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Tiene v. Law Office of J. Scott Watson P.C.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 3, 2018

PHILIP TIENE, Plaintiff,
v.
LAW OFFICE OF J. SCOTT WATSON P.C. and DREXEL UNIVERSITY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          ROBERT F. KELLY, SR. J.

         Plaintiff Philip Tiene (“Tiene”) filed suit in this Court against Defendant Law Office of J. Scott Watson P.C. (“JSW”) and Defendant Drexel University (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”) against JSW, and a violation of Pennsylvania's Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, 73 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 201-1 et seq. (“UTPCPL”) against Drexel. Drexel filed suit in Philadelphia Municipal Court against Tiene for failure to pay tuition and obtained a judgment of $10, 596.35 on June 14, 2017. Tiene's claims arise out of allegedly deceptive practices the Defendants took in seeking to collect debt from his failure to pay the tuition.

         Presently before the Court are Tiene's Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, along with numerous briefs in support and opposition to the respective Motions. Defendants' Motion for Summary seeks dismissal of this action based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and res judicata. For the reasons discussed below, Tiene's Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint is denied, and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.

         I.BACKGROUND[1]

         Tiene was enrolled as a student at Drexel from September 22, 2008 to June 14, 2014. (Defs.' Mem. Support Mot. Summ. J. at 3.) Drexel students use the “Banner System” to access and self-service their student accounts. (Id.) On July 9, 2012, Tiene first entered his residential address in the Banner System as 7 Woodcrest Road, Boonton, New Jersey 07005 (the “Boonton Address”). (Id. at 4.) In August 2012, September 2012, March 2013, September 2013, and March 2014, Tiene confirmed in the Banner System that his residential address was the Boonton Address. (Id.) Drexel students are responsible for maintaining and updating their contact information in the Banner System. (Id. at 3.) When Drexel seeks collection of a delinquent tuition account, its policy is to use the student's residential address entered in the Banner System. (Id. at 4.) Further, Drexel students must read and complete the “Student Financial Obligation and Tuition Repayment Agreement” before they are able to register for classes, which provides, among other things, that they will be held responsible for “collection costs and attorney's fees” that “will be assessed at a minimum of 33 and 1/3 percent of [the] balance due.” (Id. at 5.)

         Tiene attended two classes at Drexel between September 2013 and March 2014, but he failed to pay the tuition and other fees associated with them. (Id. at 6.) His balance for the two classes, which was composed of tuition, late fees, and other administrative fees, was $7, 881.73. (Id.)

         In April 2015, Drexel retained a collection agency called “ConServe” regarding Tiene's unpaid tuition. (Id. at 7.) On May 21, 2015, after being contacted by ConServe, Tiene spoke on the telephone to Jerome Wilson (“Wilson”), who was a Senior Collection Specialist in Drexel's Bursar's Office, about his tuition bill. (Id.) Drexel does not record any telephone conversations with its students, but Wilson entered notes from the call in Drexel's “RightNow System.” (Id.) During the call, Tiene said he would meet with someone from Drexel the following week to discuss his bill. (Id. at 8.) Wilson informed Tiene that his account with ConServe would be placed on hold. Tiene also provided a Philadelphia address to Wilson, which was recorded in the Banner System as Tiene's billing address. (Id.) That same day, Wilson contacted ConServe to place a hold on collection activity for Tiene's account until Tiene could review the tuition bill. (Id.) However, Tiene failed to contact or visit Drexel's Bursar's Office to discuss his bill, and on July 20, 2015, Drexel directed ConServe to resume collection activity. (Id.)

         In May 2016, Drexel provided JSW with a “placement sheet” that contained information for several accounts, including Tiene's. (Id. at 9.) The placement sheet that Drexel provided showed Tiene's address as the Boonton Address. (Id.) JSW typically sends collection letters to the address of the individual that the creditor (Drexel) provides. (Id.) JSW sent collection letters to Tiene at the Boonton Address on May 12, 2016 and June 24, 2016, neither of which were returned as undeliverable. (Id. at 9-10.)

         On January 25, 2017, JSW filed a Complaint (“Municipal Court Complaint”) in Philadelphia Municipal Court (“Municipal Court Lawsuit”) against Tiene, seeking the outstanding tuition balance, attorney's fees, and court costs.[2] (Id. at 10.) Drexel sought a total amount of $10, 596.35, composed of $7, 881.73 in principal, $2, 624.62 in attorney's fees, and $90.00 in court costs. (Id. at 11.) JSW served the Municipal Court Complaint via regular mail and certified mail, return receipt requested, at the Boonton Address. (Id.) The copy of the Municipal Court Complaint that was sent via certified mail, return receipt requested, was returned to JSW as unclaimed. (Id.) The Municipal Court Complaint sent via regular mail was never returned to JSW. (Id.)

