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Miller v. Trident Asset Management, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 18, 2019




         Defendant Trident Asset Management, LLC moves this Court for summary judgment (the "Motion") (ECF No. 127). Defendant seeks a ruling from the Court that it did not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq., or the Fair Credit Reporting Act ("FCRA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., when managing and reporting a debt owed to Verizon on Plaintiff Denise Miller's credit reports. Plaintiff filed an opposition to Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 137) and Defendant replied (ECF No. 142).

         After considering the Motion and responses thereto, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). In addition, having reviewed the pleadings of record and all competent and admissible evidence submitted by the parties, the Court finds that there are no genuine issues of material fact as to the claims asserted. Accordingly, the Court will GRANT Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 127). In the alternative and for the reasons consistent with Section 3 of this Opinion, the Court sua sponte DISMISSES the Amended Complaint with prejudice as to Defendant Trident. The Court will DISMISS Defendant's Motion for Leave to Submit Audio Recording as Exhibit 9 to Its Motion for Summary Judgment as moot (ECF No. 129). Defendant's Motion to Strike (ECF No. 139) is GRANTED.

         Factual Background

         Defendant Trident Asset Management, LLC is a collection agency that performs debt collection for third-party creditors. ECF No. 128-2 at 2, ¶ 3. In 2017, Plaintiff obtained her credit reports and discovered a number of alleged inaccuracies. ECF No. 35 at 3, ¶ 12. Among those alleged inaccuracies was a debt reported by Defendant that was originally owed to Verizon in the amount of Si90.00.[1] Id. at 5, ¶ 19.

         As a result of the alleged inaccuracies, Plaintiff filed two credit disputes. On May 9, 2018, Plaintiff sent a letter to TransUnion, disputing six accounts appearing on her credit report, including the Verizon account that Defendant was collecting on. ECF No. 128-4 at 2. Specifically, Plaintiff disputed that she had any relationship with any of the collection agencies identified and she requested that TransUnion verify that the agencies owned a debt that she owed. Id. Upon learning of the dispute, Defendant conducted an investigation pursuant to its procedures. ECF No. 128-2 at 2-3, ¶¶ 7-10. Defendant's procedure for investigating and responding to credit report disputes consists of "review[ing] any documents attached to the dispute and . . . determin[ing] whether the documents support the dispute, " reviewing documents in the individual account, and comparing this information with the data on the Automated Credit Dispute Verification ("ACDV") form. Id at 2-3, ¶¶ 7-9. Defendant then submits any updates with its ACDV response. Id. at 3, ¶ 9. While investigating Plaintiffs credit dispute, Defendant confirmed that the amount and identifying information reported to TransUnion accurately reflected the information and outstanding balance on Plaintiffs individual account and on the unpaid Verizon bill. Id. ¶ 11; ECF No. 128-7 at 2. Upon completing its investigation, Defendant updated Plaintiffs account to reflect "Completed Investigation of FCRA Dispute - Consumer Disagrees, " as denoted by "XC." ECF No. 128-2 at 3, ¶ 12; see also ECF No. 128-5 at 2-3; ECF No. 128-6 at 2.

         On May 23, 2018, Plaintiff sent a letter to Equifax, disputing several debts appearing on her credit report, including the Verizon account, and alleging that these debts resulted from identity theft. ECF No. 128-3 at 2-3. Along with the letter, Plaintiff included a copy of her credit report which contained handwritten notations. Id. at 4-7. Next to the entry reporting the Verizon debt, Plaintiff wrote: "ID Fraud, Not Mine. Delete, Remove Block This Fraud." Id. at 6. Defendant once again investigated the credit dispute and updated Plaintiffs account to reflect "Completed Investigation of FCRA Dispute - Consumer Disagrees, " and denoted this change with "XC." ECF No. 128-2 at 3, ¶12.

         On June 27, 2018, Plaintiff called Defendant to discuss the Verizon account. ECF No. 128-8 at 4-5. Plaintiff was assisted on this call by Thomas Alston, who had been helping Plaintiff manage her credit and creditors prior to the lawsuit. ECF No. 128-1 at 4, 9. During the call, in response to Plaintiffs and Mr. Alston's questions, one of Defendant's employees informed Plaintiff that the Verizon account was opened on September 25, 2012 and service was involuntarily disconnected approximately four months later due to nonpayment. ECF No. 128-8 at 6-7. The employee also informed Plaintiff that the debt could be settled for $94.90, 50% of the outstanding balance, and that Defendant was responsible for collecting on the account.[2] Id. at 8, 12-14.

         After filing her lawsuit, Plaintiff was deposed on April 16, 2019. ECF No. 128-1 at 2. In her deposition, Plaintiff testified, inter alia, that her daughter opened the Verizon account with Plaintiffs permission and that it was not a result of identity theft. Id. at 6, 10. Plaintiff also acknowledged that there was an outstanding balance due to Verizon because her daughter did not pay the bill, although Plaintiff had no knowledge of the amount due or whether the credit reporting was accurate. Id. at 5, 8, 12-13, 14.

