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Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Associates, P.C.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 31, 2016

DEMETRA BAYLOR, Plaintiff,
v.
MITCHELL RUBENSTEIN & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

AMY BERMAN JACKSON, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Demetra Baylor brought this case against defendant Mitchell Rubenstein & Associates, P.C., alleging that defendant violated various provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq., the D.C. Debt Collection Law, D.C. Code § 28-3814 et seq., and the D.C. Consumer Protection and Procedures Act, D.C. Code § 28-3901 et seq. Compl. ¶¶ 28–48 [Dkt. # 1]. The federal count was resolved by the parties with a $1, 001.00 offer of judgment, see J. on Offer & Acceptance [Dkt. # 14], and a number of the D.C. claims were dismissed, but plaintiff’s claims under sections 28-3814(f)(5) and 28-3814(g)(5) of the Debt Collection Law remain. See Order (July 8, 2014) [Dkt. # 26]. Now that discovery has been completed, defendant has moved for summary judgment on those two claims, and plaintiff has cross-moved for partial summary judgment. Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 84] (“Def.’s Mot.”); Br. in Supp. of Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 84-1] (“Def.’s Mem.”); Pl.’s Partial Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 91] (“Pl.’s Mot.”); Mem. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 91-1] (“Pl.’s Mem.”). Because the Court finds based on the evidentiary record that there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to whether defendant acted willfully in connection with any inaccurate communications covered by the Debt Collection Law, it will deny plaintiff’s partial motion for summary judgment, and it will grant defendant’s motion for summary judgment and dismiss this case in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

The Court has described the factual background of this case and its extensive procedural history in several previous opinions. See Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., No. 13-1995 (ABJ), 2015 WL 5466637, at *1–*2 (D.D.C. Sept. 17, 2015); Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., 77 F.Supp.3d 113, 115–17 (D.D.C. 2015); Baylor v. Mitchell Rubenstein & Assocs., P.C., 55 F.Supp.3d 43, 46–48 (D.D.C. 2014). For the purposes of the pending motions for summary judgment, it restates only the facts and history necessary to the resolution of plaintiff’s remaining claims.

I. Factual Background

Plaintiff graduated from the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn, New York in 2004, with a Master’s degree in computer graphics. Dep. of Demetra Baylor (Dec. 16, 2014), Ex. 1 to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 84-2] (“Baylor Dep.”) 13:3–13. To finance her education, she took out six separate student loans, in addition to paying some of her tuition out of pocket. Id. 14:17–22; Ex. 2 to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 84-3] (documentation of plaintiff’s student loan applications); Def.’s Statement of Undisputed Facts [Dkt. # 96] (“Def.’s SOF”) ¶ 1.[1] Plaintiff has not paid back those loans in full. Baylor Dep. 15:3–8; Def.’s SOF ¶ 2.

In February 2013, plaintiff received a letter from defendant, [2] dated February 21, 2013, notifying her that she owed an alleged debt of $26, 471.07 to the creditor Arrowood Indemnity Company, and that plaintiff’s account “ha[d] been referred to [defendant’s] office for collection.” Feb. 21, 2013 Letter to Pl., Ex. E to Compl. [Dkt. # 1-1] (“Ex. E to Compl.”). The letter also noted that the debt was linked to defendant’s file number R80465, and that the amount due could change based on “interest, late charges, and other charges that may vary from day to day.” Id.

Plaintiff disputed the debt and sent defendant a letter dated March 21, 2013. Mar. 21, 2013 Letter to Def., Ex. F to Compl. [Dkt. # 1-1]. She requested verification of the debt, and specifically sought the following information: “the owner of [the] debt;” defendant’s “connection with collecting this debt;” and “an itemization of how [the] amount was calculated and where it came from and a clear breakdown of all fees, interest and other charges.” Id.

Defendant responded in a letter dated March 26, 2013. Mar. 26, 2013 Letter to Pl., Ex. D to Compl. [Dkt. # 1-1] (“Ex. D to Compl.”). The letter itemized the original disbursements to plaintiff that comprised the debt, which totaled $26, 716, and specified the rate of interest that accrued per annum. Id. The letter advised that the total pay off amount through July 28, 2011 came to $31, 268. Id.

Plaintiff then obtained counsel, and her attorney sent a letter to defendant on May 21, 2013, advising defendant that plaintiff had retained her in reference to the debt connected with defendant’s file number R80465 and repeating plaintiff’s request for information associated with the debt collection. May 21, 2013 Letter to Def., Ex. B to Compl. [Dkt. # 1-1]. The letter included a request that defendant “not contact [her] client in reference to this matter” and instructed that “[a]ny future communications regarding this matter should be directed to [counsel’s] firm.” Id.

