that
Plaintiff failed to state a claim under the FDCPA. In
response, Plaintiff opposed Defendant's motion, and at
the same time, cross-moved to amend the Complaint under Rule
15(a). I will first address Plaintiff's
cross-motion to amend, before discussing standing and the
merits of Plaintiff's claims.
Motion to Amend
cross-moves for leave to amend the Complaint to include
additional facts to bolster standing allegations and her
claims under the FDCPA. With regard to standing, because I
find that Plaintiff has standing to bring suit, see
infra, no additional allegations are necessary in that
regard. As to Plaintiff's request to amend her FDCPA
claims, the decision to grant or deny leave to amend a
complaint lies within the discretion of the district court.
Coventry v. U.S. Steel Corp., 856 F.2d 514, 518 (3d
Cir. 1988). This discretion is broad pursuant to Fed R. Civ.
P. 15(a). See Phillips v. Greben, No.
04-5590, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 78419, at *15 (D.N.J. Oct. 27,
2006); Posey v. NJR Clean Energy Ventures Corp., No.
14-6833, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146688, *5-6 (D.N.J. Oct. 29,
considering a motion to amend, “[t]he Supreme Court has
instructed that although 'the grant or denial of an
opportunity to amend is within the discretion of the District
Court, . . . outright refusal to grant the leave without any
justifying reason appearing for the denial is not an exercise
of discretion; it is merely an abuse of that discretion and
inconsistent with the spirit of the Federal
Rules.'” Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113,
115 (3d. Cir. 2000) (quoting Foman v. Davis, 371
U.S. 178, 182 (1962)). Nonetheless, a court may deny a
plaintiff leave to amend for a variety of reasons, including
undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, prejudice and
futility. In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig.,
114 F.3d 1410, 1434 (3d Cir. 1997); Alston v.
Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). Under Third
Circuit precedent, a “futile” amendment is one
that fails to state a claim upon which relief could be
granted. In re Burlington, 114 F.3d at 1434;
Grayson v. Mayview State Hospital, 293 F.3d 103, 113
(3d Cir. 2002). Thus, in determining whether a complaint, as
amended, is futile, the district court must apply the
sufficiency standard set forth under Rule 12(b)(6).
Shane, 213 F.3d at 115. “Accordingly, if a
claim is vulnerable to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), but the
plaintiff moves to amend, leave to amend generally must be
granted unless the amendment would not cure the
deficiency.” Id; Marrin v. Capital Health
Sys., No. 14-2558, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10243, at *10
(D.N.J. Jan. 29, 2015).
on Plaintiff's motion to amend, Defendant does not argue,
and the Court does not find, that any undue delay, dilatory
motive or prejudice exists. Instead, Defendant argues that
Plaintiff's proposed amendments as to standing under
Article III are futile. Because I find that Plaintiff has
standing based on Plaintiff's original Complaint, see
infra, I need not discuss Defendant's arguments in
this regard. However, the Court must still consider whether
Plaintiff's proposed amendments as to her substantive
FDCPA claims meet the futility standard. I will address that
question later in this Opinion. Next, I turn to the issue of
Rule 12(c) - Standard of Review
12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a party
to move for judgment on the pleadings “after the
pleadings are closed but within such time as not to delay
trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The standard that a court
applies on such a motion is the same standard that a court
applies in deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule
12(b)(6). Turbe v. Government of Virgin Islands, 938
F.2d 427 (3d Cir. 1991); see also Spruill v. Gillis,372 F.3d 218, 223 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2004) (“There is no
material difference in the applicable legal
standards”). When reviewing a motion to dismiss on the
pleadings, courts “accept all factual allegations as
true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to
the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable
reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to
relief.” Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515
F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal citation and
quotations omitted); see also McTernan v. City of