         Procedural Background

         On July 15, 2018, Plaintiff filed the original Complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against First Premier Corporation, AFNI, Inc., Stellar Recovery, Inc., Diversified Consultants, Inc., Southwest Credit Systems, L.P., Credit Management, LP, Trident Asset Management, LLC, TransUnion, LLC, Equifax Information Services, LLC, and Experian Information Solutions, Inc. ECF No. 1-2. On August 17, 2018, TransUnion removed the action to this Court. ECF No. I.[3]On October 30, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint, in which she alleged that Defendant violated the FDCPA and the FCRA. ECF No. 35 at 5-10, ¶¶ 25, 29-45. Defendant answered the Amended Complaint on November 7, 2018. ECF No. 37.

         From November 2018 through July 2019, several defendants were dismissed from the action, and there were various discovery disputes, conferences with the Court, and other ancillary matters that arose between Plaintiff and Defendant.[4] On July 31, 2019, Defendant filed its Motion, seeking summary judgment against Plaintiff on her FDCPA and FCRA claims. ECF No. 127. Defendant also filed a Motion for Leave to Submit Audio Recording as Exhibit 9 to Its Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to this Court's Electronic Case Filing Policies and Procedures Manual. ECF No. 129. On August 17, 2019, Plaintiff filed an opposition, ECF No. 137.[5]Defendant filed a reply on September 3, 2019. ECF No. 142. Trident also filed a motion to strike two exhibits (ECF No. 1374, 137-8).

         This matter is now fully briefed, and the Court has reviewed Defendant's Motion, as well as the responses thereto. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 127) is GRANTED.


         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to Rule 56, a movant is entitled to summary judgment where the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. Fed.R, Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The Supreme Court has clarified that not every factual dispute will defeat a motion for summary judgment but rather, there must be a genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) ("[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." (emphases in original)). An issue of fact is material if, under the substantive law of the case, resolution of the factual dispute could affect the outcome. Id. at 248. There is a genuine issue as to material fact "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.; see also Dulaney v. Packaging Corp. of Am., 673 F.3d 323, 330 (4th Cir. 2012). On the other hand, if after the court has drawn all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, "the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S., at 249-50 (internal citations omitted).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of either establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists or that a material fact essential to the non-movant's claim is absent. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-24. Once the movant has met its burden, the onus is on the non-movant to establish that there is a genuine issue of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In order to meet this burden, the non-movant "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleadings, " but must instead "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Bouchat v. Bait. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed.R, Civ.P. 56(e)).

         In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court views the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Glynn v. EDO Corp., 710 F.3d 209, 213 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing Bonds v. Leavitt, 629 F.3d 369, 380 (4th Cir. 2011)). A genuine issue of material fact exists if "there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Res. Bankshares Corp. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 407 F.3d 631, 635 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249). Thus, "to grant summary judgment the [c]ourt must determine that no reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party on the evidence before it." Moss v. Parks Corp., 985 F.2d 736, 738 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990)).

         B. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment

         In its Motion, Defendant seeks summary judgment on all remaining claims, which include FDGPA claims in Count I and FCRA claims in Count II. The Court will address each Count in turn.

         1. Summary Judgment Is Appropriate as to the FDCPA Claims.

         In Count I, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated four specific provisions of the FDCPA: §§ 1692e(2), e(8), e(10), and 1692f. ECF No. 35 at 7, ¶ 25. "The FDCPA protects consumers from abusive and deceptive practices by debt collectors .... Section 1692e forbids the use of any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in debt collection and provides a non-exhaustive list of prohibited conduct." Sterling v. Ourisman Chevrolet of Bowie Inc., 943 F.Supp.2d 577, 585 (D.Md. 2013) (quoting Stewart v. Bierman, 859 F.Supp.2d 754, 759 (D.Md. 2012)) (internal quotation marks omitted). To state a claim for relief under the FDCPA, Plaintiff must allege that "(1) the plaintiff has been the object of collection activity arising from consumer debt, (2) the defendant is a debt collector as defined by the FDCPA, and (3) the defendant has engaged in an act or omission prohibited by the FDCPA." Id. (quoting Stewart, 859 F.Supp.2d at 759-60). Defendant does not dispute that Plaintiff has been the object of collection activity or that it is a debt collector. See ECF No. 128 at 11-22. Rather, Defendant disputes that it engaged in any actions that violated the four provisions identified by Plaintiff. Id. at 18-22.

         a. The undisputed facts demonstrate that Defendant did not falsely misrepresent the amount or the legal status of the Verizon debt in violation of § 1692e(2).

         Plaintiff first alleges that Defendant violated § 1692e(2) of the FDCPA. This provision forbids a debt collector from "[f]he false representation of- (A) the character, amount, or legal status of any debt; or (B) any services rendered or compensation which may be lawfully received by any debt collector for the collection of a debt." 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(2) (2018). In her Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated this provision in two ways: (1) by falsely ...

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