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Jackson v. Blitt & Gaines, P.C.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 17, 2016

Robert Jackson and JEANETTE ETRO, Plain tiffs-Appellants,
Blitt & Gaines, P.C., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued October 27, 2015

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division No. 14 C 8625 - Harry D. Leinenweber, Judge. No. 14 C 8924 John Robert Blakey, Judge.

          Before Kanne and Rovner, Circuit Judges, and Bruce, District Judge. [*]

          Kanne, Circuit Judge.

         At issue in this appeal is whether a wage-garnishment action under Illinois law is a "legal action" on a debt against a consumer under the venue provision of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"). We hold that such actions are not against the consumer and therefore affirm the dismissals made by the respective district courts in this consolidated appeal.[1]

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Robert Jackson and Jeanette Etro's (collectively, "Plaintiffs") respective complaints against Defendant Blitt & Gaines, PC. ("B&G"), a debt collector, are similar in all material aspects. In both cases, Plaintiffs purportedly owed a debt, the creditor filed suit in Cook County seeking to collect on that debt, and after each Plaintiff failed to appear in court, a Cook County Circuit Court entered a default judgment against each of them. In each case then, B&G filed an affidavit for a wage deduction ("wage-garnishment action") in the First Municipal District in downtown Chicago and obtained a summons against Plaintiffs' respective employers. Both Plaintiffs allege it was this final act that violated the FDCPA's venue provision, 15 U.S.C. § 1692i(a)(2), because B&G should have filed the affidavits in the Sixth Municipal District in Markham, Illinois-the municipal district closest to Plaintiffs -and not in the First Municipal District.[2]

         Plaintiffs filed their respective complaints in 2014, and B&G moved to dismiss them on the basis that B&G's filing of an affidavit for a wage deduction did not constitute a "legal action" against a "consumer" within the meaning of the FDCPA. The district courts agreed and granted B&G's respective motions. This consolidated appeal followed.

         II. Analysis

         Our review of a district court's decision to grant a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is de novo. Reynolds v. CB Sports Bar, Inc., 623 F.3d 1143, 1146 (7th Cir. 2010). When reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, "[w]e construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accepting as true all well-pleaded facts alleged, and drawing all possible inferences in her favor." Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008). To survive such a motion, a complaint must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         One purpose of the FDCPA is "to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors." 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). With that goal in mind, Congress enacted 15 U.S.C. § 1692i, which is aimed at preventing the abusive practice of debt collectors filing claims against consumers in improper venues. See S. Rep. No. 95-382, at 5 (1977), reprinted in 1977 U.S.C.C.A.N. 1695, 1699. Plaintiffs have filed their complaints pursuant to this provision, which provides in relevant part that "[a]ny debt collector who brings any legal action on a debt against any consumer shall... bring such action only in the judicial district or similar legal entity-(A) in which such consumer signed the contract sued upon; or (B) in which such consumer resides at the commencement of the action." 15 U.S.C. § 1692i(a)(2) (emphasis added). Violating this provision makes the debt collector liable to the consumer for statutory and actual damages, in addition to attorney's fees. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k.

         The parties here do not dispute that: (1) Plaintiffs qualify as a "consumer" under the FDCPA and (2) B&G is a "debt collector" under the FDCPA. The sole issue on appeal here is whether B&G's wage-garnishment actions constituted a "legal action ... against any consumer" under § 1692L

         As with all questions of statutory interpretation, we start with the text of the statute to ascertain its plain meaning. Hughey v. United States, 495 U.S. 411, 415 (1990). To do so, we "must look to the particular statutory language at issue, as well as the language and design of the statute as a whole." K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., 486 U.S. 281, 291 (1988). "It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that, unless otherwise defined, words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning." Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., 134 S.Ct. 870, 876 (2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). That means we look to the meaning of the word at the time the statute was enacted, Perrin v. United States, 444 U.S. 37, 42 (1979), often by referring to dictionaries, see Sandifer, 134 S.Ct. at 876.

         The FDCPA does not define a "legal action, " so we must determine its "ordinary, contemporary, [and] common meaning" at the time the provision was enacted-in 1977. The Black's Law Dictionary in effect then also does not define "legal action." It does, however, provide the following definition for "action" under the heading "Practice": "It includes all the formal proceedings in a court of justice attendant upon the demand of a right made by one person of another in such court, including an adjudication upon the right and its enforcement or denial by the court." (4th Ed. 1951) (emphasis added). In other words, an action in legal practice means all formal judicial proceedings.

         The Ninth Circuit in defining "legal action" in a different context found that "literally thousands of cases have used the term to refer to litigation, " which lead it to conclude that the term's common usage refers to "litigation or judicial proceedings." S&M Inv. Co. v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency, 911 F.2d 324, 327 (9th Cir. 1990) (emphasis added). The same circuit relied on this interpretation to hold that "legal action" in § 1692i means "all judicial proceedings, including those in enforcement of a previously-adjudicated right." Fox v. Citicorp Credit Svcs., Inc.,15 F.3d 1507, ...

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