United States District Court, E.D. California
ORDER DIMSMISSING COMPLAINT WITH LEAVE TO AMEND INTRODUCTION (Doc. 1)
GARY S. AUSTIN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Evelyn Chavez ("Plaintiff"), appearing pro se and in forma pauperis, filed a complaint against Defendant Access Capital Services, Inc. ("Defendant"), alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA" or "the Act"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. Plaintiff contends that Defendant "harass[ed]" her "in an attempt to collect a nonexistent debt." Doc. 1 at 2. Plaintiff seeks $1000.00 in statutory damages and unspecified injunctive relief. Doc. 1 at 1, 4. The Court has screened Plaintiff's complaint. The complaint is dismissed for failure to state a claim. Plaintiff is granted leave to file an amended complaint.
A. Screening Standard
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), the Court must conduct an initial review of Plaintiff's complaint for legal sufficiency. The Court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if it determines that the action is legally "frivolous or malicious;" "fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted;" or "seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). If a complaint fails to state a valid claim, the Court may grant leave to amend to the extent that the deficiencies are curable by amendment. Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127 (9th Cir. 2000).
The Court reviews complaints for legal sufficiency in accordance with the plausibility standard adopted by the Supreme Court in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009). Under this standard, a complaint-when its well-pleaded allegations are taken as true-must contain sufficient facts to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).
The Court notes that the pleadings of pro se plaintiffs "must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Hebbe v. Pliler, 627 F.3d 338, 342 (9th Cir. 2010) (holding that pro se complaints should continue to be liberally construed after Iqbal ). Accordingly, pro se pleadings are construed liberally, with plaintiffs afforded the benefit of any doubt. Id.
A review of Plaintiff's complaint reveals that it consists of "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements" of a number of FDCPA causes of action but fails to allege sufficient facts to state any legally-sufficient claim for relief under the Act. See Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-50 ("[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice" to state a valid claim for relief). The Court evaluates each of Plaintiff's claims separately below but initially addresses threshold deficiencies in the complaint. As to these threshold deficiencies, it is first noted that Plaintiff has failed to explain the character or nature of the alleged debt at issue in this case, and therefore has not demonstrated that the "debt" is covered by the FDCPA. Secondly, Plaintiff's complaint does not plausibly establish that Defendant is a debt collector under the Act, which regulates the conduct of "debt collectors."
(1) The Complaint Fails to Plausibly Demonstrate that the Alleged Debt at Issue is Covered by the FDCPA and that Defendant is a Debt Collector Under the Act
"[A] threshold issue in a suit brought under the [FDCPA] is whether or not the dispute involves a debt' within the meaning of the statute." Turner v. Cook, 362 F.3d 1219, 1227 (9th Cir. 2004). The FDCPA defines a "debt" as "any obligation or alleged obligation of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction in which the money, property, insurance, or services which are the subject of the transaction are primarily for personal, family, or household purposes." 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(5); see also Bloom v. I.C. Sys. Inc., 972 F.2d 1067, 1068-69 (9th Cir. 1992) (explaining that the FDCPA applies only to debts incurred for personal, family or household purposes rather than business or commercial reasons). While the FDCPA's definition of a "debt" includes both actual and alleged debt obligations, the Act's reach is limited to debt obligations arising from negotiations or contracts for consumer-related goods or services. Turner, 262 F.3d at 1227, citing Bass v. Stolper, Koritzinsky, Brewster & Neider, S.C., 111 F.3d 1322, 1326 (7th Cir. 1997) ("the FDCPA limits its reach to those obligations to pay arising from consensual transactions, where parties negotiate or contract for consumer-related goods or services"); see also Shorts v. Palmer, 155 F.R.D. 172, 175-76 (S.D. Ohio 1994) (obligation to pay for shoplifted merchandise not a "debt" under the FDCPA because "plaintiff has never had a contractual arrangement of any kind with any of the defendants"); Mabe v. G.C. Servs. Ltd. P'ship, 32 F.3d 86, 88 (4th Cir.1994) (obligation to pay child support not a "debt" under the FDCPA because it was not incurred in exchange for consumer goods or services).
As the Ninth Circuit made clear in Turner, "not all obligations to pay are considered debts under the FDCPA." Turner, 262 F.3d at 1226, 1228 (a tort judgment resulting from alleged business interference torts rather than a consumer transaction is not a debt for purposes of the FDCPA). Here, Plaintiff simply alleges that Defendant harassed her "in an attempt to collect an alleged nonexistent debt, " but does not provide any details as to the type of debt that Defendant allegedly sought to collect. Doc. 1 at 2. While it is clear that a nonexistent debt arising out of an alleged consumer transaction would qualify as a "debt" for purposes of the FDCPA, see Baker v. G.C. Services Corp., 677 F.2d 775, 777 (9th Cir. 1982) (the FDCPA "protect[s] consumers who have been victimized by unscrupulous debt collectors, regardless of whether a valid debt actually exists"), Plaintiff's complaint contains no facts to plausibly show that the debt in question was an alleged consumer debt. Plaintiff's conclusory allegation that the Defendant attempted to collect a nonexistent debt does not clarify whether this alleged debt was characterized as consumer debt or, instead, was alleged to be corporate or commercial debt, a delinquent child support payment, or another type of obligation that is outside the purview of the FDCPA. Consequently, since Plaintiff has failed to plausibly establish that the alleged debt obligation is covered by the FDCPA, Plaintiff cannot state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to the FDCPA.
Another threshold issue in any suit brought under the FDCPA, which regulates the conduct of "debt collectors, " is whether the Defendant is a "debt collector" for purposes of the Act. Plaintiff's complaint contains no facts to plausibly establish that Defendant is a "debt collector" under the Act. The complaint provides only a legal conclusion that Defendant "is a debt collector within the meaning of the FDCPA." Doc. 1 at 3. This conclusory assertion is not sufficient to state a valid claim against the Defendant under the pleading standard announced in Iqbal ...