         On March 29, 2017, an attorney from JSW attended a hearing in the Municipal Court Lawsuit, but Tiene did not attend. (Id.) Consequently, the Municipal Court Judge entered a default judgment in Drexel's favor for $10, 596.35, which represented the full amount Drexel sought. (Id.) JSW sent a letter dated March 31, 2017 to the Boonton Address apprising Tiene of the default judgment. (Id.)

         On April 7, 2017, Tiene, through counsel, filed a Petition to Open the Default Judgment with the Municipal Court. (Id. at 12.) In his Petition, Tiene claimed that Drexel “knowingly served process at the wrong, out of state address, where [Tiene] does not reside, in order to avoid [the] personal service requirement in Philadelphia County and obtain [judgment] by default.” (Id., Ex. 19.) On May 11, 2017, Drexel and Tiene appeared for a hearing in Municipal Court regarding Tiene's Petition to Open the Default Judgment. (Id. at 12.) The Municipal Court Judge found that Drexel did not engage in any intentional wrongdoing in serving Tiene at the Boonton Address, but ultimately granted Tiene's Petition, vacated the default judgment, and allowed Tiene to proceed on the merits. (Id. at 13.) Tiene's counsel was not prepared to have a merits hearing that day and requested a continuance, which was granted. (Id.)

         Tiene and Drexel (represented by JSW) appeared for trial in Philadelphia Municipal Court on June 14, 2017. (Id.) The Municipal Court Judge entered judgment for Drexel in the amount of $10, 596.35, again composed of $7, 881.73 in principal, $2, 624.62 in attorney's fees, and $90.00 in court costs. (Id. at 14.) Tiene attempted to appeal the judgment to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, but he failed to follow the procedural requirements, resulting in his appeal being stricken.[3]

         On the same day that judgment was rendered against Tiene and in favor of Drexel in Municipal Court, Tiene filed the instant lawsuit in this Court, naming JSW and Drexel as Defendants. (Id.) The Complaint (“Complaint” or “Federal Complaint”) contains two Counts: Count I[4] is against JSW and alleges a violation of the FDCPA, and Count II is against Drexel and alleges a violation of the Pennsylvania UTPCPL. (See generally Compl.) Boiled down to its essence, Tiene claims that the Defendants used false representations and deceptive means to collect Tiene's debt by improperly serving him with process to obtain a quick default judgment, sending him letters with false and misleading information, and misrepresenting to the Municipal Court that attorney's fees and collections costs were recoverable. (Id. ¶¶ 2-7.)

         On October 31, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment that seeks dismissal of all claims based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and res judicata. Just two days later, Tiene filed a Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint. The parties have filed numerous briefs in support and opposition to the respective Motions. For the reasons noted below, Tiene's Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint is denied, and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.[5]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Rule 15(a) Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) provides that when a party cannot amend its pleading as a matter of course, “a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave, ” and directs that courts “should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a). “Leave to amend must generally be granted unless equitable considerations render it otherwise unjust.” Arthur v. Maersk, Inc., 434 F.3d 196, 204 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962)). “Among the grounds that could justify a denial of leave to amend are undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, prejudice, and futility.” In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1434 (3d Cir. 1997). “A finding of ‘dilatory motive' is justified where the plaintiff acts ‘in an effort to prolong litigation.'” Breyer v. Meissner, 23 F.Supp.2d 540, 542 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (quoting Burlington, 114 F.3d at 1434).

         B. Rule 56(a) Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) states that summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court asks “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether . . . one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). The moving party has the initial burden of informing the court of the basis for the motion and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “A fact is material if it could affect the outcome of the suit after applying the substantive law. Further, a dispute over a material fact must be ‘genuine, ' i.e., the evidence must be such ‘that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party.'” Compton v. Nat'l League of Prof'l Baseball Clubs, 995 F.Supp. 554, 561 n.14 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255).

         Summary judgment must be granted “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Once the moving party has produced evidence in support of summary judgment, the non-moving party must go beyond the allegations set forth in its pleadings and counter with evidence that presents “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” See Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1362-63 (3d Cir. 1992). “More than a mere scintilla of evidence in its favor” must be presented by the non-moving party in order to overcome a summary judgment motion. Tziatzios v. United States, 164 F.R.D. 410, 411-12 (E.D. Pa. 1996). If the court determines that there are no genuine disputes of material fact, then summary judgment will be granted. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         III. ...


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