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Overton v. Advanced Recovery Systems

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

June 7, 2018

Courtney L. Overton, Plaintiff,
v.
Advanced Recovery Systems, et al. Defendants.

          Before Carlton W. Reeves, District Judge

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          CARLTON W. REEVES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In this suit, debt collectors Advanced Recovery Systems and the Simpson Law Firm stand accused of using unfair practices while attempting to collect a debt from Courtney Overton.[1]The question here is whether to dismiss Overton's claims.

         I

         Undisputed Facts

         In December 2014, Defendants obtained a default judgment against Courtney Overton in Mississippi state court for $1, 648.57 in unpaid medical bills.[2] The judgment, when increased by 33% to account for attorney's fees, entitled Defendants to obtain “$2, 198.09, plus all costs of court together with interest at the rate of 8.00% per annum from and after October 8, 2014.”[3]

         In June 2015, Overton's then-employer, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, received a writ of garnishment from Defendants.[4] The writ required the Medical Center to garnish Overton's wages to satisfy the judgment - which, as stated on the writ, was in the amount of $2, 198.09 “plus interest, and all costs of court.”[5] The writ did not give a figure for that cost-and-interest sum, nor did it state how the Medical Center was supposed to calculate and garnish that undisclosed sum. The Medical Center complied with the writ by garnishing $2, 198.09 from Overton's wages between September 2015 and March 2016.[6] Advanced Recovery subsequently informed credit reporting agencies that one of the two debts linked to the judgment had been satisfied.[7]

         In April 2016, Defendants wrote to the Medical Center requesting further garnishment, noting that “the balance remaining on the garnishment is $593.98.”[8] Defendants' letter contained no accounting for this sum. Nevertheless, the Medical Center responded by garnishing another $155.15 from Overton's wages.[9] However, in June 2016, the Medical Center told Defendants that it had stopped garnishing Overton's wages, as she had left its employment.[10]

         Defendants responded to this news by doing nothing for five months, waiting until November 2016 to ask the Mississippi state employment agency to identify Overton's new employer.[11] The agency apparently told them the employer was Dunaway Food Service; however, Dunaway advised Defendants that it no longer employed Overton.[12] After another three month period of inaction, Defendants sent another of Over-ton's employers, Sanderson Farms, a writ requesting garnishment of $561.01 “plus additional costs of court, and interest accruing from June 19, 2017 at 8.00% per year.”[13] Again, Defendants failed to include an accounting for this figure. The writ also said Sanderson would have to contact Defendants to obtain a “final updated payoff amount” - a qualification not present in the earlier writ to the Medical Center.[14] Sanderson responded by saying it would begin to garnish Overton's $13-an-hour wage in September 2017.[15]

         Defendants were unsatisfied. They filed a motion in state court asking it to force Sanderson to “immediately remit any and all garnishment withholdings” and continue to garnish Overton's wages on a monthly basis.[16] In the motion, Defendants overstated the amount Overton owed by $195, telling the court that the December 2014 judgment was for “$2, 393.09 and all costs of court, plus interest at the rate of 8.00% per annum from and after October 8, 2014.”[17] The court granted Defendants' request, [18] and Sanderson said it would begin remitting portions of Overton's wages in October 2017.[19]

         Overton responded by filing this lawsuit, which includes claims under both state law and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.[20] Defendants removed pursuant to federal question jurisdiction and filed the present motions.[21]

         II

         Analysis

         Defendants say their motions can be resolved as either motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12 or motions for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. As Defendants have submitted exhibits in support of their motions, the Court will view them as motions for summary judgment.

         To prevail on those motions, Defendants must show “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” that could establish its liability to Overton.[22] To resolve the motion, the Court must “view the evidence and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable” to Overton.[23]

         Drawing the appropriate inferences from the evidence, there are genuine disputes about the following facts. First, by overstating the amount of the judgment they sought to obtain from Overton, Defendants made a false representation to a court. Second, through miscommunications with the Medical Center about the method of garnishment and months-long periods of inaction, Defendants unnecessarily prolonged the debt collection process and generated improper charges for interest and costs. Third, Defendants improperly calculated the interests and costs to be garnished from Overton's wages. Finally, Advanced Recovery misinformed credit reporting agencies when, after receiving garnishments from the Medical Center, it told the agencies that Overton's debts were only partially satisfied.

         The remaining question is whether these facts - if believed by a jury - would establish liability under her claims.

         A

         Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

         The Act bans “false, deceptive, or misleading representation[s] or means in connection with the collection of any debt, ” including the false representation of the “amount . . . of any debt, ”[24] as well as “unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt.”[25] A jury could believe that Defendants' actions violate these prohibitions. The motions for summary judgment on Overton's claim under the Act are DENIED.[26]

         B

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