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Hageman v. Barton

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

October 17, 2014

GREG HAGEMAN, Plaintiff,


CAROL E. JACKSON, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the motions of defendant Dennis J. Barton, III, to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim for relief. Plaintiff has filed responses in opposition to the motions and the issues are fully briefed.

I. Background[1]

Plaintiff Greg Hageman challenges actions taken by defendant to collect a debt allegedly owed for medical services plaintiff received at St. Anthony's Medical Center. Roger Weiss and Consumer Adjustment Company, Inc. (CACI), who were named as defendants in this case, [2] acquired St. Anthony's medical debts, pursuant to Mo.Rev.Stat. §425.300. Compl. ¶¶ 17, 24. Approximately 30 days before October 26, 2012, Barton contacted plaintiff by mail and telephone to collect the debt, stating that he represented St. Anthony's. Id . ¶¶ 26-27. On October 26, 2012, Barton filed a lawsuit styled "St. Anthony's Medical Center v. Gregory Hageman" in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, seeking payment for services valued at $1, 510.35 and stating that demand for payment had been made on December 12, 2011. Id . ¶ 34; Def. Ex. A, Petition on Account ¶¶ 7-8 [Doc. #22-1]. On December 5, 2012, default judgment was entered against plaintiff in the principal amount of $1, 510.35 plus interest in the amount of $135.56. Def. Ex. B, Judgment [Doc. #22-2]. Plaintiff alleges that the default judgment was improper because Barton brought suit in St. Anthony's name when he was acting on behalf of Weiss and CACI. He further alleges that the interest charge in the default judgment was "illicit" because it was based on a false demand date and because plaintiff's agreement with St. Anthony's did not allow for interest and penalty charges. Compl. ¶¶ 36, 38-40, 42-44, 46.

On March 26, 2013, Barton filed the St. Louis County judgment in the Circuit Court of Madison County, Illinois, and initiated garnishment of plaintiff's wages. Def. Exs. C & D [Docs. #22-3 & #22-4]. Plaintiff asserts that the garnishment proceedings were improper because he does not live or work in Madison County, Illinois, and because Barton improperly purported to be collecting a debt on behalf of St. Anthony's. ¶¶ 49-50, 52-54. On December 4, 2013, the Madison County Circuit Court entered a wage deduction judgment against plaintiff's employer in Columbia, Illinois and imposed a lien on plaintiff's wages in the amount of $2, 068.96. Def. Ex. D. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Barton improperly deposited the garnished wages into his own bank account. ¶¶ 67-68.

Plaintiff learned in December 2013 that Barton did not actually represent St. Anthony's and filed this action, asserting claims for violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 et seq. (Count I), for abuse of process (Count II) and conversion (Count III).

II. Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction

Defendant argues that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.[3] District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman , 460 U.S. 462 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co. , 263 U.S. 413 (1923). Under this doctrine, federal district courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction in actions seeking review and rejection of state court judgments. Skit Int'l, Ltd. v. DAC Technologies of Arkansas, Inc. , 487 F.3d 1154, 1157 (8th Cir. 2007). However, the doctrine does not bar federal district courts from considering claims "attacking an adverse party's actions in obtaining and enforcing that [state-court] decision." MSK EyEs Ltd. v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. , 546 F.3d 533, 539 (8th Cir. 2008). Thus, "[i]f a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly erroneous decision by a state court, and seeks relief from a state court judgment based on that decision, Rooker-Feldman bars subject matter jurisdiction in federal district court. If, on the other hand, a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly illegal act or omission by an adverse party, Rooker-Feldman does not bar jurisdiction." Riehm v. Engelking , 538 F.3d 952, 965 (8th Cir. 2008). Consequently, Rooker-Feldman does not bar an FDCPA claim challenging only a defendant's debt-collection practices, without challenging the validity of the state-court judgment. See, e.g., Ness v. Gurstel Chargo, P.A., 933 F.Supp.2d 1156, 1162 (D. Minn. 2013) (listing cases); Smith v. Kramer & Frank, P.C., 4:09CV802 FRB, 2009 WL 4725285, at *2-3 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 2, 2009) (rejecting Rooker-Feldman challenge to FDCPA claims).

Here, plaintiff alleges that defendant violated the FDCPA by filing lawsuits allegedly on behalf of St. Anthony's when CACI and Weiss were the real parties in interest; attempting to collect amounts that included an inflated principal balance, and inflated and illusory interest charges and costs; filing suit against him in an improper judicial district; garnishing funds "under the guise that the garnishor was St. Anthony's Medical Center;" and engaging in false, deceptive, harassing, and unfair conduct while representing that St. Anthony's, rather than CACI and Weiss, was the real party in interest. These allegations attack defendant's practices in collecting debts rather than the underlying state-court judgments and are not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction will be denied.

III. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. The factual allegations of a complaint are assumed true and construed in favor of the plaintiff, "even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007) (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A. , 534 U.S. 506, 508 n.1 (2002)); Neitzke v. Williams , 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989) ("Rule 12(b)(6) does not countenance... dismissals based on a judge's disbelief of a complaint's factual allegations"); Scheuer v. Rhodes , 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974) (a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it appears "that a recovery is very remote and unlikely"). The issue is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether the plaintiff is entitled to present evidence in support of his claim. Id . A viable complaint must include "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. , 550 U.S. at 570. See also id. at 563 ("no set of facts" language in Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), "has earned its retirement.") "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 555.

When ruling on a motion to dismiss, a court generally may not consider matters outside the pleadings. Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp. , 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999) (citations omitted). It may, however, consider some public records, materials that do not contradict the complaint, exhibits attached to the pleadings, or materials that are necessarily embraced by the complaint. Mills v. City of Grand Forks , 614 F.3d 495, 498 (8th Cir. 2010). In this case, defendant filed copies of St. Anthony's assignment of its claim to CACI; the judgment entered in the St. Louis County Circuit Court; and documents filed in the Madison County Circuit Court garnishment action. The court documents are public records that the Court may consider in ruling on the motion to dismiss and the debt assignment is material necessarily embraced by plaintiff's complaint and it, too, may be considered.

A. FDCPA Claims

Plaintiff alleges that defendant's conduct violated the following sections of the FDCPA: § 1692d (barring debt collectors from engaging in harassment or abuse); § 1692e (prohibiting debt collectors from using "any false, deceptive, or misleading representations or means in connection with collection of any debt"); § 1692f (barring "unfair practices" including, as relevant here, collecting any amount not authorized by the agreement creating the debt or authorized by law); and § 1692i(a)(B) ...

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