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DRENNAN v. VAN RU CREDIT CORP.

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS, EASTERN DIVISION


December 30, 1996

JOHN C. DRENNAN, JR., etc., Plaintiff,
v.
VAN RU CREDIT CORPORATION, et al., Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: SHADUR

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

 John Drennan, Jr. ("Drennan") has brought a putative class action against Van Ru Credit Corporation ("Van Ru") and its principal Albert Rubin ("Rubin"), charging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("Act," 15 U.S.C. § 1692 to 1692o *fn1" ) and invoking federal jurisdiction based on the federal questions thus involved. Van Ru and Rubin have moved under Fed. R. Civ. P. ("Rule") 12(b)(6) to dismiss the action, and their motion has been fully briefed and is ready for decision. *fn2" For the reasons stated in this memorandum opinion and order, the motion is denied and Van Ru and Rubin are ordered to answer Drennan's Complaint.

 Each side recognizes the basic Rule 12(b)(6) proposition that Drennan's allegations are to be accepted as true and that dismissal is appropriate "only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations" ( Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73, 81 L. Ed. 2d 59, 104 S. Ct. 2229 (1984), relying on Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957)). And in part because the Rules embody a notice-pleading rather than fact-pleading regime, plaintiff Drennan is also entitled to have his well-pleaded allegations construed in the most favorable light ( Richmond v. Nationwide Cassel L.P., 52 F.3d 640, 644 (7th Cir. 1995)).

 In this instance Drennan targets two notices that he received from Van Ru as assertedly Act-violative: its September 14, 1995 "LEGAL REVIEW NOTIFICATION" ("September Notice," Complaint Ex. A, attached as Ex. 1 to this opinion) and its December 16, 1995 "NOTICE OF POSSIBLE WAGE GARNISHMENT" ("December Notice," Complaint Ex. B, attached as Ex. 2 to this opinion). Each Notice addressed Drennan's assertedly unpaid balance on a student loan obtained through NorthStar Guarantee, Inc. Although Drennan did not pay the alleged loan balance after receipt of either of the two Notices, *fn3" no enforcement action of any kind was undertaken during the year-long period that elapsed between the September Notice and the September 11, 1996 filing of the Complaint (a period of nine months when measured from the date of the December Notice).

 According to Drennan, that course of conduct involves violations of several provisions of the Act--Sections 1692e(4), (5), (9) and (13). And Rubin is joined as a defendant on the premise that as a Van Ru executive officer he "direct[s] its policies, practices and operations" (Complaint P29).

 Viability of the Complaint

 Both the September Notice and the December Notice must be measured against the yardstick of the "unsophisticated consumer," as announced by our Court of Appeals in Gammon v. GC Servs. Ltd. Partnership, 27 F.3d 1254, 1257 (7th Cir. 1994) and reconfirmed earlier this year in an action successfully brought against Van Ru and Rubin themselves, Avila v. Rubin, 84 F.3d 222 (7th Cir. 1996). As Avila, id. at 226 said of the applicable test:

 

After some anguish, we held in Gammon v. GC Servs. Ltd. Partnership, 27 F.3d 1254, 1257 (7th Cir. 1994), that claims against debt collectors under the FDCPA are to be viewed through the eyes of the "unsophisticated consumer." We rejected what may be viewed as a somewhat lesser standard--the "least sophisticated consumer," used by other courts. We reiterate our standard today, but we don't want to be involved in the splitting of split hairs. Anyway it's viewed, the standard is low, close to the bottom of the sophistication meter.

 Looked at through that "unsophisticated consumer" lens, Van Ru's September Notice flunks the test. What is such a consumer to understand as the meaning of "Legal Review Notification," the caption of that first document that was sent to Drennan? Here are the first three sentences of the notification that come immediately below that caption:

 

You have been given sufficient time to resolve this matter. The legal review process may may result in a recommendation to your creditor to file a lawsuit against you. Should our client authorize suit, your account may be referred to an attorney in your county to file suit at once for the above claim.

 And importantly, after that statement and the ensuing detailed recital of the perils that the debtor faces if a judgment is then obtained, the notification makes its message unmistakable:

 

Please contact this office upon receipt of this notice or mail full payment to avoid the above.

