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Complete Cash Holdings, LLC v. Powell

Supreme Court of Alabama

April 21, 2017

Complete Cash Holdings, LLC
v.
Lola Mae Powell

         Appeal from Barbour Circuit Court (CV-14-900025)

          PARKER, Justice.

         Complete Cash Holdings, LLC ("Complete Cash"), appeals a judgment entered by the Barbour Circuit Court on a jury verdict in favor of Lola Mae Powell.

         Facts and Procedural History

         This case arises out of Complete Cash's repossession of Powell's 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche truck based on a forged title-pawn agreement. Complete Cash lends money to consumers by the use of deferred-presentment agreements and vehicle title pawns. Complete Cash is also a pawnbroker, as that term is defined in Ala. Code 1975, § 5-19A-2(4), which states, in pertinent part:

"Any person engaged in the business of lending money on the security of pledged goods left in pawn, or in the business of purchasing tangible personal property to be left in pawn on the condition that it may be redeemed or repurchased by the seller for a fixed price within a fixed period of time."

         On October 1, 2011, Vakeela Brown, Powell's granddaughter, went to a Complete Cash storefront in Eufaula. Brown, without Powell's knowledge or permission, forged Powell's signature on two deferred-presentment agreements to borrow a total of $300 ($150 under each of the deferred-presentment agreements). Renata Green, an employee of Complete Cash and the manager of the Complete Cash store in Eufaula, signed the deferred-presentment agreements on behalf of Complete Cash. Under the terms of each of the deferred-presentment agreements, Complete Cash agreed to lend "Powell" $150 ($300 total) on October 1, 2011, and, in exchange, "Powell" agreed to present to Complete Cash two personal checks, each in the amount of $176.25 ($352.50 total), which Complete Cash would hold until the presentment date of October 31, 2011.[1] On the presentment date, Complete Cash would cash Powell's personal checks, which would satisfy "Powell's" obligation to Complete Cash. In order to satisfy this condition of the deferred-presentment agreements, Brown stole two personal checks from Powell and forged Powell's signature on those checks. Of course, Powell was not obligated to make repayment under the deferred-presentment agreements because it is undisputed that Brown forged Powell's signature on the deferred-presentment agreements and on the personal checks given to Complete Cash.

         In addition to being the manager of the Complete Cash store, Green was also a friend of Brown's and knew Powell personally. Green knew that Brown had forged Powell's signature on the deferred-presentment agreements and on Powell's personal checks. Brown testified that, at some time thereafter, she and Green decided to pawn the title to Powell's truck and to split the money procured from pawning the title. As a result, Brown testified that she and Green stole the title to Powell's truck to pawn it.

         On October 27, 2011, Brown went to the Complete Cash store and forged Powell's signature on an agreement with Complete Cash entitled "Alabama Pawn Ticket" ("the title-pawn agreement"). Green signed the title-pawn agreement on behalf of Complete Cash. Under the terms of the title-pawn agreement, Complete Cash agreed to lend "Powell" $2, 352.50, and "Powell" agreed to give Complete Cash a security interest in the title to the truck as collateral securing the amount borrowed. Powell also agreed to repay the amount borrowed plus a "finance charge" of $294.06, for a total repayment of $2, 646.56, on November 26, 2011.[2] The title-pawn agreement also permitted the repayment period to be extended for 30-day periods. The title-pawn agreement stated that the truck would become the property of Complete Cash if "Powell" failed to repay the amount owed under the terms of the title-pawn agreement.[3]

         Brown testified that Green satisfied the deferred-presentment agreements using some of the money Brown and Green had procured under the title-pawn agreement.

         After the title-pawn agreement was executed, from October 27, 2011, until August 24, 2013, 19 payments were made on the title-pawn agreement totaling $2, 133.75; the amount of the payments varied from $5 to $450. Ashley Newman, an employee of Complete Cash and Green's supervisor, testified that such a repayment history was not unusual for accounts held by Complete Cash. Brown testified that she "may have come in [to the Complete Cash store] and did [sic] one or two [of the payments], but the other[ payments] were made by [Green]." However, Green's employment with Complete Cash was terminated in August 2013 based on Green's failure to "collect a certain percentage a month." Newman testified that Green's employment was terminated because Green was "not doing her job." Newman further testified that the termination of Green's employment was not related to her fraudulent activity in regard to Powell; in fact, Newman testified that Complete Cash had no knowledge that Green had been engaged in any fraudulent activity at the time her employment was terminated. After Green's employment with Complete Cash was terminated, Green quit making payments on the title-pawn agreement; no payments were made on the title-pawn agreement after August 24, 2013.

