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Suarez v. Camden Property Trust

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

July 29, 2019

JORGE SUAREZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAMDEN PROPERTY TRUST, CAMDEN DEVELOPMENT, INC., and CSP COMMUNITY OWNER, LP, Defendants.

          ORDER

          JAMES C. DEVER III UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On July 30, 2018, Jorge Suarez ("Suarez" or "plaintiff'), on behalf of himself and others similarly situated, filed a complaint in Wake County Superior Court against Camden Property Trust ("Camden Property Trust"), Camden Development, Inc. ("Camden Development"), and CSP Community Owner, LP, f/k/a CSP Community Owner, LLC, d/b/a/ Camden Westwood ("Camden Westwood"; collectively, "defendants"), alleging violations of the North Carolina Debt Collection Act ("NCDCA"), N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-50, et seq, [D.E. 1-6]. On September 21, 2018, defendants removed the action to this court under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 [D.E. 1].

         On October 5, 2018, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim [D.E. 17] and filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 18]. On October 26, 2018, Suarez amended his complaint [D.E. 20]. On November 9, 2018, defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim [D.E. 21] and filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 22]. On December 31, 2018, Suarez responded in opposition [D.E. 24]. On January 28, 2019, defendants replied [D.E. 26]. On February 1, 2019, Suarez alternatively moved to remand [D.E. 27] and filed a memorandum in support [D.E. 28]. On March IS, 2019, defendants responded in opposition [D.E. 30]. On April 5, 2019, Suarez replied [D.E. 33]. As explained below, the court denies as moot defendants' motion to dismiss Suarez's complaint, denies in part and grants in part defendants' motion to dismiss Suarez's amended complaint, and denies as moot Suarez's motion to remand.

         I.

         On May 16, 2015, Suarez leased an apartment at Camden Westwood Apartments, which defendants own. See Am. Compl. [D.E. 20] ¶ 21. On August 28, 2016, after Suarez vacated his apartment, defendants sent a Final Account Statement (a "Statement") to Suarez. See Id. ¶ 22; Ex. A [D.E. 20-1]. According to the Statement, Suarez owed defendants $147.76. See Am. Compl. [D.E. 20] ¶ 26; Ex. A [D.E. 20-1]. The Statement notified Suarez that "[a]ny balances not received within thirty (30) days will be sent to a [third] party collection agency." Ex. A [D.E. 20-1]. The Statement stated that interest "will begin accruing immediately on all balances sent to collections." Id.

         Although Suarez paid $82.76 of his remaining balance, he refused to pay a $55.00 charge for "carpet stain removal" and a $10.00 charge to replace keys. See Am. Compl. [D.E. 20] ¶¶ 26-29. During the final walkthrough of Suarez's apartment, a leasing agent told Suarez that the apartment "looked okay" and that Suarez "had nothing to worry about." Id. ¶ 28. Suarez believed that any carpet stains were ordinary wear and tear and that the $55.00 charge was not appropriate. See Id. Suarez also believed that, because he returned all of the keys to his apartment, the $10.00 charge for key replacement was not appropriate. See Id. ¶ 29. Thus, Suarez believed that "he had fulfilled his obligations as a tenant and did not owe any additional amounts to [defendants]." Id. ¶ 31.

         On September 17, 2016, defendants e-mailed Suarez an updated statement reflecting a new balance of $65.00. See id ¶ 33; Ex. C [D.E. 20-3]. The updated statement also stated that any unpaid balance would be referred to a collection agency in 30 days. See Am. Compl. [D.E. 20] ¶ 37; Ex. C [D.E. 20-3]. In addition, an employee stated in the e-mail that "[a]ny unpaid balance will go to a third party collections agency in 10 days and will begin accruing interest immediately." Ex. C [D.E. 20-3] 1. Although defendants sent these statements to all tenants with unpaid balances when their leases end, defendants only refer unpaid balances that exceed $ 100 and only after 60 days. See Am. Compl. [D.E. 20] ¶¶ 38, 42-45, 48, 54; Ex. D [D.E. 20-4]. Thus, Suarez alleges that these representations are deceptive because they mislead tenants into believing that defendants will refer any unpaid balances in 30 days regardless of the amount owed. See Am. Compl. [D.E. 20] ¶¶ 50-67.

         Suarez alleges that these "empty threats" potentially cause similarly situated individuals to send money to defendants that could be used for food, utility bills, housing, or rent Id. ¶ 58; see Id. ¶ 59. According to Suarez, if consumers knew that defendants would only refer their account to a third-party collection agency in 60 days, and then only if the unpaid balance exceeded $100.00, consumers would modify their actions accordingly. See Id. ¶¶ 61-63. Because of defendants' representations and his unpaid balance of $65.00, Suarez suffered "anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, and mental anguish." W. ¶ 72; see Id. ¶¶ 73-74, 80-88. Suarez feared that third-party collection agencies would harass him and charge him higher fees, that his employer would discover his delinquencies, and that his credit score would fall. See id, ¶¶ 75-78. Suarez claims that, if he knew defendants' actual policies about referring unpaid debts to collection agencies, he would not have lost sleep either from anxiety or from time spent researching his defense. See Id. ¶¶ 90-91. Suarez alleges that defendants violated the NCDCA by sending deceptive Statements to all vacating tenants and purports to sue on behalf of all former tenants who received a Statement in the four years before Suarez filed his complaint in state court. See Id. ¶¶ 92-142.

