Mark Suesz, individually and on behalf of a class, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Med-1 Solutions, LLC, Defendant-Appellee.
Argued October 3, 2013.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 1:12-cv-1517-WTL-MJD — William T. Lawrence, Judge.
Before Posner, Flaum, and Williams, Circuit Judges.
Flaum, Circuit Judge.
Defendant-appellee Med-1 Solutions bought the medical debt of Mark Suesz and filed a collection action in the Marion County Small Claims Court for Pike Township. Med-1 obtained a favorable judgment, but Suesz then filed suit in federal district court seeking damages under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FDCPA contains a venue provision requiring debt collectors to bring suit in the "judicial district" where the contract was signed or where the consumer resides. Suesz asserts that Med-1 violated this provision because he lives in a neighboring county and the debt was incurred in a township other than Pike. The district court dismissed Suesz's claim after finding Marion County Small Claims Courts were not judicial districts for the purposes of the FDCPA. We agree, and affirm the dismissal of Suesz's complaint.
Med-1 is in the business of buying delinquent debts. It purchased Suesz's debt from Community Hospital North in Indianapolis. In March 2012 it filed a collection suit in the Pike Township small claims court, located in Marion County. Med-1 prevailed in the small claims action, and received a judgment against Suesz for $1, 280.
Suesz lives one county over from Marion. Though he incurred the debt in Marion County, he did so in Lawrence Township, where Community North Hospital sits, and not in Pike Township. Suesz says that it is Med-1's practice to file claims in Pike Township regardless of the origins of the dispute.
Suesz filed a putative class action alleging that Med-1's suit in Pike Township violated the FDCPA's venue provision. The district court granted Med-1's motion to dismiss. It reasoned that the Pike Township small claims court did not constitute an FDCPA judicial district, but was instead an administrative subset of the Marion County Circuit Court. The court was guided by our decision in Newsom v. Friedman, 76 F.3d 813 (7th Cir. 1996). It noted that the township courts were not courts of record and did not use juries, that litigants could file suit in any of the township courts in the county, that the Marion County Circuit Court judge could transfer cases between township courts for administrative convenience, and that the circuit court judge aided the township courts, including by establishing uniform township court rules. Suesz now appeals the dismissal of his complaint.
We review the district court's dismissal of a complaint de novo. Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008).
A. The policy behind § 1692i of the FDCPA
Congress enacted the FDCPA to curb abusive practices by debt collectors, and § 1692i of the law punishes the "unfair practice" of filing against consumers in "distant or inconvenient forums that can make it difficult for debtors to appear." Hess v. Cohen & Slamowitz LLP, 637 F.3d 117, 120 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting S. Rep. No. 95382, at 5 (1977), reprinted in 1977 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1695, 1699). To that end, debt collectors are permitted to bring collection actions "only in the judicial district or similar legal entity in which such consumer signed the contract sued upon; or in which such consumer resides at the commencement" of the action. 15 U.S.C. § 1692i.
Congress did not specially define "judicial district" in the statute, but that does not make the phrase vague. We simply construe it according to its common meaning. Newsom, 76 F.3d at 817; see also Whitfield v. United States, 543 U.S. 209, 213 (2005) (noting the "settled principle of statutory construction that, absent contrary indications, Congress intends to adopt the common law definition of statutory terms"). Thus, in Newsom, we first turned to the definition of "judicial district" found in Black's Law Dictionary at the time the FDCPA was enacted. Id. at 817. As we shall fully detail below, that definition framed our § 1692i analysis, and required a detailed look at the details of the Cook County Circuit Court and Illinois's broader judicial system.
We took this approach because debt collectors almost always bring collection actions in state courts, and the specifics of state judicial structures differ. Section 1692i's check on forum shopping thus requires us to consider these structures as a whole. See, e.g., Newsom, 76 F.3d at 817–18. The dissent would impose a one-factor test asking only which court with original jurisdiction over the collection action is closest to the debtor. But if Congress had intended this, it could easily have enacted such a provision. We continue to believe the FDCPA requires a more searching analysis of the structure and function of the state's judicial organization. Although Congress sought to aid unsophisticated parties who are the target of unfair debt collection methods, it was aware that it was imposing the FDCPA on our patchwork federal frame- work. Section 1692i may have been the legislature's attempt to balance its desire to aid debtors against the realities of our varied state court systems.
At any rate, we see no reason to depart from our existing approach in § 1692i cases. That requires us to undertake a detailed examination of the structure of Indiana's judiciary before we ...