         On September 23, 2013, based on the fact that Powell had defaulted on the title-pawn agreement, Complete Cash sent its repossession agent, D&T Custom Automotive, LLC ("D&T"), a "repossession packet" requesting that D&T repossess Powell's truck.

         On January 27, 2014, D&T repossessed Powell's truck. The same day, Jerome Anthony Rogers, Powell's nephew, drove Powell to the Complete Cash store to understand why Complete Cash had repossessed Powell's truck. Upon arriving at the Complete Cash store, Powell and Rogers spoke with April Scott, an employee of Complete Cash and the manager of the Complete Cash store who had been hired to replace Green. Scott agreed to speak with her supervisor about the matter.

         Newman was Scott's supervisor. Newman testified that Scott spoke with her about Powell's account. Newman testified that, upon learning that Powell alleged that the title-pawn agreement had been created fraudulently, she thoroughly reviewed Powell's account. Newman testified that she found no signs of fraud with the title-pawn agreement. Specifically, Newman testified that the fact that Complete Cash actually had the title to Powell's truck naming Complete Cash as a lienholder and the payment history on the account indicated to her that the title-pawn agreement was not the result of fraudulent activity.

         On February 18, 2014, Powell's counsel sent Complete Cash a letter demanding that Powell's truck be returned to Powell. In the demand letter, Powell's trial counsel informed Complete Cash that Powell's signature had been forged by Brown on the title-pawn agreement. Powell's trial counsel also requested that someone from Complete Cash contact him to discuss the matter further.

         A few days after Powell's counsel sent the demand letter, Brandi Jackson, the manager of Complete Cash's legal department, telephoned Powell's counsel. Jackson testified that she informed Powell's counsel that Complete Cash had investigated Powell's account and determined that there was no fraudulent activity concerning the title-pawn agreement.

         On February 27, 2014, Powell sued Complete Cash asserting claims of replevin, detinue, trespass to chattels, conversion, negligence, and wantonness.[4] On June 4, 2014, Powell filed an amended complaint, adding D&T and Green as defendants and asserting numerous claims against Complete Cash, D&T, and Green. In addition to the claims Powell asserted against Complete Cash in her original complaint, Powell asserted that Complete Cash had violated the Alabama Pawnshop Act, § 5-19A-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, that Complete Cash had violated the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, § 8-19-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975 ("the DTPA"), that Complete Cash had violated 15 U.S.C. § 1692f(6) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. ("the FDCPA"), and asserted claims of fraudulent suppression and civil conspiracy. Powell asserted against D&T and Green claims of conversion, negligence, wantonness, fraudulent suppression, and civil conspiracy.

         On June 18, 2014, Complete Cash filed an answer to Powell's first amended complaint, cross-claims against Green, and a third-party complaint against Brown.

         On October 16, 2014, Complete Cash filed motions for default judgments against Brown and Green based on their failure to respond to the claims asserted against them by Complete Cash. On October 20, 2014, the trial court granted Complete Cash's motions for default judgments against Brown and Green but did not assess damages.

         On July 17, 2015, Powell filed a motion for a summary judgment. On the same day, Complete Cash also filed a motion for a summary judgment or, in the alternative, for a partial summary judgment. On August 5, 2015, Complete Cash filed an amended motion for a summary judgment.

         On August 17, 2015, just before the trial began, the trial court heard oral argument on the parties' summary-judgment motions. The trial court entered a summary judgment for Complete Cash on Powell's fraudulent-suppression and civil-conspiracy claims. The trial then commenced on the remaining claims against Complete Cash.[5]

         At the close of Powell's case-in-chief, Complete Cash filed a motion for a judgment as a matter of law ("JML") as to Powell's remaining claims, challenging each claim with specificity. Concerning Powell's claim that Complete Cash had violated § 1692f(6), Complete Cash argued that the FDCPA did not apply because, it argued, Complete Cash was not a "debt collector" as that term is defined in the FDCPA. The trial court entered a JML for Complete Cash on Powell's claims of detinue, trespass, violation of the Alabama Pawnshop Act, and Powell's claim that Complete Cash had violated the DTPA; the trial court denied Complete Cash's motion as to ...


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