Worley v. Engel
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER: IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Engel's Motion to Dismiss or in the Alternative for a More Definite Statement 17 is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, and Worley must file a Second Amended Complaint on or before August 7, 2017. (Written Opinion) Signed by The Hon. Paul A. Magnuson on 07/18/2017. (LLM)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Case No. 17-cv-1105 (PAM/SER)
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Matthew A. Engel,
This matter is before the Court on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss or in the
Alternative for a More Definite Statement. For the following reasons, the Motion is
granted in part and denied in part.
In August 2015, Plaintiff Savanna Worley began renting an apartment in
Bloomington, Minnesota managed by Housing Hub, LLC. (Am. Compl. (Docket No. 12)
¶ 11.) But, according to Worley, the City of Bloomington had not licensed the apartment
as a rental property. (Id. ¶ 21.)
On August 3, 2016, Worley filed a rent-escrow action in Minnesota state court
against Housing Hub and the apartment’s alleged owner, Christopher Hoff, alleging
multiple habitability issues. (Id. ¶ 12.) A rent-escrow action allows a tenant to deposit
their rent with the court administrator instead of making a payment if they believe their
landlord has violated Minnesota law or the lease agreement. Minn. Stat. § 504B.385. In
response, Defendant Matthew Engel filed an eviction action against Worley on behalf of
his client, CHC Investments, LLC (“CHC”), for unpaid rent. (Id. ¶ 13.) The eviction
action alleged that CHC owned Worley’s apartment and also demanded $440 in court
costs and fees. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 18.) The state court dismissed the eviction action without
prejudice and directed Engel to file the complaint as an answer in Worley’s rent-escrow
action. (Kemp Decl. (Docket No. 22) Ex. A at 3.) 1 The state court eventually dismissed
Worley’s rent-escrow action without prejudice because Worley failed to deposit her rent
with the court. (Id. Ex. C at 2.)
Engel filed another eviction action against Worley on behalf of CHC for unpaid
rent on October 14, 2016. (Am. Compl. ¶ 25.) Worley answered the complaint and
argued that she was not obligated to pay rent due to CHC’s violations of the covenants of
habitability. (Id. ¶ 32.) Following a bench trial, the state court concluded that CHC did
not violate the covenants of habitability, entered judgment in favor of CHC in the amount
of $5,725, ordered $3,600 on deposit with the Court to be released to CHC, and allowed
Worley to redeem the apartment if she paid the remaining $2,135 within one week. (Id.
¶ 33; Kemp Decl. Ex. D at 11.) Worley redeemed the apartment. (Am. Compl. ¶ 34.)
During these two eviction actions, Worley alleges that Engel, through in-person
conversations, demanded that Worley pay her rent but failed to communicate information
that he was required to communicate under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
(“FDCPA”). (Id. ¶ 35.)
Although this matter is before the Court on a motion to dismiss, the Court may consider
materials outside of the pleadings that are part of the public record, as well as materials
that are necessarily embraced by the pleadings. See Greenman v. Jessen, 787 F.3d 882,
887 (8th Cir. 2015). The exhibits in Kemp’s Declaration consist exclusively of statecourt orders in the underlying rent-escrow and eviction actions. The Court may therefore
consider those exhibits at this stage of the litigation.
On March 28, 2017, Engel filed another eviction action in state court against
Worley on behalf of CHC alleging that Worley had not paid her rent. (Id. ¶ 37.) Engel
later filed an amended complaint against Worley on behalf of CHC alleging that Worley
owed a different amount of rent. (Id. ¶ 42.) On April 5, Engel filed a second amended
complaint, this time bringing the action on behalf of Christopher Hoff, and alleging a still
different amount of rent owed. (Id. ¶ 48.) That case is ongoing.
On April 10, Worley filed this lawsuit alleging that, by filing the eviction actions
on behalf of CHC for nonpayment of rent, Engel violated the FDCPA. In response,
Engel filed a motion to dismiss. Two days after the deadline passed to amend her
pleading as a matter of course, Worley filed an Amended Complaint. (Docket No. 12.)
