Graveling v. Bank United N.A., et al
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 10/15/2014. (JLC)
2014 Oct-15 PM 03:03
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JAMES GRAVELING AND LORI
SIROTE & PERMUTE, P.C., and
) Case No.: 2:13-cv-120-VEH
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit, James and Lori Graveling (“the Gravelings”), are
proceeding pro se. The dispute arises out of a foreclosure action by former defendant
(since dismissed from this case) Coastal States Mortgage, Inc. ("Coastal") on a
mortgage on the Gravelings’ house. (Doc. 12 at 2-3). The only remaining defendants
are the law firm of Sirote & Permutt ("Sirote") and Ginny Rutledge ("Ms. Rutledge"),
an attorney at Sirote1 (collectively, “the Defendants”).
The Gravelings initiated this action on January 18, 2013, by filing a motion for
preliminary injunction. (Doc. 1). After being ordered by the court to do so, they filed
Sirote and Ms. Rutledge represented Coastal.
an amended complaint. (Doc. 6). They brought six claims: separate counts for fraud
against Castle Mortgage Company ("Castle") and against Coastal, a count for
wrongful foreclosure against BankUnited, N.A. ("BankUnited"), a count for illegal
foreclosure sale auction against Andrew Benefield ("Mr. Benefield"), a count for
refusal to cease debt collecting in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
("FDCPA") against Coastal, and a count for refusal to cease debt collecting in
violation of the FDCPA against Sirote, Rutledge, and Ryan Daugherty ("Mr.
Daugherty"). On August 27, 2013, the court granted a motion to dismiss the
Gravelings’ claims as against Castle, BankUnited, Mr. Benefield, and Mr. Daugherty.
(Doc. 63). On December 4, 2013, the court dismissed with prejudice their claims
against Coastal for failure to prosecute. (Doc. 82). The Gravelings’ only remaining
claim is for refusal to cease debt collection activities in violation of the FDCPA
against Sirote and Ms. Rutledge.
Pending before the court is the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on
all remaining claims, which was filed on July 29, 2014. (Doc. 100). The Gravelings
filed a response on August 28, 2014. (Doc. 102). The Defendants then filed a reply to
the response on September 11, 2014. (Doc. 106). Accordingly, the Motion is ready for
disposition and, for the reasons explained below, is due to be GRANTED.
Summary judgment is proper only when there is no genuine issue of material
fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R . Civ. P.
56(c). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved
in favor of the nonmovant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th
Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could
return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S.
242, 248 (1986). “Once the moving party has properly supported its motion for
summary judgment, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to ‘come forward with
specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’” International Stamp
Art, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, 456 F.3d 1270, 1274 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)).
Fair Debt Collection Protection Act
Congress enacted the FDCPA “to eliminate abusive debt collection practices
by debt collectors . . .”15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). The FDCPA both requires and forbids
specific conduct by debt collectors. The Act “does not ordinarily require proof of
intentional violation and, as a result, is described by some as a strict liability statute.”
LeBlanc v. Unifund CCR Partners, 601 F.3d 1185, 1190 (11th Cir. 2010) (per curiam)
(citations omitted). Further, a single violation of the statute is sufficient to establish
civil liability. Bentley v. Great Lakes Collection Bureau, 6 F.3d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1993)
(citing 15 U.S.C. § 1692k).
In order to prevail on an FDCPA claim, a plaintiff must prove that: “(1) the
plaintiff has been the object of collection activity arising from consumer debt, (2) the
defendant is a debt collector as defined by the FDCPA, and (3) the defendant has
engaged in an act or omission prohibited by the FDCPA.” Kaplan v. Assetcare, Inc.,
88 F. Supp. 2d 1355, 1360-61 (S.D. Fla. 2000) (quoting Sibley v. Firstcollect, Inc.,
913 F. Supp. 469, 470 (M.D. La.1995)).
Following the court's August 27, 2013, memorandum of opinion on the Motions
to Dismiss, the only issue left to be decided is the third element: whether the
Defendants engaged in an action or omission prohibited by the FDCPA. Three
provisions of the FDCPA are relevant for purposes of this analysis under the claims
in this case. The first concerns the debt collector’s obligations to provide information
at the time of the initial communication with a consumer:
Within five days after the initial communication with a consumer in connection
with the collection of any debt, a debt collector shall, unless the following
information is contained in the initial communication or the consumer has paid
the debt, send the consumer a written notice containing–
(1) the amount of the debt;
(2) the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed;
(3) a statement that unless the consumer, within thirty days after receipt
of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the
debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector;
(4) a statement that if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing
within the thirty-day period that the debt, or any portion thereof, is
disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt or a copy
of a judgment against the consumer and a copy of such verification or
judgment will be mailed to the consumer by the debt collector; and
(5) a statement that, upon the consumer's written request within the
thirty-day period, the debt collector will provide the consumer with the
name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current
15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a).