 Just what is meant by "the legal review process," a term that is puzzling even to anyone schooled in the law and that surely must be an arcane mystery to the layperson? And although defendants urge that everything from there on is both conditional ("may result," "may be referred" and so on) and is successively so (as in the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, and so on), defendants' characterization of the communication as a whole as not conveying a threat to the paradigmatic unsophisticated consumer is just not persuasive.

 Unsophisticated consumers to whom Van Ru addresses such communications do not open their mail with Strunk and White's The Elements of Style at their elbows (for that matter, who does?). *fn4" To the archetypical person whom Congress sought to protect by the Act, Van Ru's September Notice had to appear as an ominous harbinger of things to come unless the addressee complied with the directive of what had to be done "to avoid the above"--"the above" being the notification's recital of the successive parade of horribles that would follow should the "legal review process" trigger the first and ensuing steps in that process. *fn5"

 Section 1692e(5) defines as a violation of the Act:

 

The threat to take any action...that is not intended to be taken.

 To the "unsophisticated consumer" the September Notice surely conveyed a threat--the realistic rather than any hypothetical prospect of enforcement action if payment were not made (see n.5) *fn6" --and the reasonable inference from Van Ru's having left Drennan waiting for the other shoe to drop during the ensuing months is that the threatened action was "not intended to be taken." As for Rubin individually, the reasonable inference from Complaint P29 (though stated in conclusory fashion, as notice-pleading principles permit) supports his individual inclusion as a defendant in the same way that Avila found him to be a proper target. *fn7"

 Like the lawyer who views the Rules of Professional Conduct from the perspective that they mark out lines of impermissible conduct that are intended to be approached asymptotically--by coming as close as possible to engaging in actual impropriety, without quite touching the lines *fn8" --so Rubin and Van Ru appear constantly to be pushing the envelope of the Act in hopes that their questionable activities will stay on the legal side rather than crossing over into illegality. Wholly apart from the unwholesomeness of such an approach in purely social terms (a consideration that may inform Congress' enactments, but that does not constitute the decisional criterion for this Court), there is little wonder that risk-takers of that nature have more than once come too close to the edge, falling off of the cliff of legality into the canyon of unlawfulness (as the decision in Avila graphically demonstrates).

 As disclosed by Avila, Rubin is regrettably an Illinois lawyer. Although some of the things that have made him a discredit to the profession were curbed in Avila, he and his corporation continue (to shift metaphors) to play chicken with the Act. What is disclosed by the Complaint depicts additional collisions with its terms by both of the challenged documents:

 

1. This opinion's discussion up to this point has already identified the "threat" implicit in the September Notice within the meaning of Act § 1692e(5).

 

2. As for the December Notice, it plainly (perhaps even more plainly) contains a "representation or implication that nonpayment of any debt will result in the...garnishment...of...wages" (Act § 1692e(4)): Its opening statement ("If you are currently employed, your wages may now be withheld monthly to pay your defaulted student loan, pursuant to Federal Law") is fairly understood by any unsophisticated consumer as a statement that wage garnishment is now a remedy available to creditor NorthStar Guarantee, Inc. *fn9"

 

3. Without question, the periods of inaction following the two Notices (one year after the September Notice, nine months after the December Notice) lead to the reasonable inference that Van Ru did not intend to take the threatened or implied action, as required by each of Sections 1692e(5) and (4).

 Those things suffice to demonstrate the viability of the Complaint. Although this Court does not hold that any violations of Section 1692e(9) are involved, and although any claimed violation of Section 1692(e)(13) is doubtful at best, the Complaint itself clearly survives the current motion (as taught by Tolle v. Carroll Touch, Inc., 977 F.2d 1129, 1134 (7th Cir. 1992), the failure to identify a legal theory of recovery--or even the inclusion of a wrong legal theory--does not affect the sustainability of a complaint).

 Conclusion

 Because the motion to dismiss has been denied for the reasons stated here, both Van Ru and Rubin are ordered to answer the Complaint on or before January 14, 1997. This Court vacates the presently-set January 3 status date and instead sets a status hearing at 9:15 a.m. January 21, 1997, at which point the parties should be prepared to discuss further proceedings relating to Drennan's Rule 23 motion for class certification.

