PHILADELPHIA – A Philadelphia federal judge on Feb. 5 found no grounds to dismiss a debt collection complaint filed by a former Drexel University student.
Plaintiff Alexander Dixon originally alleged that the defendant, the Law Office of J. Scott Watson P.C. (JSW), operating a debt collection practice with offices in Glen Mills, failed to handle a collection action appropriately in November 2016.
The defendant responded by filing a motion to dismiss, but in his Feb. 5 memorandum, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Harvey Bartle III ruled in favor of the plaintiff, denying the law group’s motion.
Dixon initially logged on to the Drexel University online tuition payment system Aug. 19, 2012. He electronically agreed to payment terms as per the institution’s literature, and subsequently logged in four more times between 2012 and 2013.
When JSW instigated a lawsuit in order to collect the sum of $36,639.39 on Nov. 16, 2016, it filed on behalf of Drexel University in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.
However, Dixon lived in Washington State at the time. Records indicate that JSW subsequently served Dixon notice of the suit in an Alexandria, Virginia, zip code on Nov. 22, 2016.
At an ensuing arbitration (at which Dixon was represented by an attorney), a judgment was entered against the student in an amount of more than $38,000. Dixon appealed that judgment.
JSW then mailed Dixon a letter on July 11, 2017, identifying itself as a debt collector affiliated with the suit and containing a proposed settlement agreement.
Documents state that Dixon did not accept the settlement agreement, instead challenging the firm on the basis of its administrative error, specifically in the form of an address mix-up. He argued that JSW was noncompliant in its attempt to collect debt by virtue of the wrong venue (Philadelphia).
In particular, the student alleged that the law firm violated § 1692i of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), crafted in order to prevent unfair practices; passed by Congress in 1978, and prohibiting debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive collection practices.
Section 1692i regards the physical venue for debt collection. Most notably, the language includes “the problem of forum abuse, an unfair practice in which debt collectors file suit against consumers in courts which are so distant or inconvenient that consumers are unable to appear, hence permitting the debt collector to obtain a default judgment.”
Bartle ruled in his memorandum that the court must accept the consumer’s (Dixon) complaint; and that while JSW does not deny that the student lived in Washington at the time collection was attempted, its error lies in insisting that Philadelphia is the correct venue simply because that was where the student accepted the tuition payment program terms to begin with.
Additionally the judge referred to the law’s established intent to communicate regulations to consumers in the simplest manner possible. He wrote that Dixon’s grievance against JSW was indeed valid, adding that “[the] allegations here, if proven, can support a jury’s finding that the least sophisticated debtor would be deceived or misled.”
Calling JSW’s argument “misplaced,” the judge also labeled it “unpersuasive,” adding for good measure that Dixon signed the agreement in Alexandria, Virginia - not Philadelphia - in the first place.
“At this stage, that ends the discussion,” Bartle concluded in his memorandum. “Accordingly … the motion of JSW to dismiss the complaint on this ground will be denied.”