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Divided 7th Circuit revives Marion County Small Claims suit

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More than eight months after Judge Richard Posner argued in a dissent that Newsom v. Friedman needs to be overruled, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals did just that in an en banc decision involving Marion County’s Township courts.

Posner and Judge David Hamilton authored the majority opinion in Mark Suesz v. Med-1 Solutions LLC, 13-1821, in which the court decided the correct interpretation of “judicial district or similar legal entity” under Section 1692i of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is the smallest geographic area that is relevant for determining venue in the court system where the case is filed. For Marion County Small Claims courts, the smallest area is the township.

This is opposite of what the 7th Circuit decided in Newsom, 76 F.3d 813 (7th Cir. 1996), in which a panel adopted a test based on details of court administration rather than on the applicable venue rules. The Circuit Court in Suesz not only reversed the court’s previous ruling which held that small claims cases could be brought in any Marion County Township Court, but it also overruled Newsom.

Med-1 Solutions filed a collection lawsuit against Mark Suesz in Pike Township, seeking to recover medical debt Suesz incurred from treatment in Lawrence Township. Suesz does not live in Pike Township. Suesz sued, seeking damages under the FDCPA, which requires debt collectors to bring the suit in the judicial district where the contract was signed or where the consumer resides.  District Court Judge William Lawerence, citing Newsom, tossed Suesz’s lawsuit in March 2013.

“[I]n Newsom we relied on what was said to be the plain language of the statute, though the language is not plain at all when applied to the Marion County township courts,” Posner and Hamilton wrote in Mark Suesz v. Med-1 Solutions LLC, 13-1821. Wednesday they adopted an approach that focuses on the state court venue rules faced by parties and lawyers, and the relevant geographic unit for applying those rules.

“This interpretation of the statutory term discourages abusive forum-shopping by debt collectors rather than enabling it,” the majority writes. They remanded for further proceedings on class certification and the merits of Suesz’s claim. The majority declined Med-1 Solutions request that Newsom be overruled only on a prospective basis.  

Judge Diane Sykes concurred with Posner and Hamilton’s opinion, including the decision to overrule Newsom, but she noted she shares some of the concerns expressed by Judge Joel Flaum in his dissent, to which Judge Michael Kanne joined. They do not believe Newsom should be overturned.

“But instead of deferring to the state’s definition of its districts, the majority replaces congressional silence in §1692i with a purposive definition of judicial district that is of the majority’s own design. In doing so, the court federalizes the term “judicial district” for the purposes of the FDCPA. I decline to join this decision because I believe the court’s rule seizes upon a general congressional purpose behind the FDCPA – protecting debtors from abusive collection practices – to craft a rule more exacting than Congress intended. A high-level statutory purpose is simply an insufficient justification for this stringent new rule,” Flaum wrote.

Kane also wrote a separate dissent, “While I am of the opinion that the judicial circuits themselves, and not any specific court within them, are the relevant ‘judicial districts’ in Indiana, I find Judge Flaum’s reasoned approach and his adherence to our Newsom decision much more persuasive than put forward by the majority.”
 

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