The second provision governs situations where, after receiving a notice of the
debt, the consumer disputes the debt:
If the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within [thirty days of
receiving written notice of the debt, as described in 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)] that
the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, or that the consumer requests the
name and address of the original creditor, the debt collector shall cease
collection of the debt, or any disputed portion thereof, until the debt collector
obtains verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment, or the name and
address of the original creditor, and a copy of such verification or judgment, or
name and address of the original creditor, is mailed to the consumer by the debt
15 U.S.C § 1692g(b).
The third provision concerns situations where the consumer refuses to pay the
debt or demands that the collector cease communications:
If a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to
pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further
communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate
further with the consumer with respect to such debt, except-(1) to advise the consumer that the debt collector's further efforts are
(2) to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor may invoke
specified remedies which are ordinarily invoked by such debt collector
or creditor; or
(3) where applicable, to notify the consumer that the debt collector or
creditor intends to invoke a specified remedy.
15 U.S.C. § 1692c(c).
The Gravelings claim that Sirote and Ms. Rutledge violated the FDCPA by
continuing communications after they had disputed their debt (contra § 1692g(b)) and
after they had requested that the Defendants cease communications (contra §
1692c(c)). The Defendants do not deny that they communicated with the Gravelings.
Instead, they argue that their communications were not in violation of the FDCPA.
The Defendants make two arguments for why their communications were allowable.
The Defendants had no obligation to refrain from communicating
with the Gravelings at the time that they sent the notice of
First, the Defendants argue that they had no obligation to refrain from
communicating with the Gravelings because there was not a valid dispute of debt
letter outstanding at the time when they sent the March 12, 2012, notice of
acceleration letter. (Doc. 100 at 11). Specifically, the Defendants allege that the
Gravelings, in their September 16, 2011, letter, “demanded that [Coastal] either ‘prove
the contract’ or ‘cease communicating with us as per Fair Debt Collection Practices
Act.’” (Doc. 100 at 8) (emphasis in doc. 100). This, the Defendants contend, gave
Coastal the option to do either of two things: to “prove the contract” or to cease
communications with the Gravelings. The Defendants argue that Coastal gave
sufficient verification of the debt by sending copies of the note on September 28 and
November 9, 2011, thereby fulfilling the requirements of the FDCPA at15 U.S.C. §
In opposition, the Gravelings deny that Coastal verified the debt. They assert
that they were entitled to see the original note and original mortgage, rather than a
copy. (Doc. 102 at 14-15, 18). These arguments were rejected by the court in its
August 27, 2013, memorandum of opinion on the Motions to Dismiss and will not be
reconsidered, as there is no legal basis for a requirement that the original documents
be provided. (Doc. 62). The Gravelings also point to the letter sent to them by Ms.
Rutledge on March 19, 2012, which stated,
I am writing to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated March 14, 2012,
regarding the above-referenced property [the house then and now occupied by
the plaintiffs]. ... We have canceled foreclosure proceedings at this time. Please
note that we have ceased foreclosure proceedings until proper debt verification
is provided to you.
(Doc. 102, Exhibit A) (bracketed material in Doc. 102). The Gravelings argue that this
amounts to an admission by the Defendants that proper debt verification had never
been provided to them. (Doc. 102 at 6-7). Although“until proper debt verification is
provided” could, in a vacuum, imply that the Gravelings had never received proper
verification, the evidence clearly demonstrates that the Gravelings in fact had been
provided with the FDCPA-mandated debt verification information by both Coastal (in
its correspondence on September 28, 2011, and November 9, 2011) and Sirote (in its
March 12, 2012, notice of acceleration letter).
