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Heling v. Creditors Collection Service Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

February 2, 2016

LORI HELING, Plaintiff,


J.P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge

The plaintiff, Lori Heling, filed her complaint in this case on October 26, 2015. (Docket #1). She alleges that the defendant, Creditors Collection Service Inc. (“CCS”), violated the terms of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq. (E.g., Docket #1 ¶¶ 1, 43).

CCS moved to dismiss Ms. Heling’s complaint, arguing that her claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine (Docket #7 at 4-8) and claim-precluded (Docket #7 at 8-13). In light of that motion, Ms. Heling clarified her claims; she has made clear that she seeks relief for the following three alleged violations of the FDCPA:

(1) that CCS misrepresented the “character, amount, and/or legal status” of the judgment against Ms. Heling that CCS was collecting;
(2) that CCS incorrectly told Ms. Heling that the judgment against her could not be vacated; and
(3) that CCS did not timely provide Ms. Heling with required written documentation regarding the debt.

(Docket #14 at 7 (citing Docket #1 ¶¶ 33-37, 40-43)). CCS has filed its reply brief, and maintains that those three claims are all barred by Rooker-Feldman and claim-precluded. (Docket #16). The matter is, thus, fully briefed and before the Court for resolution.

The Court begins by briefly describing Ms. Heling’s factual allegations and claims.[1] In April of 2015, CCS sued Ms. Heling in Sheboygan County Circuit Court (“the Circuit Court”) for an unpaid debt. (Docket #1 ¶¶ 14, 23). Ms. Heling allegedly never received actual service of summons in that case, [2]so CCS served her by publication and, ultimately, the Circuit Court entered default judgment against her in the amount of $390.09, which included a $50.00 attorney fee, a $44.46 service fee, and a $94.50 filing fee. (Docket #1 ¶¶ 15-22, 24). CCS then attempted to collect on that judgment by garnishing Ms. Heling’s wages. (Docket #1 ¶¶ 25-26). At one point, CCS sent a Garnishment Notice to Ms. Heling’s employers; that notice listed $396.14 as the outstanding judgment, $22.00 in post-judgment interest, and $122.50 as “[e]stimated costs of this earnings garnishment.” (Docket #1 ¶ 26). This notice prompted Ms. Heling to contact CCS and its attorneys. (Docket #1 ¶ 27-32). During a phone call with CCS, Ms. Heling was informed that she owed $538.94, which was allegedly more than she actually owed. (Docket #1 ¶¶ 33, 34). At that point, Ms. Heling informed CCS that she was prepared to pay the judgment against her but would like to have the judgment against her vacated. (Docket #1 ¶ 38). CCS informed Ms. Heling “that it could not have the judgment vacated.” (Docket #1 ¶¶ 39-40). Ms. Heling claims that, in taking these actions, CCS violated the FDCPA by misrepresenting the amount, character, and status of the debt she owed and incorrectly stating that CCS could not have the judgment vacated. (Docket #1 ¶ 43). She also claims that CCS still has not provided her with documentation that the FDCPA requires. (Docket #1 ¶¶ 42, 43).

In moving to dismiss Ms. Heling’s claims, CCS argues primarily that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars them. In a nutshell, CCS’s Rooker-Feldman argument is that Ms. Heling is attacking the Circuit Court’s underlying judgment against her. (See, e.g., Docket #8 at 4-8; Docket #16 at 2-8).

Indeed, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, “the Supreme Court of the United States is the sole federal tribunal authorized to review the judgments of state courts in civil litigation, ” Iqbal v. Patel, 780 F.3d 728, 729 (7th Cir. 2015), meaning that this Court cannot exercise jurisdiction “when the state court’s judgment is the source of the injury of which plaintiffs complain in federal court, ” Harold v. Steel, 773 F.3d 884, 885 (7th Cir. 2014). See also Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U.S. 280 (2005); District of Columbia court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); Richardson v. Koch Law Firm, P.C., 768 F.3d 732, 733-34 (7th Cir. 2014); Nora v. Residential Funding Co., LLC, 543 Fed.Appx. 601, 602 (7th Cir. 2013); Kelley v. Med-1 Solutions, LLC, 548 F.3d 600, 603-04 (7th Cir. 2008); Taylor v. Ded. Nat’l Mortgage Ass’n, 374 F.3d 529, 533 (7th Cir. 2004); Epps v. Creditnet, Inc., 320 F.3d 756, 758-59 (7th Cir. 2003). However, it is not always easy to distinguish between claims that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars and those it does not. That is particularly true when, as here, there is an underlying state court judgment also in play.

Several months ago, the Court encountered a very similar issue in Andress v. Daubert Law Firm, __ F.Supp.3d __, No. 15-CV-423-JPS, 2015 WL 7114627 (E.D. Wis. Nov. 13, 2015) (appeal currently pending before the Seventh Circuit, No. 16-1078). In Andress, as here, the plaintiff asserted FDCPA claims relating to underlying state court proceedings, and the defendants moved to dismiss those claims pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Id. at *2-*3. The Court provided an overview of the state of Seventh Circuit law, as concerns the Rooker-Feldman doctrine’s application to FDCPA claims. Id. at *4-*6. Rather than rehash the entirety of its discussion, the Court provides its summary:

In sum, as best as the Court can tell from Seventh Circuit law, there are two separate boxes into which FDCPA claims like Mr. Andress’ might fall. The first of those boxes includes claims that directly challenge state court judgments or garnishment orders. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine clearly bars such claims. See, e.g., Harold, 773 F.3d at 885; Kelley, 548 F.3d 600; Epps, 320 F.3d 756. The second box includes claims that might relate to a state court judgment or garnishment order, but that actually challenge a defendant’s efforts to collect on that judgment or order, see Richardson, 768 F.3d at 733-34, or that occurred before and existed independent of the judgment or order, Nora, 543 Fed.Appx. at 602 (citing Kelley, 548 F.3d at 603-04; Taylor, 374 F.3d at 533). See also Long v. Shorebank Dev. Corp., 182 F.3d 548, 556 (7th Cir.1999) (where FDCPA claims did not challenge “propriety of the…[eviction] judgment, ” the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not bar them); Crawford v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 647 F.3d 642, 645 (7th Cir. 2011) (even where claims might “involve questions related to those in the original state court proceedings, ” Rooker-Feldman does not necessarily apply).

Andress, 2015 WL 7114627, at *6.[3]

Likewise, in this case, the Rooker-Feldman question boils down to: into which of those two “boxes” do Ms. Heling’s claims fall? All three fall into the second box. While they might relate to the underlying state court proceedings, they do not challenge an underlying judgment, but instead the ...

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