United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
KEITH BOHANNON and TERRESE JENNINGS, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
LVNV FUNDING, LLC, Defendant.
JOHN A. GIBNEY, Jr., District Judge.
In this case, two individuals bring class and individual claims against a debt collector for the manner in which the debt collector attempted to collect debts in Virginia state courts. The plaintiffs, Keith Bohannon and Terrese Jennings, claim that LVNV Funding, LLC, a debt collector, violated both federal and state law by filing improper documents in collection cases in Virginia's General District Courts. They assert one class claim and seven individual claims against LVNV. LVNV asks the Court to dismiss Counts Two through Six for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and Counts One and Six for failure to state a claim.
In Count One, the plaintiffs raise a class claim arising from a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692e(11). This section requires debt collectors to include certain warnings in materials sent to collect debts; the warnings are commonly known as the "mini-Miranda" disclosure. The plaintiffs say that LVNV should have included the warnings on affidavits attached to warrants in debt in Virginia General District Court. Counts Two through Five assert individual claims for violating various sections of the FDCPA that prohibit false, deceptive, and misleading representations in order to collect a debt. Count Six asserts an individual claim under Virginia common law for abuse of process. Finally, Count Seven asserts an individual claim brought by Bohannon alone under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227(b), for alleged prohibited calls to his cell phone.
Relying on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, LVNV argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Counts One through Six. This argument fails, because the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars only claims that allege an injury that arises from a state-court judgment. Although this case involves state-court litigation that resulted in judgments, the claims themselves arise from LVNV's conduct in attempting to collect debts, not from an invalid Virginia court decision. Accordingly, the Court denies LVNV's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Turning to the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, Count One is deficient because the affidavits in question fall within the FDCPA's formal-pleading exception. Virginia law allows a plaintiff to attach an affidavit to a warrant in debt to initiate a lawsuit to collect a debt. When a debt collector includes an affidavit with the warrant, the law requires service of both documents as a single paper. Here, LVNV followed that process, and so the affidavits fall within the formal-pleading exception. Accordingly, the Court grants LVNV's motion to dismiss Count One for failure to state a claim.
Count Six fails to state a claim for abuse of process under Virginia common law because bolstering a warrant in debt with a hollow affidavit in order to collect a debt does not meet the elements of abuse of process. The complaint suggests that LVNV's litigation at the General District Court was baseless, but baselessness does not create grounds for abuse of process. Instead, abuse of process exists when a litigant uses issued process for a purpose other than its lawful purpose and does so with an ulterior motive. LVNV wanted to collect a debt, potentially through the entry of a default judgment, so it filed an affidavit with the warrant in debt. Virginia courts allow warrants in debt specifically for that purpose. Accordingly, the Court grants LVNV's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim as to Count Six.
I. MATERIAL FACTS
In an effort to collect delinquent debts from the plaintiffs, LVNV filed warrants in debt against them in Henrico County and Nottoway County General District Courts. Along with the warrants, LVNV attached and filed affidavits purporting to summarize the accounts owed by Bohannon and Jennings. The plaintiffs say the affidavits were inaccurate in various ways. The affidavits also did not contain the so-called mini-Miranda warnings that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires to be included on communications from a debt collector. LVNV mailed the warrants and affidavits to Bohannon and Jennings after filing them in court. Later, after neither Bohannon nor Jennings appeared, LVNV took default judgments on the warrants. The plaintiffs now claim that LVNV's actions illustrate a pervasive practice of filing false and misleading affidavits that do not comply with the FDCPA in order to procure default judgments throughout Virginia.
As discussed above, LVNV raises three challenges to the plaintiffs' complaint. First, LVNV contends that the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine, a judicial rule that prohibits federal courts from effectively operating as appellate courts for state judgments, forces the Court to reject Counts Two through Six for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Second, LVNV says the affidavits fall within the FDCPA's formal-pleading exception, and thus Count One fails to state a claim for relief. Third, LVNV argues that the complaint fails to set out the necessary facts to state a claim for abuse of process.
A. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents a federal court from reviewing the final judgments of a state court as well as claims that are inextricably intertwined with the state-court proceedings. D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416 (1923). The doctrine rests on the principle that federal district courts lack jurisdiction to review the decisions of state courts; the power to review state judgments belongs to a state's internal appellate system and, ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 283 (2005).
LVNV argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine disqualifies Counts Two through Six from adjudication in this Court because the plaintiffs' allegations regarding the deceptive or misleading content of the affidavits undermine the validity of Virginia state court judgments. Specifically, LVNV contends that finding the affidavits in question misleading or false interferes with the General District Courts' entry of default judgment. In Exxon, however, the Supreme Court made clear that courts must construe the Rooker-Feldman doctrine quite narrowly. Exxon, 544 U.S. at 284; see also Davani v. Va. Dept of Transp., 434 F.3d 712, 713 (4th Cir. 2006) (describing the narrowness emphasized by the Supreme Court in Exxon). Specifically, Rooker-Feldman "is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments." Exxon, 544 U.S. at 284 (emphasis added).
A party relying on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine must establish four conditions: "(1) the federal court plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complains of injuries caused by state-court judgments;' (3) the state court judgment became final before the proceedings in federal court commenced; and (4) the federal plaintiff invit[es] district court review and rejection of those judgments.'" Willner v. Frey, 243 F.Appx. 744, 746 (4th Cir. 2007) (quoting Exxon, 544 U.S. at 284)). In this case, however, the plaintiffs' injuries arise not from ...