Engel consented to the filing of this amended pleading. (Docket No. 13.) Worley’s
Amended Complaint lists one claim titled “Specific Claims” and alleges that “[Engel’s]
conduct includes multiple and numerous violations of the [FDCPA] . . . including, but not
limited to 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692e, 1692e(2)(A), 1692e(5), 1692(10), 1692f, and 1692f(1).”
(Am. Compl. ¶ 53.) Engel now moves to dismiss the Amended Complaint asserting that
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars Worley’s claims and that Worley has failed to state a
claim on which relief can be granted. In the alternative, Engel moves for a more definite
The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine was born from two cases that the Supreme Court
decided 60 years apart and over 30 years ago. In Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., a party
sued in federal district court to have an unfavorable state court judgment declared null
and void. 263 U.S. 413, 414 (1923). In District of Columbia Court of Appeals v.
Feldman, a losing party in a separate litigation sued the court that provided the party with
an unfavorable ruling. 460 U.S. 462 (1983). The Supreme Court held that both lawsuits
were impermissible because only the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction to reverse
or modify a state-court judgment. See id. at 482.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, however, has “sometimes been construed far
beyond the contours” of these two cases, “overriding Congress’ conferral of federal-court
jurisdiction concurrent with jurisdiction exercised by state courts, and superseding the
ordinary application of preclusion law.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp.,
544 U.S. 280, 283 (2005). As the Supreme Court has described it, the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine applies only to “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries
caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings
commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Id. at
Although Worley is a state-court loser, she is not complaining of injuries caused
by the state-court judgment, nor is she asking the Court to review the state court
judgment as an appeals court would. Instead, she is complaining of injuries caused by
the filing of the eviction actions, and she seeks monetary damages for Engel’s alleged
violations of the FDCPA. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine therefore does not apply.
Failure to State a Claim
To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a complaint “must
contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is
plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl.
Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). A claim
bears facial plausibility when it allows the Court “to draw the reasonable inference that
the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. When evaluating a motion to
dismiss, the Court must accept factual allegations as true, Gomez v. Wells Fargo Bank,
N.A., 676 F.3d 655, 660 (8th Cir. 2012), but it need not give effect to those that simply
assert legal conclusions, McAdams v. McCord, 584 F.3d 1111, 1113 (8th Cir. 2009).
“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory
statements,” are insufficient to support a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Engel argues that Worley’s Amended Complaint fails to state a claim on which
relief can be granted because Engel is not a debt collector under the FDCPA, Engel
cannot be liable under the FDCPA for merely filing and losing a debt-collection lawsuit,
and Worley does not allege any communications under the FDCPA.
Debt collector 2
Engel argues that he is not a debt collector because he only brings eviction actions
against tenants and an eviction is not an attempt to collect a debt. Rather, an eviction is
“a summary court proceeding to remove a tenant or occupant from or otherwise recover
possession of real property by the process of law.” Minn. Stat. § 504B.001, subd. 4.
Because an eviction action may only result in possession of the property, rather than a
money judgment, Engel contends that an eviction action is not an attempt to collect a debt
and he is not a debt collector.
The FDCPA intends to protect consumers from “abusive, deceptive, and unfair
debt collection practices by many debt collectors.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692(a). A “debt
collector” includes someone “who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or
indirectly debts owed or due, or asserted to be owed or due another.” Id. § 1692a(6).
Minnesota’s eviction-action statute explicitly states that an eviction action for
nonpayment of rent “is equivalent to a demand for rent.” Minn. Stat. § 504B.291, subd.
1. Because an eviction action is the equivalent to a demand for rent, an eviction action
qualifies as an attempt to collect a debt, and Engel, as someone who allegedly regularly
Engel raises his argument that he is not a debt collector under the FDCPA as both a
motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and a motion to dismiss for
failure to state claim on which relief can be granted. (Def.’s Supp. Mem. (Docket No.
