The Supreme Court of Missouri has issued a ruling against a noted industry attorney, saying that a lower court erred in dismissing a lawsuit filed by an individual who alleged violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.
A copy of the ruling in Jackson v. Barton III can be accessed here.
The plaintiff in the case, Keith Jackson, filed a lawsuit against a dental practice and Dennis Barton III. In April 2012, the plaintiff had work done at the dental practice, LifeSmile, and paid $177.80 on a $495 bill because insurance would cover the the remaining balance, the plaintiff alleges he was told. Three months later, in June 2012, the practice sent a collection letter seeking an additional $184.20 as well as a $35 monthly late fee. In September 2013, Barton filed a lawsuit on behalf of the practice, seeking a judgment of $485.52 plus reasonable attorneys fees. Barton set a trial date of July 10, 2014.
On that date, the plaintiff showed up and Barton did not. The lawsuit against Jackson was dismissed.
A week later, Barton sent Jackson a demand letter and separately filed a motion to set aside the dismissal of the lawsuit.
In August 2014, a Circuit Court judge granted Barton’s motion and set aside the dismissal. In October, LifeSmile dismissed its lawsuit against Jackson.
In January 2015, Jackson sued Barton and LifeSmile, “alleging Mr. Barton violated the FDCPA by engaging in harassing, abusive, misleading, deceptive, and unconscionable conduct in attempting to collect payment on behalf of LifeSmile,” according to the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling.
Jackson alleged LifeSmile fabricated a contract, which Barton should have known was fake, and that no part of the arrangement obligated Jackson to pay attorney’s fees.
Barton filed a motion to dismiss, saying the one-year statute of limitations had expired. That motion was granted. Jackson appealed.
Jackson cited three ways in which Barton violated the FDCPA: by not showing up for the original court date, by sending a subsequent demand letter which with an incorrect amount due, and in obtaining the order setting aside the original case’s dismissal.
Barton argued that the one-year statue of limitations starts when the original collection action was filed. The Supreme Court agreed, but also said that, in this case, specific actions are being deemed to be a violation of the FDCPA and looked to a similar ruling from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Demarais v. Gurstel Chargo.
An FDCPA violation, therefore, is not time-barred simply because it restates or relates back to assertions made in a debt collection action that was filed beyond the one-year statute of limitations. Instead, the proper focus is on determining whether an FDCPA violation occurred on the alleged date.
Also from the ruling:
Mr. Jackson is not alleging his FDCPA claim is timely because Mr. Barton continued to prosecute the debt collection action into the limitations period. Mr. Jackson alleges Mr. Barton engaged in tactics – the intentional failure to appear at trial, the demand letter sent while the case was dismissed, and the filing of the motion to set aside the dismissal of the action – designed to harass him into paying the debt by causing him to incur substantial and unnecessary fees. Mr. Jackson alleges these discrete tactics amount to an FDCPA violation in that they establish Mr. Barton engaged in harassing, abusive, misleading, deceptive, and unconscionable conduct in an attempt to collect a debt that was not owed. That the alleged conduct relates to the collection of a single debt does not preclude Mr. Barton’s subsequent conduct from constituting an independent FDCPA violation.
In a dissenting opinion, the Court opted not to mention anything related to the FDCPA claim, instead focusing on why the MMPA claim should have been dismissed.