The key to deciding this issue requires deciding whether the Gravelings (a) told
Coastal that they refused to pay the debt or to cease communications, making 15
U.S.C. § 1692c(c) applicable, or (b) disputed the debt, making 15 U.S.C. § 1692g
applicable. In this case, the evidence is undisputed that, in the Gravelings’ September
16, 2011, letter, they demanded either that Coastal provide verification of the debt2 or
cease communicating. (Doc. 6-4 at 12). The court agrees that the Gravelings’ letter
gave Coastal either of two options, and Coastal chose one: to verify the debt. Coastal
did so on September 28, 2011, by sending a certified copy of the note to the
Gravelings, along with a letter explaining that Coastal had acquired the note from
Castle, the original lender. (Doc. 100-3 at 19-22). When Mr. Graveling sent a second
notice of dispute on October 28, 2011, reiterating the demand for the original note,
affidavits, and notarized documents (doc. 6-6), Coastal sent another copy of the note
and information on how Coastal had acquired the note. (Doc. 100-4 at 5). The
Gravelings then sent a third letter on February 23, 2012, demanding that Coastal cease
communications with them on the grounds that Coastal “had provided none of the
items necessary to validate the debt requisite under law [sic].” (Doc. 6-10 at 2).
This court has already decided in its August 27, 2013, memorandum on the
motions to dismiss that there is no basis under the FDCPA or other federal law for the
Gravelings’ demands for the original, “wet-ink” note or for sworn affidavits. (Doc. 62
at 13-17). By sending (twice) a copy of the note to the Gravelings, along with
As discussed above, the Gravelings demanded a variety of sworn affidavits
and notarized documents not required under the FDCPA, insisting that these were
necessary to “prove the contract.” (Id. at 4-12). The FDCPA, not the Gravelings’
demand, determines what is required to validate a debt.
additional information on the note’s chain of transfer, Coastal fulfilled its obligations
under the FDCPA, which requires debt collectors to respond to a disputed debt by
sending “a copy of such verification” of debt. 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(b). This meant that
the debt was now validated, and so no longer in dispute. Therefore, Coastal — and the
attorneys it hired for foreclosure, Sirote and Ms. Rutledge — became entitled to
resume collection efforts. Id. (“the debt collector shall cease collection of the debt .
. . until the debt collector obtains verification of the debt . . . and a copy of such
verification . . . is mailed to the consumer by the debt collector”).
The Gravelings’ repetition of their demands for materials not required by law
to verify the debt did not thereby create another debt dispute. “Plaintiff's debt already
had been verified for purposes of the FDCPA. Plaintiff cannot forestall collection
efforts by repeating the same unsubstantiated assertions and thereby contend that the
debt is ‘disputed.’ If Plaintiff were permitted to do so, debtors would be able to
prevent collection permanently by sending letters, regardless of their merit, stating that
the debt is in dispute. Such a result is untenable, as it would make debts effectively
uncollectable.” Hawkins-El v. First Am. Funding, LLC, 891 F. Supp. 2d 402, 410
(E.D.N.Y. 2012), aff'd, 529 F. App'x 45 (2d Cir. 2013). Finally, the Gravelings’ letter
to Coastal on February 23, 2012, telling Coastal to cease communications was
explicitly premised on Coastal’s failure to provide the original note and other
(unrequired-by-law) documents the Gravelings had demanded. (Doc. 6-10 at 2, ¶2, 4).
For that reason, the court will not consider it to revive the Gravelings’ prior demand,
thereby forestalling collection yet again. Alternatively, given the language the
Gravelings chose to include in this letter, the court will not consider it to be a new
demand by the Gravelings that communications cease (as contemplated by 15 U.S.C.
§ 1692c(c)), but rather an extension of the demands for debt verification materials to
which they were not entitled.
Therefore, summary judgment will be GRANTED to the defendants on the
Gravelings’ claims of FDCPA violations.3
The notice of acceleration was permitted as a specific exception
under the FDCPA
The Defendants also contend that even if the Gravelings’ February 23, 2012,
In one paragraph in their opposition to the motion for summary judgment,
the Gravelings also allege that the Defendants violated the FDCPA’s requirements
at 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a) that debt collectors send written notice containing
information about the creditor and statements about the consumer’s rights within
five days of the debt collector’s initial communication with the consumer. (Doc.
