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Carroll v. Paul Law Office, Pllc

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

August 2, 2013

PHYLLIS CARROLL
v.
PAUL LAW OFFICE, PLLC

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DEBORAH K. CHASANOW, District Judge.

Presently pending and ready for review in this consumer debt collection case is the motion for default judgment filed by Plaintiff Phyllis Carroll. (ECF No. 14). The issues have been briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, the motion for default judgment will be granted.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

In her verified complaint and attached documents, Plaintiff alleges she had an account with Metris/Direct Merchants with an overdue balance of $2, 125.04. (ECF No. 1-3). On July 7, 2011, Defendant, a debt "collections business" with an office in Salt Lake City, Utah, offered to settle the account for $1, 043.86. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 8-10). Plaintiff accepted this offer and, on July 12, 2011, paid the sum via "check-by-phone." ( Id. ¶ 12). The settlement check cleared on July 14, 2011. ( Id. ¶ 13). On August 31, 2011, a representative of the Paul Law Office contacted Plaintiff, informing her that she had an outstanding balance on the settled account. ( Id. ¶ 4). Plaintiff's attorney confirmed with Defendant that it was attempting to collect on the account. ( Id. ¶ 15). Plaintiff argues that she entered into an enforceable agreement to settle the account, and that Defendant's debt collection efforts are in direct violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq.

B. Procedural Background

On July 10, 2012, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendant alleging a single violation of the FDCPA. (ECF No. 1). Defendant was served with a summons and a copy of the Complaint on July 16, 2012, and Plaintiff filed Proof of Service on July 25, 2012. (ECF No. 3). On August 21, 2012, Plaintiff moved for an entry of default, which was entered by the clerk on September 10, 2012. (ECF Nos. 4 & 6). On January 11, 2013, Plaintiff filed a motion for default judgment. (ECF No. 14). Defendant has not opposed.

II. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(a), "[w]hen a party against whom a judgment for affirmative relief is sought has failed to plead or otherwise defend, and that failure is shown by affidavit or otherwise, the clerk must enter the party's default." Where a default has been previously entered by the clerk and the complaint does not specify a certain amount of damages, the court may enter a default judgment upon the plaintiff's application and notice to the defaulting party, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b)(2). A defendant's default does not automatically entitle the plaintiff to entry of a default judgment; rather, that decision is left to the discretion of the court. See Lewis v. Lynn, 236 F.3d 766, 767 (5th Cir. 2001). The Fourth Circuit has a "strong policy" that "cases be decided on their merits, " Dow v. Jones, 232 F.Supp.2d 491, 494 (D.Md. 2002) (citing United States v. Shaffer Equip. Co., 11 F.3d 450, 453 (4th Cir. 1993)), but default judgment may be appropriate where a party is unresponsive, see S.E.C. v. Lawbaugh, 359 F.Supp.2d 418, 421 (D.Md. 2005) (citing Jackson v. Beech, 636 F.2d 831, 836 (D.C.Cir. 1980)).

"Upon [entry of] default, the well-pled allegations in a complaint as to liability are taken as true, but the allegations as to damages are not." Lawbaugh, 359 F.Supp.2d at 422. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(c) limits the type of judgment that may be entered based on a party's default: "A default judgment must not differ in kind from, or exceed in amount, what is demanded in the pleadings." Thus, where a complaint specifies the amount of damages sought, the plaintiff is limited to entry of a default judgment in that amount. "[C]ourts have generally held that a default judgment cannot award additional damages... because the defendant could not reasonably have expected that his damages would exceed that amount." In re Genesys Data Technologies, Inc., 204 F.3d 124, 132 (4th Cir. 2000). Where a complaint does not specify an amount, "the court is required to make an independent determination of the sum to be awarded." Adkins v. Teseo, 180 F.Supp.2d 15, 17 (D.D.C. 2001) (citing S.E.C. v. Management Dynamics, Inc., 515 F.2d 801, 814 (2d Cir. 1975); Au Bon Pain Corp. v. Artect, Inc., 653 F.2d 61, 65 (2d Cir. 1981)). While the court may hold a hearing to consider evidence as to damages, it is not required to do so; it may rely instead on "detailed affidavits or documentary evidence to determine the appropriate sum." Adkins, 180 F.Supp.2d at 17 (citing United Artists Corp. v. Freeman, 605 F.2d 854, 857 (5th Cir. 1979)).

III. Analysis

A. Sufficiency of the Complaint

In evaluating a request for a default judgment, the court must, accepting all factual allegations in the complaint as true, determine if the complaint adequately states a claim. See Ryan v. Homecomings Fin. Network, 253 F.3d 778, 780 (4th Cir. 2001). The Fourth Circuit has established that "the threshold requirement for application of the [FDCPA] is that prohibited practices are used in an attempt to collect a debt." Mabe v. G.C. Servs. Ltd. P'ship, 32 F.3d 86, 87-88 (4th Cir. 1994). The FDCPA prohibits the use of "false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt." 15 U.S.C. § 1692e. "The false representation of the character, amount, or legal status of any debt" is specifically prohibited by the statute. 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(2)(A). The FDCPA is a strict liability statute, meaning that a consumer need only prove one violation in order to establish liability. See 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a); Spencer v. Hendersen-Webb, Inc., 81 F.Supp.2d 582, 590-91 (D.Md. 1999).

Taken as true, Plaintiff's allegations adequately state a claim for relief under the FDCPA. Plaintiff alleges that she settled her debt by paying Defendant an agreed upon amount via "check-by-phone" on July 12, 2011. She also alleges that on August 31, 2011, Defendant contacted her in an attempt to collect on the already-settled account. Attempting to collect an already-settled debt falsely represents the "character, amount, and legal status" of the debt. 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(2)(A); see also Yarney v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No. 12-CV-0014, 2013 WL 880077, at *5 (W.D.Va. Mar. 8, 2013) (collecting cases and holding that "[o]ne type of misrepresentation ...


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