 Milton I. Shadur

 Senior United States District Judge

 Date: December 30, 1996

 EXHIBIT A

 THIS HAS BEEN SENT TO YOU BY A COLLECTION AGENCY

 Van Ru Credit Corporation

 10024 SKOKIE BLVD., P.O. BOX # 1109

 SKOKIE, IL 60076-8109

 1-800-362-2234 EXT. # 9999

 Si usted tiene algun problems on en entender este documento, por favor comuniquase con nuestra oficina al:

 1-800-362-2234

 JOHN C DRENNAN JR

 FILE # : 045381

 9/14/95

 M70 CREDITOR(S) ACCOUNT # AMOUNT NORTHSTAR GUARANTEE, INC 379845505-16181*1 3694.41

 LEGAL REVIEW NOTIFICATION

 You have been given sufficient time to resolve this matter. The legal review process has been initiated on your debt. The legal review process may may result in a recommendation to your creditor to [ILLEGIBLE WORD] a lawsuit against you. Should our client authorize suit, your account may be referred to an attorney in your county to file suit at once for the above claim. If a judgement is obtained against you, you may become liable for additional collection costs, court costs, attorney's fees, where applicable, and interest after judgement. Interest and additional installment payments will be added to your account, as permitted by law or contract, until final payment is received. If your creditor obtains a judgment, unless state and federal law protects you from the following, the court may order:

 

1. Garnishment of your wages;

 

2. Attachment and levies on your real and personal property; and/or

 

3. Other methods to enforce such judgment.

 Upon refusal to pay any judgment, supplementary proceedings may follow and the court may order judgment satisfied out of any assets that may be discovered. The court may also, where necessary and where authorized by local law, issue an injunction to prevent the unlawful conveyance of the defendants assets and satisfaction of the judgement out of the same. Please contact this office upon receipt of this notice or mail full payment to avoid the above. This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained may be used to collect this debt.

 Van Ru Credit Corporation

 5270 Main Street

 Maple Plain, MN 55359

 RETURN THIS PORTION WITH YOUR PAYMENT TO:

 

VAN RU CREDIT CORP.

 

PAYMENT PROCESSING CENTER

 

P.O. BOX # 46249

 

LINCOLNWOOD, IL 60646-0249

 

 

 

 

# BWNBLDM **** 3-DIGIT 554

 

# A04538I0002 # NST11V T020P002 01614

 

JOHN C DRENNAN JR

 

2347 ARTHUR ST NE

 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN. 55418-3912

 FILE # : 045381

 CURRENT BALANCE: $ 3694.41

 DATE: 9/14/95

 M70V

  EXHIBIT B

 THIS HAS BEEN SENT TO YOU BY A COLLECTION AGENCY

 Van Ru Credit Corporation

 10024 SKOKIE BLVD., P.O. BOX # 1109

 SKOKIE, IL 60076-8109

 1-800-477-0777 EXT. # 8171

 Si usted tiene algun problems en entender este documento, por favor comuniquase con nuestra oficina al:

 1-800-477-0777 Extencion Dos, Cero, Custro, Dos.

 JOHN C DRENNAN JR

 FILE # : 045381

 12/16/95

 B69 CREDITOR(S) ACCOUNT # AMOUNT NORTHSTAR GUARANTEE, INC 379845505-16181*1 3759.51

 NOTICE OF POSSIBLE WAGE GARNISHMENT

 If you are currently employed, your wages may now be withheld monthly to pay your defaulted student loan, pursuant to Federal Law (Public Law 102-164, 20 U.S.C. § 1095a et seq).

 There are other avenues available to you which you may not be aware of.

 The Federal Consolidation Program can remove your account from [ILLEGIBLE WORDS] status, upgrade your credit standing and allow you to be eligible for Title IV benefits on [ILLEGIBLE WORD]

 Call our office at 1-800-477-0777.

 This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used to collect this debt.

 Van Ru Credit Corporation

 5270 Main Street

 Maple Plain, MN 55359

 RETURN THIS PORTION WITH YOUR PAYMENT TO:

 

VAN RU CREDIT CORP.

 

PAYMENT PROCESSING CENTER

 

P.O. BOX # 46249

  

LINCOLNWOOD, IL 60646-0249

  

  

  

  

  

# BWNBLDM **** 5-DIGIT 55418

  

# A0453810002 # NST11V T024P013 02079

  

JOHN C DRENNAN JR

  

2347 ARTHUR ST NE

  

MINNEAPOLIS, MN. 55418-3912

  FILE # : 045381

  CURRENT BALANCE: $ 3759.51

  DATE: 12/16/95


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