102 at 7). They argue that Sirote and Ms. Rutledge failed to send the written notice
within five days of their initial communication, the March 12, 2012, notice of
acceleration. (Id.). This argument is plainly incorrect. The Defendants’ notice of
acceleration contained the two pieces of information required by the statute (the
amount of the debt and the name of the creditor) as well as the three statements
required under 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(3)-(5). (Doc. 100-4 at 24). Therefore, this
argument is without merit.
letter obligated the Defendants to cease debt collection communications under 15
U.S.C. § 1692c(c), their notice of acceleration was allowed by one of two exceptions
in the FDCPA. (Doc. 100 at 11-12). The FDCPA allows a debt collector to continue
communications related to the debt in order “to notify the consumer that the debt
collector or creditor may invoke specified remedies which are ordinarily invoked by
such debt collector or creditor” or “to notify the consumer that the debt collector or
creditor intends to invoke a specified remedy.” Id. at § 1692c(c)(2)-(3).
The Defendants’ March 12, 2012, notice of acceleration read,
YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED that you are in default of the terms of the
Promissory Note and Mortgage. . . By virtue of default in the terms of said Note
and Mortgage, Coastal  hereby accelerates to maturity the entire remaining
unpaid balance of the debt . . . and the amount due and payable as of the date
of this letter is $125,950.17. This payoff amount may change on a daily basis.
If you wish to pay off your mortgage, please call our office at the number above
to obtain the updated figure.
We are at this time commencing foreclosure under the terms of the Mortgage,
and enclosed is a copy of the foreclosure notice to be published in The Clarion.
Please note that the foreclosure sale is scheduled for April 18, 2012. If you wish
to avoid losing the subject property, you must contact us immediately;
otherwise the foreclosure sale will take place as set forth in the publication
notice, and we will take legal action to obtain possession of the subject
property. [sentence omitted]
We will assume this debt to be valid unless it is disputed within thirty days after
you receive this letter. If you do dispute this debt or any portion thereof, we
will obtain and mail you a verification of the debt or a copy of any judgment
if you send us a written request within this thirty-day period. Also, upon written
request within this thirty-day period, we will provide you with the name and
address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor. This letter
is an attempt to collect a debt, and any information obtained will be used for
(Doc. 100-4 at 24).
In this case, it is clear that the first two paragraphs invoke a “specified remedy,”
the acceleration and foreclosure process provided for in the Gravelings’ mortgage.
The third paragraph, though, gives the statements required for an initial
communication between a debt collector and a consumer under the FDCPA. See 15
U.S.C. § 1692g(a). Additionally, it states, “this letter is an attempt to collect a debt.”
This language has led the Gravelings to argue that the letter was a debt-related
communication prohibited by 15 U.S.C. § 1692c. (Doc 102 at 5).
In its August 27, 2013, memorandum denying these Defendants’ motion to
dismiss, the court held that “one purpose of the letter was certainly to warn the
Gravelings of the scheduled foreclosure on their home. But  another clear purpose
was to collect on the debt.” (Doc. 62 at 27). It is unnecessary for the court to decide
this issue in light of the court’s determination in the previous section that the
Defendants had repeatedly validated the debt, and that the Gravelings could not
repeatedly forestall collection, and, alternatively, that, in light of the language in their
February 23, 2012, letter, the Gravelings did not effectively request that Coastal cease
communications (within the meaning of 15 U.S.C. § 1692c).
For all of the foregoing reasons, the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment
is due to be GRANTED.4 As a result, the Defendants’ motion to strike is MOOT. The
court will enter a separate final judgment order consistent with this memorandum
DONE and ORDERED this the 15th day of October, 2014.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
Because the contested material issues on summary judgment are
straightforward, the Gravelings’ petition to present oral argument is due to be
DENIED. Further, the Gravelings’ motion for an extension of time to complete
discovery is due to be DENIED. The court entered a scheduling order on March
24, 2014, providing that “all discovery must be commenced in time to be
completed by October 10, 2014.” The parties had ample time to conduct discovery,
and the Gravelings have given no adequate reason to amend the scheduling order.
The Gravelings have also filed a “motion” which effectively asks this court
to explain the law and/or rules of procedure to them. (Doc. 111). The court is not
permitted to act as de facto counsel for a pro se party. GJR Investments, Inc. v.
Cnty. of Escambia, Fla., 132 F.3d 1359, 1369 (11th Cir. 1998). Accordingly, this
motion is DENIED.
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