Plaintiff’s counsel then entered into settlement negotiations with defendant. Def.’s SOF ¶ 12; Decl. of Mitchell Rubenstein, Ex. 3 to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 84-4] (“Rubenstein Decl.”) ¶ 17. On July 8, 2013, plaintiff’s counsel informed defendant that plaintiff owed three additional loans that were not referenced in the March 26, 2013 letter, and she represented that plaintiff wanted to settle all six of her outstanding loans. Def.’s SOF ¶ 12; Rubenstein Decl. ¶¶ 18–19. As a result, defendant requested that the remaining three loans be referred to it so that the parties could negotiate a settlement. Def.’s SOF ¶ 13; Rubenstein Decl. ¶ 19.

On August 22, 2013, defendant sent another letter to plaintiff concerning the additional amounts due with a different file number, R83798, and listing the creditor as Tuitionguard Arrowood Indemnity. Aug. 22, 2013 Letter to Pl., Ex. A to Compl. [Dkt. # 1-1] (“Ex. A to Compl.”). The letter was addressed to “Radi Dennis Consumer Justice ESQ, 1014 Florida Avenue, NE Apartment 1, Washington DC 20002, ” naming plaintiff’s attorney as the addressee but utilizing plaintiff’s address, and it began “Dear Ms. Baylor.” Id. The letter stated that plaintiff owed a debt of $27, 459.48, and that the amount due was subject to change based on “interest, late charges and other charges that may vary from day to day.” Id.

Plaintiff’s counsel responded to the August 22 letter on September 12, 2013. Sept. 12, 2013 Letter to Def., Ex. G to Compl. [Dkt. # 1-1]. Counsel informed defendant that plaintiff disputed the debt, and she requested verification of the debt that was described in the August 22 letter and was associated with defendant’s file number R83798. Id. The letter further reminded defendant that plaintiff was represented by counsel and should not be contacted directly. Id.

Defendant responded to counsel’s September 12 letter on September 26, 2013. Sept. 26, 2013 Verification Letter to Pl., Ex. C to Compl. [Dkt. # 1-1] (“Ex. C to Compl.”). The September 26 letter, which was addressed to counsel at her office address, stated that the amount due for the debt contained in defendant’s file number R83798 was “$27, 459.48 plus interest from 10/21/11 at the rate of 3.75% until paid.” Id.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed the three count complaint in this case on December 17, 2013. Compl. On January 14, 2014, defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss Compl. [Dkt. # 7]. While that motion was pending, plaintiff accepted an offer of judgment from defendant on her FDCPA claim. Pl.’s Notice of Acceptance of Def.’s Rule 68 Offer of Judgment [Dkt. # 11]. The Court then granted defendant’s motion to dismiss all of plaintiff’s claims under the D.C. Consumer Protection and Procedures Act and some, but not all, of her D.C. Debt Collection law claims. Order (July 8, 2014); see also Baylor, 55 F.Supp.3d 43. After an extremely long and contentious discovery process, which required several telephone conferences with the Court and the assistance of a Magistrate Judge, see, e.g., Baylor, 2015 WL 5466637 (overruling plaintiff’s objections to Magistrate Judge’s order entered pursuant to Local Civil Rule 72.2(a)), discovery was completed on August 7, 2015, see Order (July 31, 2015) [Dkt. # 82], and defendant filed its motion for summary judgment on August 6, 2015. Def.’s Mot. On August 31, 2015, plaintiff filed an opposition to defendant’s motion and a separate partial cross-motion for summary judgment. Pl.’s Opp. to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 90] (“Pl.’s Opp.”); Pl.’s Mot. Defendant filed a combined reply in support of its motion and a cross-opposition to plaintiff’s partial motion on September 10, 2015, Def.’s Combined Opp. to Pl.’s Mot. & Reply to Pl.’s Opp. [Dkt. # 97] (“Def.’s Reply”), and plaintiff filed her cross-reply on September 28, 2015. Pl.’s Reply to Def.’s Reply [Dkt. # 103] (“Pl.’s Cross-Reply”). On October 2, 2015, with leave of the Court, Min. Order (Oct. 2, 2015), defendant filed a cross-surreply, addressing the limited issue of the admissibility of the errata sheet to plaintiff’s deposition transcript. Def.’s Surreply to Pl.’s Cross-Reply [Dkt. # 106] (“Def.’s Surreply”).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate “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 party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party must “designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). The existence of a factual dispute is insufficient to preclude summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247–48 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” only if a reasonable fact-finder could find for the non-moving party; a fact is “material” only if it is capable of affecting the outcome of the litigation. Id. at 248; Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987). In assessing a party’s motion, the court must “view the facts and draw reasonable inferences ‘in the light most favorable to the party opposing the summary judgment motion.’” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007) (alterations omitted), quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962) (per curiam).

“The rule governing cross-motions for summary judgment . . . is that neither party waives the right to a full trial on the merits by filing its own motion; each side concedes that no material facts are at issue only for the purposes of its own motion.” Sherwood v. Wash. Post, 871 F.2d 1144, 1147 n.4 (D.C. Cir. 1989), quoting McKenzie v. Sawyer, 684 F.2d 62, 68 n.3 (D.C. Cir. 1982). In assessing each party’s motion, “[a]ll underlying facts and inferences are analyzed in the light most favorable to the ...


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