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Miller v. Trident Asset Management, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 4, 2019

DENISE MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
TRIDENT ASSET MANAGEMENT, LLC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge.

         Defendant Trident Asset Management has filed a Motion for Sanctions (ECF No. 153) requesting attorneys' fees and costs against Plaintiff pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3) and 15 U.S.C. §1681n(c) and against Plaintiff's counsel pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927. The Defendant also relies on this Court's inherent power to levy sanctions and sets forth the relevant caselaw in support of its motion. Plaintiff responded in what at best can be seen as an attempt to relitigate the granting of summary judgment (ECF No. 149 [“Memorandum Opinion”]) and a re-packaging of her motion to alter or amend judgment (ECF No. 158), sprinkled with a few arguments against sanctions (ECF No. 160). For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS the motion for sanctions.

         Factual Background

         The Court previously detailed the factual background of this case in the Court's Memorandum Opinion which is incorporated herein. In short, Plaintiff ‘s daughter, with Plaintiff's knowledge and permission, opened an account for service with Verizon in Plaintiff's name. Plaintiff and/or her daughter failed to pay monies due on the account which fell into arrears in the amount of $189.79, which for reporting purposes was rounded to $190. Verizon closed the account and reported the debt. Despite her knowledge of the debt and its origin, Plaintiff disputed the debt. Defendant conducted the appropriate investigation and verified the amount and the debt owed Verizon thus meeting all the requirements of both the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).

         In discussions with Defendant, Plaintiff along with Thomas Alston, a paralegal who is not an attorney but reportedly is an “assistant” to Plaintiff's counsel, reported that she was the victim of identity fraud and she had no knowledge of the debt. Plaintiff's statement denying the knowledge and alleging identity fraud was captured in her own handwriting in a correspondence with Defendant. Defendant properly noted that the account was in dispute. Plaintiff, along with Thomas Alston, drafted the complaint and conducted several conversations with various Defendants regarding the debt. Plaintiff also filed suit against nine other defendants who eventually settled their claims with Plaintiff or were otherwise dismissed.

         Defendant Trident vigorously defended their claim. At deposition, Plaintiff was represented by her counsel. At deposition Plaintiff admitted that the debt was her daughter's and her daughter used Plaintiff's name with her permission and defaulted. Plaintiff at deposition also testified that she did not know whether the amount due or the credit reporting was accurate. Even after this admission in deposition, Plaintiff and her counsel continued litigating this claim. Plaintiff in opposing summary judgment changed her story again and denied her signature on the letter to Defendant and disavowed her knowledge of identity theft. ECF No. 137-1. Plaintiff's counsel in his declaration denied knowledge of the false identity theft report until the time of deposition. As stated previously, these facts are detailed in the Memorandum Opinion with all the proper references in support.

         Analysis

         Standard of Review

         Both the FCRA, 15 U.S.C. § 1861, et seq., and the FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., provide for the sanction of attorney's fees when the non-prevailing party has acted in bad faith. “The term ‘bad faith,' as it is ordinarily used in the attorney's fee context, requires a showing either that the party subjectively acted in bad faith-knowing that [s]he had no viable claim-or that [s]he filed an action or paper that was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” Alston v. Branch Banking and Trust Co., GJH-15-3100, 2018 WL 4538538 (D.Md. Sept. 20, 2018) (quoting Ryan v. Trans Union Corp., No. 99 C 216, 2001 WL 185182 (N.D.Ill. Feb. 26, 2001)); see also Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978). In considering whether a filing is made in bad faith, the court will focus on the party's mental state at the time of the filing, regardless of whether the filing turned out to be baseless. Letren v. Trans Union, LLC., PX-15-3361, 2017 WL 4098743, at *1, n. 1 (D.Md. Sept. 15, 2017).

         In considering a fee award, the Court must consider the twelve factors that the Fourth Circuit set forth in Barber v. Kimbrell's Inc., 577 F.2d 216 (4th Cir. 1978), to the extent that such factors are applicable. Letren, 2017 WL 4098743, at *8. These factors include:

(1) the time and labor expended; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions raised; (3) the skill required to properly perform the legal services rendered; (4) the attorney's opportunity costs in pressing the instant litigation; (5) the customary fees for like work; (6) the attorney's expectation at the outset of the litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount in controversy and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation and ability of the attorney; (10) the undesirability of the case within the legal community in which the suit arose; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship between attorney and client; and (12) attorneys' fees awards in similar cases.

Barber, 577 F.2d at 226 n.28. In this District, Appendix B of the Local Rules of the District of Maryland established the rules and guidelines for determining attorney's fees in cases such as this.

         Discussion

         The FCRA and the FDCPA are both designed to protect consumers. The FCRA was enacted to “protect consumer privacy, ” among other things. United States v. Bormes, 568 U.S. 6, 7 (2012) (first quoting Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 52 (2007), then citing 15 U.S.C. § 1681). Specifically, the FCRA's purpose is “to require that consumer reporting agencies adopt reasonable procedures for meeting the needs of commerce . . . which is fair and equitable to the consumer.” 15 U.S.C. § 1681(b). Similarly, the FDCPA was enacted “to eliminate abusive debt collection practices, to ensure that debt collectors who abstain from such practices are not competitively disadvantaged, and to promote consistent state action to protect consumers.” Jerman v. Carlisle, McNellie, Rini, Kramer & Ulrich LPA, 559 U.S. 573, 577 (2010) (citing 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e)). Both statutes provide civil remedies that enable consumers to hold credit reporting agencies (“CRAs”) and debt collectors accountable for violations of the Acts. See 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681n-81o, 1692k. Many cases in which plaintiffs bring actions against CRAs and debt collectors under the FCRA and FDCPA are based on genuine violations of the law that can greatly harm consumers. In those cases, the FCRA and FDCPA provide essential relief for unfairly treated consumer plaintiffs. In this case, Plaintiff Miller is not one of the unfairly treated consumers.

         As the Court noted in its Memorandum Opinion, there are many troubling aspects to this litigation. When you peel the onion of this case, at its center is a Plaintiff litigant, who happens to be a tenant in a property owned or operated by Thomas Alston. Thomas Alston is no stranger to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, as noted below. Plaintiff, with or without her daughter, owed a debt to Verizon in the reported amount of $190. Plaintiff falsely alleged, in her own handwriting, that she was a victim of identity fraud. When you set back the clock in this case, the entire claim of Plaintiff aided by Alston rests on fraud. Plaintiff under oath at deposition admitted that the debt was hers, there was no identity fraud, and that she didn't know whether the amount of the debt was accurate or accurately reported, which completely undermined her claim. As this Court stated previously, Plaintiff's fraud is inextricably intertwined with her cause of action. In her Response, Plaintiff argues that she never asserted an identity fraud claim against Defendant. ECF No. 160. While that is technically true, Plaintiff ignores the obvious: that the claims she ...


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