Appeals Court Gleefully Smacks Down Unscrupulous Debt Buyer

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of a plaintiff who sued a debt buyer and collection law firm for suing the plaintiff in a different jurisdiction.

The defendant, Joseph Onwuteaka, has gotten into a lot of trouble for filing more than 2,000 lawsuits in Houston against individuals in attempts to collect unpaid debts, even though many of the defendants lived far from where the suit was being filed. The state of Texas eventually caught up to Onwuteaka and obtained a $25 million judgment against him.

A copy of the Appeals Court ruling in Infante v. Law Office of Joseph Onwuteaka can be accessed by clicking here.

The plaintiff in this case, Shirley Infante, was one of the individuals that Onwuteaka attempted to sue in Houston. Living in Beaumont, Texas, about 90 minutes away, Infante was “incensed” that she was being hauled into court in Houston, she enlisted the help of a legal services organization to file a response to Onwuteaka’s suit. As he did in most cases where a defendant fought back, Onwuteaka dropped his suit. But Infante decided that wasn’t enough. She filed a lawsuit of her own, alleging that he violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. A District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Infante and awarded her $1,000. Onwuteaka subsequently appealed.

Onwuteaka attempted to make the argument that he should not be considered a debt collector, as defined by the FDCPA because he owned the debt buying entity that purchased Infante’s debt. Because he was not collecting on someone else’s debt, he should not be defined as a debt collector. As it considered this argument, the Appeals Court noted that Onwuteaka’s demand letters refer to the debt buying entity, Samara Portfolio Management, as Onwuteaka’s client and included the language: “This Is An Attempt to Collect A Debt By A Debt Collector.”

The judges writing the appeal seem to take great pleasure in pointing out all the ways that Onwuteaka’s arguments fell short. His next attempt was to invoke two exceptions to the FDCPA’s debt collector definition. From the ruling:

The entirety of Onwuteaka’s argument for the exceptions spans two short sentences—sentences in which he not only misstates the exceptions, but also fails to explain why either applies to this case and to provide citations to the factual record. We have already chastised Onwuteaka for his “conclusory” and “deficient” briefing. 614 F. App’x at 151, 159. We also admonished him that in opposing summary judgment, he “must not only ‘identify specific evidence in the record,’ but also ‘articulate the “precise manner” in which that evidence’” supports his position

Onwuteaka’s final argument was to say that there was insufficient evidence of a covered “debt.” I know I’m supposed to summarize everything, but, in this case, I can’t do it justice. From the ruling:

Onwuteaka’s argument is difficult to follow because it merely recounts facts that have no obvious legal significance without explaining why they support his argument. Cf. Serna, 614 F. App’x at 152 (advising Onwuteaka that he must “articulate the ‘precise manner’ in which [the factual record] support[s]” his argument (quoting Willis, 749 F.3d at 317)). Onwuteaka explains that the complaint alleges that Infante bought two televisions from a Conn’s store on an installment plan. But, significantly in Onwuteaka’s view, Conn’s Appliance, Inc., not Conn’s, was the original creditor. Onwuteaka then highlights that Infante stipulated at the damages hearing that she did not produce any contract with Conn’s Appliance, Inc., and that her testimony at the hearing provides no evidence of a relationship with the original creditor.

According to Onwuteaka, it follows—as night the day—that Infante has failed to prove a debt.

His argument misses the mark. The FDCPA’s definition of “debt” includes “any . . . alleged obligation.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(5). It is undisputed that Onwuteaka sent two demand letters and filed a lawsuit alleging that Infante owed a debt to Conn’s Appliance, Inc., and demanding payment. Moreover, Infante produced two retail installment contracts with Conn’s Credit Corporation, Inc. To the extent Onwuteaka is playing a semantic game, his argument is not well taken. Even assuming that Conn’s Appliance, Inc., is not the original creditor, any error in identifying the original creditor is entirely of Onwuteaka’s making. He failed to identify the original creditor correctly in his demand letters and state-court petition. Because the FDCPA covers alleged debts, see 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(5), his failure matters not a whit.

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