In a recent decision, Duarte v. Midland Funding, LLC, 17 C 5061, Judge Ellis of the Northern District of Illinois dismissed an FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act) case against Midland Funding. Midland sought sanctions, which were also denied.
The FDCPA claim was dismissed on the ground that Midland did not send a communication in connection with the collection of a debt. Midland wrote to Duarte, but after she disputed the debt, Midland ceased writing to her. The court concluded that the final letter from Midland was not an attempt to collect a debt and the court then granted summary judgment for Midland.
Midland’s sanctions motion was also denied. The court explained:
Specifically, MF and MCM argue that Duarte and her attorneys violated Rule 11(b)(1) and (b)(2). Rule 11(b)(1) requires counsel to determine that the case “is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(1). Rule 11(b)(2) requires counsel to certify that the claims “are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or establishing new law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(2).
“An attorney takes a frivolous position if he fails to make a reasonable inquiry into facts. . . or takes a position unwarranted by existing law or a good faith argument for its modification.” Rush v. McDonald’s Corp., 966 F.2d 1104, 1122 n.67 (7th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). Although the Court has found that no reasonable trier of fact could find for Duarte on her FDCPA claim and that Duarte has abandoned her ICAA claim, the Court does not find sanctions under Rule 11(b)(2) appropriate in this case. See Cartwright v. Cooney, 788 F. Supp. 2d 744, 755 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (“[E]ven when a court has ruled that a party has been `wrong on the law,’ sanctions against that party do not flow inevitably.”). The merits of Duarte’s FDCPA claim are not as clear cut as MF and MCM would lead the Court to believe. See Zelner v. ATG Credit, LLC, No. 17 C 8007, 2019 WL 556737 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 12, 2019) (in a case involving the same plaintiff’s counsel, refusing to impose sanctions after granting summary judgment to the defendant because the Court could not conclude plaintiff’s claim was frivolous). Duarte’s counsel had a reasonable basis for bringing and continuing to pursue the FDCPA claim, with certain issues surrounding that claim apparently undecided or subject to conflicting interpretations by courts across the country. And, although Duarte appears to acknowledge she has no viable ICAA claim by failing to respond to MF and MCM’s arguments on the merits of that claim, as noted above with respect to the ICAA claim, courts in this district have disagreed as to whether the ICAA provides a private right of action.
The Court also does not find sanctions appropriate under Rule 11(b)(1). MF and MCM claim Duarte and her counsel filed this case for an improper purpose and to harass MF and MCM. “Improper purpose means something other than [the] mere assertion of frivolous or unfounded legal arguments or contentions.” Logan v. Serv. Emps. Int’l Union Local 73, No. 14-CV-10256, 2016 WL 5807932, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 5, 2016) (alteration in original) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). MF and MCM argue that Duarte’s counsel engineered this lawsuit by drafting a letter, or having Duarte draft a letter, that placed MCM in an impossible situation, potentially liable for an FDCPA violation regardless of what actions it took in response. The Court is aware of Duarte’s counsel filing numerous suits against MF, MCM, and other debt collectors based on various alleged FDCPA violations, including based on responses to letters similar to that Duarte sent. In one similar case, the court sanctioned counsel for, among other things, engaging “in a scheme to force settlements from debt collectors by abusing the FDCPA.” Tejero v. Portfolio Recovery Assocs. LLC, No. AU-16-CV-767-SS, 2018 WL 1612856, at *4 (W.D. Tex. Apr. 2, 2018). Although the conduct described in Tejero provides cause for concern, the Court cannot on this record conclude that Duarte filed her case solely to force a settlement or harass MF and MCM. An animating purpose behind the suit may have been to obtain damages and attorneys’ fees, but “it is not improper to file a non-frivolous claim in the hope of getting paid.” Vollmer v. Selden, 350 F.3d 656, 660 (7th Cir. 2003). Otherwise, sanctions would be appropriate in every case raising a claim that allows for recovery of attorneys’ fees. The Court does not condone the actions of Duarte and her counsel, and it expects counsel to be more judicious in its pursuit of new FDCPA claims in the future. But it does not find sanctions under Rule 11(b)(1) appropriate here. See Edwards v. Equifax Info. Servs., LLC, No. 1:17-cv-03096-RLM-MPB, 2018 WL 1748132, at *5 (S.D. Ind. Mar. 13, 2018) (declining to impose sanctions under § 1927 for bad faith litigation but noting that “the Court is not unsympathetic to the challenges BHC’s litigation strategy has presented to Experian in fairly and efficiently defending allegations raised against it” and that “[c]ontinued use of these tactics by BHC against Experian may very well result in a different conclusion in the future”), report and recommendation adopted, 2018 WL 1745965 (S.D. Ind. Apr. 11, 2018).