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Garner v. Barton

United States District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division

March 12, 2015

DIAN GARNER, Plaintiff,
DENNIS J. BARTON, III, et al., Defendants.



This matter is before the Court on the motion of defendant Dennis J. Barton, III, to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and for failure to state a claim, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Also before the Court is the plaintiff’s motion for leave to file a second amendment complaint.[1] The issues are fully briefed.

I. Background

After plaintiff became indebted to St. Anthony’s Medical Center for medical services she received, she entered into a payment agreement with the hospital. At some point prior to January 25, 2013, St. Anthony’s assigned the plaintiff’s debt to defendants Roger Weiss and/ or Consumer Adjustment Company, Inc. (CACI). At all relevant times defendant Barton was the attorney and agent for Weiss and CACI.

On January 25, 2013, Barton filed a lawsuit styled “St. Anthony’s Medical Center v. Dian Garner” in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, to recover $731.45, the amount plaintiff allegedly owed to the hospital. Plaintiff alleges that she never received notice of the lawsuit and, as a result, on March 6, 2013, a default judgment was entered against her for the principal amount of the debt plus accrued interest of $88.01 and post-judgment interest at the rate of 9% annually. Wage garnishment proceedings ensued, resulting in plaintiff’s loss of $1, 984.39. Plaintiff alleges that Barton deposited the garnished funds into his own account.

In Count I of the second amended complaint, plaintiff claims that the defendants violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692, et seq., by (1) bringing the lawsuit and garnishment proceedings in St. Anthony’s name when, in reality, he was acting on behalf of Weiss and CACI; (2) falsely representing that he represented St. Anthony’s; and (3) collecting interest and penalty charges that were not authorized under her payment agreement with St. Anthony’s. In Count II, plaintiff asserts a claim of abuse of process based on the allegation that the defendants “concocted” the lawsuit Barton filed against her and used it to force plaintiff to pay a debt that she did not owe. In Count III, plaintiff claims that the defendants converted funds that belonged to her through the unlawful garnishment proceedings.

II. Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction

Barton argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). Under that doctrine, federal district courts lack subject matter jurisdiction in actions seeking review 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.” Riehm v. Engelking, 538 F.3d 952, 965 (8th Cir. 2008). “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.” Id. Consequently, Rooker-Feldman does not bar an FDCPA claim challenging a defendant’s debt-collection practices when resolving the challenge would not necessitate invalidating a state court judgment. See, e.g., Ness v. Gurstel Chargo, P.A., 933 F.Supp.2d 1156, 1162 (D. Minn. 2013) (collecting cases); Smith v. Kramer & Frank, P.C., No. 4:09-CV-802-FRB, 2009 WL 4725285, at *2–3 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 2, 2009) (rejecting Rooker-Feldman challenge to FDCPA claims).

Garner alleges that Barton violated the FDCPA by filing a lawsuit on behalf of St. Anthony’s when CACI and Weiss were the real parties in interest; collecting more than the amount of the state court judgment, and inflated and illusory interest charges and costs; garnishing funds under the guise that the garnishor was St. Anthony’s; and engaging in false, deceptive, harassing, and unfair conduct by representing that St. Anthony’s, rather than CACI and Weiss, was the real party in interest. These allegations attack Barton’s practices in collecting the debt, rather than the underlying state court judgment, and, as such, these claims are not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Accordingly, Barton’s motion to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction will be denied.

Because the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over some of Garner’s FDCPA claims, it also has supplemental jurisdiction over her state law claims for abuse of process and conversion. 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

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, the Court will consider the exhibits attached to the second amended complaint in ruling on the motion.[2] Barton has submitted copies of St. Anthony’s assignment of its claim against Garner to CACI; the state court petition; the judgment entered in the state court; medical bills showing that Garner owed St. Anthony’s; the motion and order for a special process server in the state court action; and the affidavit of the process server who allegedly served Garner. The state court documents are public ...

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