         II.

         Defendants first contend that Suarez lacks Article IQ standing. To invoke the power of a federal court, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he has standing under Article IQ of the Constitution. See Beck v. McDonald. 848 F.3d 262, 269 (4th Cir. 2017); Doe v. Obama, 631 F.3d 157, 160 (4th Cir. 2011). Absent Article IQ standing, a court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to hear a plaintiff's claims. See White Tail Park. Inc. v. Stroube. 413 F.3d 451, 458-59 (4th Cir. 2005). To establish Article QI standing, a plaintiff must show that "(1) [the plaintiff] has suffered an injury in fact that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision." Friends of the Earth. Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOO. Inc.. 528 U.S. 167, 180-81 (2000); see Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife. 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992); Hutton v. Nat'l Bd. of Exam'rs in Optometry. Inc.. 892 F.3d 613, 619 (4th Cir. 2018); Doe, 631 F.3d at 160. These requirements are the "irreducible constitutional minimum of standing," Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560, and they "guarantee that the plaintiff has a sufficient personal stake in the outcome of a dispute to render judicial resolution of it appropriate." Long Term Care Partners. LLC v. United States. 516 F.3d 225, 231 (4th Cir. 2008) (quotation omitted); Emery v. Roanoke City Sch. Bd.. 432 F.3d 294, 298 (4th Cir. 2005).

         Injury-in-fact is the "first and foremost" of the three requirements of Article IQ standing. Spokeo. Inc. v. Robins. 136 S.Ct 1540, 1547 (2016) (alteration omitted). "To establish injury in fact, a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized and actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical." Id. at 1548 (quotations omitted); see Deal v. Mercer Cty. Bd. of Educ.. 911 F.3d 183, 187 (4th Cir. 2018), cert, docketed. No. 18-1487 (U.S. May 29, 2019). Although an injury must be concrete (i.e., real and not abstract), it need not be tangible. See Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1548-49; Curtis v. Propel Prop. Tax Funding. LLC. 915 F.3d 234, 240-41 (4th Cir. 2019); Griffin v. Dep't of Labor Fed. Credit Union. 912 F.3d 649, 654 (4th Cir. 2019); cf generally Pleasant Grow City. v. Summum 555 U.S. 460 (2009); Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye. Inc. v. City of Hialeah. 508 U.S. 520 (1993).

         A "violation of a statutory right" does not "automatically satisf[y] the injury-in-fact requirement" of Article m. Frank v flans, 139 S.Ct. 1041, 1046 (2019) (per curiam); see Spokeo. 136 S.Ct. at 1549. Rather, a plaintiff alleging that a defendant violated his statutory rights still must have "a personal stake in the case," which is "the traditional core of standing." Krakauer v. Dish Network. LLC. 925 F.3d 643, 653 (4th Cir. 2019). "Private litigation . . . must vindicate the plaintiffs' interests, rather than serve solely [as] a vehicle for ensuring legal compliance." Id. However, a "violation of a procedural right granted by statute can be sufficient" for Article EH standing. Spokeo. 136 S.Ct. at 1549; see Fed. Election Comm'n v. Akins. 524 U.S. 11, 20-25 (1998). For example, an "informational injury [can be] a type of intangible injury that can constitute an Article HI injury in fact." Dreher v. Experian Info. Sols.. Inc.. 856 F.3d 337, 345 (4th Cir. 2017) (quotation omitted).

         A defendant can mount either a facial or a factual attack upon standing. See Hutton. 892 F.3d at 620-21; Kerns v. United States. 585 F.3d 187, 192 (4th Cir. 2009); Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). A facial attack asserts that a complaint fails to allege facts upon which to base subject-matter jurisdiction. See Hutton. 892 F.3d at 621 n.7; Adams. 697 F.2d at 1219. The court takes the factual allegations of the complaint as true when a defendant makes a facial challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction. See Beck. 848 F.3d at 270; Kerns. 585 F.3d at 192; Adams, 697 F.2d at 1219.

         In evaluating a class action complaint, the Fourth Circuit analyzes "standing based on the allegations of personal injury made by the named plaintiffs." Hutton. 892 F.3d at 620 (quotation omitted); see Beck. 848 F.3d at 269; Doe, 631 F.3d at 160. Thus, if Suarez ...


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