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Ruling may expedite demise of Marion County township venues

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Marion County’s unique township small claims courts may be on the verge of extinction, hastened by a game-changing ruling this month by the full 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The message here is that venue abuse and forum shopping are something the federal courts take seriously, and it can get expensive if you don’t comply,” said Daniel Edelman, a Chicago attorney who successfully challenged dismissal of a federal lawsuit over Marion County’s township courts.

At issue is the jurisdiction of those courts – whether the township courts may hear debt-collection disputes arising anywhere in Marion County or whether the dispute must have a basis to be heard in a particular township court.

SmallClaims-1-15col.jpg A case from Pike Township Small Claims Court in Marion County was at the center of a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that aimed to discourage “forum shopping” by debt collectors. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

The 7th Circuit ruled en banc in Mark Suesz v. Med-1 Solutions LLC, 13-1821, that “judicial districts” for Marion County small claims matters are the designated township courts under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The result was a reversal of a prior three-judge panel ruling in this case, and the full court also overturned its precedent of Newsom v. Friedman, 76 F.3d 813 (7th Cir. 1996).

In a holding applying to thousands of pending cases, the 7th Circuit majority found the intent of the FDCPA would not be served unless the township courts were recognized as judicial districts. That means collections suits must either name defendants who live in the township or be filed in the township where transactions occurred.

Critics said large-volume debt-collection filers brought their cases in township courts deemed friendlier to collectors, putting defendants at a disadvantage. The 7th Circuit largely agreed. Jeff Boulden, a former legal aid attorney who documented abusive practices in some of the township courts, called the ruling “a clear victory for debtors” protected by the FDCPA.

Attorneys representing debt collectors say the ruling is likely to accelerate a shift they’ve already seen, with more matters filed directly in Marion Superior Court despite higher filing fees.

“There’s a big risk to an attorney by filing in the wrong township,” said Fred Pfenninger of Pfenninger & Associates in Indianapolis. Suits filed in the wrong township court now could expose attorneys to fines of $1,000 per violation under the FDCPA.

Allegations of forum abuse were at the center of a 2012 report issued by a task force that studied Marion County’s small claims courts and recommended reforms. Court of Appeals Judge John Baker co-chaired the task force and said he will ask lawmakers to overhaul the system.

rosenberg-louis-mug Rosenberg

Baker said the 7th Circuit’s ruling was coincidental to the work he’s been doing on small claims reform. “The 7th Circuit has judicially recognized the same shortcomings we have discovered,” he said, noting the opinion repeatedly cited the task force report co-authored by Court of Appeals Senior Judge Betty Barteau.

“We’re at the point in time where anybody who looks at this even from within has to take notice of the deficiencies that were discovered and the inequities,” he said.

Baker said Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson asked him to prepare legislation for the upcoming session of the General Assembly that would incorporate the township courts into Marion Superior Court – “Option A” from the task force report. Though details are still being developed, Baker said the proposal, if adopted, would essentially do away with township small claims courts.

He predicts that the proposal will be forwarded to Dickson in the next couple of weeks and then be submitted to Judiciary Committee leaders at the Statehouse. “We’re not going to hide the ball,” Baker said, though he acknowledged the likelihood that township judges and officials will resist changing a system that delivers millions of dollars annually to the nine localities within Marion County. Those fees instead would go to the county if small claims cases were moved to Superior Court.

In Suesz v. Med-1, the 7th Circuit remanded to the federal court in Indianapolis, where Edelman will seek class certification for as many as 3,633 plaintiffs who may have been sued in the wrong judicial district. The lead plaintiff was a Hancock County resident sued for a debt owed in Marion County’s Lawrence Township. The suit was filed in Pike Township.

Pike Township Judge A. Douglas Stephens said the ruling was surprising because it overturned so much precedent. Nevertheless, he said, “Most filers changed their practices at the first of the year and they are consistent with what this opinion says anyway.”

Stephens said the decision won’t entail greater scrutiny of filings by clerks to ensure proper venue – that’s a risk plaintiffs take when they file.

baker-john-g-mug Baker

As for potentially doing away with township courts, Stephens said, “We’ve heard that the last six years,” and that any such move would necessarily entail a comprehensive discussion of township government.

Meanwhile, Edelman believes the ruling also will apply to other forum-shopping cases in which he’s pursuing a certification of classes on behalf of Marion County small claims litigants.

Marion Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg, who has statutory authority to oversee the small claims courts, thinks the U.S. Supreme Court might review the 7th Circuit’s ruling in Suesz.

“It’s a pretty divided Circuit,” Rosenberg said of the majority opinion co-authored by Circuit Judges David Hamilton and Richard Posner and joined by five jurists, along with a concurring opinion from Judge Diane Sykes. Judges Joel Flaum and Michael S. Kanne dissented.

Rosenberg said the concurring opinion takes the position that the majority may have gone too far in terms of remedies available under the FDCPA. The ruling also presents the issue of how the Supremacy Clause relates to state statutes concerning jurisdiction and venue. Federal courts typically have been deferential to state statutes governing jurisdiction, he said.

“That may be the issue on which the case will be appealed,” he said.

Med-1 didn’t rule out seeking an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We continue to review all our available appellate options. Unfortunately, we cannot comment more, as this case is still ongoing,” Med-1 attorney and chief compliance officer Francis R. Niper said in a statement.

“We are disappointed that the 7th Circuit has decided to reverse itself in its recent decision. We have, of course, abided by this change in the law, and will continue to do so going forward. We note that this decision creates additional confusion and conflicts with the Marion County Small Claims rules, as they were recently amended.”

But anecdotal evidence suggests filers already may have decided to change venue. Rosenberg said that through March of this year, total filings across all small claims courts were down about 20 percent, though it’s difficult to assess whether that’s due to a shift in where debt cases are filed. He noted the decline is an acceleration of a reduction in filings in recent years.

Pfenninger said the ruling will create a hardship for lawyers who filed collections cases in a particular court for reasons of convenience. “The (7th Circuit) seeks to impose a problem that many collections attorneys familiar with the system don’t believe exists,” he said.

He noted that a similar situation exists in Lake County, where 10 city and town courts hear small claims matters that may arise anywhere in the county. “The question is, how is that different?”

It may not be. In the opening paragraphs of Suesz, the majority held that its ruling “has significant consequences not only for consumer debtors and debt collectors in Marion County but also for parties to debt-collection suits in other court systems that, depending on the answer to the interpretive (jurisdiction) question, may be vulnerable to abusive forum-shopping by debt collectors.”

Rosenberg said one result of the ruling will be increased paranoia among debt collectors as to how courts will interpret jurisdiction. “The paranoia may be justified,” he said.•

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  • Significant Victory For Consumers!
    The 7th Circuit's decision in Suesz is not just a key win for consumers who live in and/or transact business in Marion (and Cook County, IL). As I publicized in "The Poplicola Report On The Marion County Small Claims Courts" (published July, 2013) thousands of consumers from across the nation have, over the years, been sued in Marion County Small Claims Courts, despite the fact that they never lived, nor signed contracts in Marion County. Thousands of consumers who were unable to travel to Indianapolis to defend themselves had Default Judgments entered against them. Many were then subjected to Proceedings Supplemental that frequently saw wages garnished and/or bank accounts frozen. Suesz will likely put an end to these abusive practices as well. This decision is a vindication of consumers' rights to have an 'opportunity to be heard' in suits filed against them.

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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