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Judge tosses township jurisdiction challenge in collection cases

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A federal judge has ruled that Marion County collections cases need not be filed in the township where a defendant lives or a contract was signed, a key ruling regarding a practice criticized as “forum shopping.”

On Thursday, Judge William T. Lawrence of the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana dismissed a lawsuit brought by a plaintiff who claimed that an action filed against him in Pike Township violated the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act because he neither lived in the township nor signed a contract there. Township courts in Marion County hear small claims complaints regarding sums of less than $6,000.

“The small claims township courts do not constitute judicial districts,” Lawrence wrote, citing a Circuit Court ruling from Illinois, Newsom v. Friedman, 76 F.3d 813 (7th Cir. 1996). “The venue requirements for filing in small claims court make clear that any township court may hear a claim within the limits of its subject-matter jurisdiction.”

Lawrence dismissed Mark Suesz, individually and on behalf of a class, et al., v. Med-1 Solutions, LLC, 1:12-CV-1517. Med-1 was granted dismissal on its contention that filing in the county where a defendant lived was sufficient. Lawrence wrote the Newsom ruling found that the definition of “judicial district” was unambiguous, and in Indiana, the meaning is the counties that constitute judicial circuits.

“The structure and function of the township small claims courts in Marion County do not fall with the definition of a judicial district. It follows that Med-1 was not required under the FDCPA to file in the township where Suesz lived or signed the contract,” Lawrence ruled. “It was therefore not a violation of FDCPA for Med-1 to file in another township small claims court within Marion County, and Med-1 is entitled to dismissal of the claim against it.”

Suesz also had the opportunity to request a change of venue, Lawrence noted.

Numerous class-action suits have been filed seeking relief under FDCPA for allegations of forum shopping, in which large-volume collections filers concentrated their suits in one of the nine township courts.

Allegations of abuses led to reforms in the courts spurred by an advisory committee formed after Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Senior Judge Betty Barteau issued a report that recommended an overhaul in the way the courts were structured and reforms in the way they did business. The study and report followed a Wall Street Journal article that focused on forum-shopping.

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