18) at 7.) The Court addresses Engel’s argument as a motion to dismiss for failure to
state a claim on which relief can be granted. See Alibrandi v. Fin. Outsourcing Servs.,
Inc., 333 F.3d 82, 84 n.1 (2d Cir. 2003) (noting that subject matter jurisdiction existed
because the plaintiff’s complaint, on its face, sought relief under the FDCPA, regardless
of the claim’s validity).
files eviction actions (see Am. Compl. ¶ 7.), qualifies as a debt collector under the
Filing and losing a debt-collection lawsuit
Engel also appears to argue that Worley fails to state a claim because a lawyer
cannot be liable under the FDCPA for merely filing a debt-collection lawsuit that turns
out ultimately to be unsuccessful. (Def.’s Supp. Mem. at 16.) Engel cites to the Supreme
Court’s decision in Heintz v. Jenkins, that “the fact that a lawsuit turns out ultimately to
be unsuccessful could, by itself, make the bringing of it an ‘action that cannot legally be
taken.’” 514 U.S. 291, 296-96 (1995). Although it is true that a lawyer does not violate
the FDCPA merely by filing a lawsuit that turns out ultimately to be unsuccessful, Engel
misconstrues Worley’s claims.
Worley is not alleging that Engel violated the FDCPA merely by filing an eviction
action that turned out ultimately to be unsuccessful. In fact, the parties agree that Engel’s
eviction actions were successful. (See Kemp Decl. Ex. C.) Instead, Worley alleges that
Engel violated the FDCPA by filing an eviction action for nonpayment of rent on behalf
of the wrong person and for the wrong amount of rent. Because the Court must accept
those allegations as true at this stage of the litigation, Worley’s Amended Complaint
cannot be dismissed on this basis.
The FDCPA defines “communication” as “the conveying of information regarding
a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(2).
Engel argues that Worley has failed to allege that she made any communications because
Worley “does not give any details regarding whether the ‘communications’ alleged were
formal pleadings, in-court statements, or other communications; she does not state any
dates or times; she does not state whether the communications were written or oral; she
does not state whether the communications were made directly to her or through her
various attorneys.” (Def.’s Supp. Mem. (Docket No. 18) at 19.) But this argument is
First, Worley alleges that Engel filed multiple evictions actions against her and
that those formal pleadings qualify as communications. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 10, 13, 25, 37.)
Second, Worley alleges that Engel also demanded in person that she pay her rent. (Id.
¶ 35.) Third, Worley gives specific dates when Engel filed those eviction actions; she is
not required to give the exact times when the in-person conversations took place to
survive a motion to dismiss.
More Definite Statement
In the alternative to dismissal, Engel moves the court under Rule 12(e) for a more
definite statement. A party may move for a more definite statement if the complaint is
“so vague or ambiguous that the party cannot reasonably prepare a response.” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 12(e). In addition, courts in this District have “repeatedly criticized” the filing of
“shotgun pleadings,” and have required plaintiffs who engage in this practice to amend
their complaints. Gurman v. Metro Hous. & Redevelopment Auth., 842 F. Supp. 2d
1151, 1153 (D. Minn. 2011) (Schiltz, J.) (collecting cases).
Here, there is no doubt that Worley’s Amended Complaint is so poorly drafted as
to make a cogent response nearly impossible. Indeed, Worley’s Amended Complaint
falls into the category of a “shotgun pleading.”
There are many different ways a
defendant could violate the FDCPA, but instead of detailing her factual allegations and
bringing distinct claims under the appropriate portions of the FDCPA, Worley brings one
count—ironically titled “Specific Claims”—and alleges that all of Engel’s conduct
amounts to “violations of 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692e, 1692e(2)(A), 1692e(5), 1692(10), 1692f,
and 1692f(1).” (Am. Compl. ¶ 53.) By way of this lone count, Worley “essentially
coughed up an unsightly hairball of factual and legal allegations, stepped to the side, and
invited [Engel] and the Court to pick through the mess and determine if [Worley] may
have pleaded a viable claim or two.” Gurman, 842 F. Supp. 2d at 1153. Worley must
therefore file a second amended complaint that sifts through her previous pleading and
that brings distinct claims for each alleged violation of the FDCPA, accompanied by the
factual allegations that support those claims. Once Worley files her Second Amended
Complaint, Engel may again move to dismiss and should address whether issue
preclusion bars any or all of Worley’s claims.
Accordingly, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Engel’s Motion to Dismiss or in
the Alternative for a More Definite Statement (Docket No. 17) is granted in part and
denied in part and Worley must file a Second Amended Complaint on or before August 7,
Dated: July 18, 2017
s/ Paul A. Magnuson
Paul A. Magnuson
United States District Court Judge
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