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Flowers v. Baltax 2017, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 1, 2019

RAHSHEDA FLOWERS, Plaintiff
v.
BALTAX 2017, LLC, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          James K. Bredar Chief Judge

         Rahsheda Flowers ("Plaintiff") filed suit against Defendants Aaron Naiman ("Mr. Naiman"), Naiman & Naiman, P. A. ("Naiman Firm"), and Baltax 2017, LLC ("Baltax") alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692, et seq., and the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act, Md. Code. Ann., Com. Law. § 14-201, et seq., Plaintiffs claims relate to Defendants' attempt to foreclose Plaintiff s right of redemption to her property and collect payments from Plaintiffs mortgage servicer in relation to that foreclosure litigation, Plaintiff claims that Baltax was not the owner of the property, had no legal right to attempt to foreclose her right of redemption, and had no legal right to collect any money from her mortgage servicer in connection with that litigation.

         Plaintiff seeks actual and statutory damages, as well as reasonable attorney's fees and costs. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, and the matter is fully briefed. No. hearing is required. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background[1]

         Ms. Flowers had a municipal lien placed on her property due to an allegedly delinquent water bill. (Compl. ¶ 18, ECF No. 1.) Plaintiffs property was subsequently sold at a municipal lien sale to Dean Properties 2015, LLC. (Id.) This sale was subject to Plaintiffs right of redemption to regain the property by paying her outstanding bills and associated fees. (Id.)

         On October 13, 2017, Dean Properties ceased doing business and forfeited its right to bring lawsuits in Maryland. (Id. ¶ 19.) On February 26, 2018, Mr. Naiman, an attorney, and the Naiman Firm filed a lawsuit in Baltimore City on behalf of Baltax seeking to foreclose Plaintiffs right of redemption to her property. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 21.) According to Plaintiff, Baltax is a company that "has filed hundreds of tax sale foreclosure lawsuits." (Id. ¶ 28.) Baltax hired Mr. Naiman and the Naiman Firm and directed them to attempt to collect "debt arising from Plaintiffs water bill" from Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 31, 42.) Plaintiff asserts that Mr. Naiman, the Naiman Firm, and Baltax are jointly and severally liable to the Plaintiff for all alleged violations related to the collection of this debt. (Id. ¶¶ 41-49.)

         In Baltax's lawsuit to foreclose Plaintiffs right of redemption to her property, Defendants[2]claimed that Baltax had purchased Plaintiffs property on May 15, 2017. (Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff disputes Baltax's claim of ownership. (Id.). Instead, she alleges Baltax "had no legal interest in or rights to the [p]roperty," and thus had no right to bring a lawsuit to foreclose her right of redemption. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 20-22.)

         After bringing the lawsuit to foreclose Plaintiffs right of redemption, Mr. Naiman and the Naiman Firm contacted Plaintiffs mortgage servicer on behalf of Baltax and demanded payment "in order to redeem the tax sale certificate on the [p]roperty." (Id. ¶ 23.) Specifically, Defendants' requested "payment of legal fees, title examination fees, closing fees, publication fees, filing fees, judgment report fees, postage fees, private process server fees, and posting fees." (Id.) Plaintiffs mortgage servicer paid the requested fees in order to redeem the property's tax sale certificate and then assessed those fees and others related to "Defendants' unlawful collection efforts" against Plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 23-25.)

         According to Plaintiff, Defendants were not legally permitted to attempt to foreclose her right of redemption or collect fees through her mortgage servicer because: (1) Baltax did not own Plaintiffs property or have "legal interest in or rights to the [p]roperty," (id. ¶¶ 20-23); and (2) Defendants were not licensed in Maryland as collection agencies under Maryland law, (id. ¶¶ 29, 30). Plaintiff claims Defendants' statements, which were made in an effort to collect the debt, were "false, deceptive, and misleading" because Defendants knew Baltax did not have a legal right to Plaintiffs property. (Id. ¶¶ 20-23.)

         Plaintiff alleges that she incurred damages through the "unlawful charges assessed" to her by her mortgage servicer due to Defendants' false statements about the debt allegedly owed. (Id. ¶¶ 53, 58.) She also alleges that she suffered "mental anguish and emotional distress" from Defendants' unlawful actions. (Id. ¶ 53.)

         The Complaint puts forward two counts. Count I alleges violations of the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act (MCDCA). (Id. ¶¶ 50-53.) Count II alleges violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). (Id. ¶¶ 54-58.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and Local Rule 105 for failure to state a claim. (Mot. Dismiss, at 1, ECF No. 13.) A complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Ad. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Facial plausibility exists "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. An inference of the mere possibility of misconduct is not sufficient to support a plausible claim. Id. at 679. Courts must "accept the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true, . .. constru[ing] the facts and reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Ibarra, 120 F.3d at 474. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or ... 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of'further factual enhancement'" will not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (alteration in original) (citation omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). Courts need not accept legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         The Court will address the sufficiency of the pleadings for the federal claim followed by a similar assessment for the state claim.

         III. Analysis

         A. Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (Count II)

         Count II of the Complaint alleges Defendants violated multiple provisions of the FDCPA, (Compl. ¶ 33.) Plaintiff claims that, in attempting to foreclose her right of redemption and demanding fees from her mortgage servicer, Defendants violated the Act by using "false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt," 15 U.S.C. § 1692e. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges Defendant violated 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(2), (4), (5), (6), (9), and (10), which provide a non-exclusive list of specific behaviors that violate the FDCPA. Plaintiff also alleges Defendants violated 15 U.S.C. § 1692f, which forbids "us[ing] unfair or unconscionable means to ... attempt to collect [a] debt."

         An FDCPA claim requires '"(1) the plaintiff has been the object of collection activity arising from consumer debt, (2) the defendant is a debt [] collector[, ] .. .and (3) the defendant has engaged in an act or omission prohibited by the FDCPA.'" Stewart v. Bierman, 859 F.Supp.2d 754, 759 (D. Md. 2012) (quoting Dikun v. Streich, 369 F.Supp.2d 781, 784-85 (E.D. Va. 2005)), aff'd sub nom. Lembach v. Bierman, 528 Fed.Appx. 297 (4th Cir. 2013). The court considers each of these elements in turn.

         1. Consumer Debt

         Plaintiffs allegations satisfy the first element of an FDCPA claim because overdue municipal water bills based upon the amount of water consumed qualify as consumer debts. Under the FDCPA, a consumer is "any natural person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay any debt." 15 U.S.C. A. § 1692a(3). "Debt" is defined under the statute as an "obligation or alleged obligation of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction in which the money, property, insurance, or services which are the subject of the transaction are primarily for personal, family, or household purposes ..." 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692a(5). Lacking any Fourth Circuit precedent on the issue, the parties and the Court look to the decisions of other circuits in determining whether municipal water bills qualify as consumer debt under the FDCPA. See Booker v. S.C. Dep't of Corr.,855 F.3d 533, 539 ...


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