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Williams v. Equifax Information Services, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

September 20, 2018

TROY T. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
EQUIFAX INFORMATION SERVICES, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         The Second Amended Complaint filed by pro se plaintiff, Troy T. Williams, asserts claims against Equifax Information Services, Inc., for violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. (Count I), as well as state law claims for invasion of privacy (Count II), negligent, wanton and/or intentional hiring and supervision (Count III), [1] and an untitled claim alleging that Equifax published false information about him (Count IV).[2] The case currently is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.[3] Upon consideration of the motions, briefs, and evidentiary submissions, the court concludes that plaintiff's motion is due to be denied, and defendant's motion granted.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In other words, summary judgment is proper “after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). “In making this determination, the court must review all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.” Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (quoting Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995)). Inferences in favor of the non-moving party are not unqualified, however. “[A]n inference is not reasonable if it is only a guess or a possibility, for such an inference is not based on the evidence, but is pure conjecture and speculation.” Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 1983) (alteration supplied). Moreover,

[t]he mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case. The relevant rules of substantive law dictate the materiality of a disputed fact. A genuine issue of material fact does not exist unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in its favor.

Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023 (quoting Haves, 52 F.3d at 921) (emphasis and alteration supplied). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986) (asking “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law”).

“The standard of review for cross-motions for summary judgment does not differ from the standard applied when only one party files a motion, but simply requires a determination of whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law on the facts that are not disputed.” S. Pilot Ins. Co. v. CECS, Inc., 52 F.Supp.3d 1240, 1242-43 (N.D.Ga. 2014) (citing Am. Bankers Ins. Group v. United States, 408 F.3d 1328, 1331 (11th Cir. 2005)). “The Court must consider each motion on its own merits, resolving all reasonable inferences against the party whose motion is under consideration.” Id. “The Eleventh Circuit has explained that ‘[c]ross-motions for summary judgment will not, in themselves, warrant the court in granting summary judgment unless one of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not genuinely disputed.'” Id. (quoting United States v. Oakley, 744 F.2d 1553, 1555 (11th Cir. 1984)). “Cross-motions may, however, be probative of the absence of a factual dispute where they reflect general agreement by the parties as to the controlling legal theories and material facts. Id. (quoting Oakley, 744 F.2d at 1555-56).

Alabama Municipal Insurance Corporation v. Scottsdale Insurance Company, 297 F.Supp.3d 1248, 1252 (N.D. Ala. 2017) (alteration in original).

         II. RELEVANT FACTS

         Capital One Bank (USA), NA (“Capital One”), obtained a default judgment against Troy T. Williams in the District Court of Madison County, Alabama, on January 21, 2011. The judgment entry reads as follows:

This cause comes before the court upon the Plaintiff's application for a default in the above-styled matter. After reviewing the court record, the court finds that the defendant has been duly served and has failed to answer or otherwise defend upon the complaint. The court further finds the default has been entered in the above styled matter and that a default judgment is due to be entered by the court.
Wherefore, it is hereby ordered, adjudged and decreed that a judgment by default is entered in favor of the Plaintiff, in the sum of $4, 078.83 plus costs of court and such post-judgment interest as may accrue on this judgment for which execution may issue.

Doc. no. 107 (Equifax Motion for Summary Judgment), at ECF 40 (Ex. A - Public Records Copy of Default Judgment in favor of Capital One Bank).[4]

         The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals described the circumstances leading to that judgment and subsequent proceedings in the state court system as follows:

On December 20, 2010, Capital One filed a complaint against Williams in the district court, asserting that Williams owed $4, 078.83 on an account stated between Capital One and Williams. On January 18, 2011, Capital One sought a default judgment against Williams for failure to answer or otherwise defend against the complaint. On January 21, 2011, the district court entered a default judgment in favor of Capital One in the amount of $4, 078.83, plus court costs and postjudgment interest.
On September 14, 2011, Williams filed in the district court an “affidavit of status as secured party and creditor” in which he declared himself a member of the “Sovereign People of the Free Republic of Alabama” and sought the withdrawal of any “adverse information” from his credit records and relief from the default judgment. On October 11, 2011, Williams filed in the district court a motion to dismiss, in which he stated, among other things, that “[t]his notice is a trespass in admiralty.” Williams also filed in the district court a “common law copyright notice, ” purporting to reserve rights regarding the copyright and trademark of his name. On November 9, 2011, the district court denied Williams's motion requesting that the case be dismissed.
On September 16, 2013, Williams filed in the district court an independent action seeking to set aside the default judgment. In the pleading initiating the action, Williams asserted, among other things, that Capital One and Holloway[5] had committed fraud upon the court. Williams also asserted in his pleading, based on his assertion of fraud upon the court, various claims against Capital One and Holloway, and he sought damages in the amount of $128, 000, 000. On September 23, 2013, the district court entered an order that stated: “The Court having lost jurisdiction in this matter, [Williams's] MOTION TO SET ASIDE is hereby DENIED.” On October 3, 2013, Williams filed a “motion to reconsider - motion to amend complaint.” In that postjudgment motion, Williams purported to amend his claims against Capital One and Holloway, asserting fraud upon the court, to reduce the requested amount of damages to $2, 900, so that his claims would remain within the district court's jurisdiction. See Ala. Code 1975, § 12-12-31(a) (providing that the district court has exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions in which the matter in controversy does not exceed $3, 000). As argued by Capital One on appeal, Williams's October 3, 2013, postjudgment motion was denied by operation of law on October 17, 2013, pursuant to Rule 59.1(dc), Ala. R. Civ. P. On October 22, 2013, Williams filed a document titled “addendum - motion to amend complaint, ” again seeking to set aside the default judgment based upon fraud upon the court and, for the first time, citing Rule 60(b), Ala. R. Civ. P. That motion was a successive postjudgment motion, however, seeking substantially the same relief as Williams's October 3, 2013, motion; thus, that motion did not toll the time for taking an appeal. See Green v. Green, 43 So.3d 1242, 1243-44 (Ala. Civ. App. 2009). On November 1, 2013, the district court entered an order purporting to deny Williams's “motion to reconsider”; however, that order was a nullity because the motion had already been denied by operation of law on October 17, 2013. See Moragne v. Moragne, 888 So.2d 1280, 1282 (Ala. Civ. App. 2004); and Rule 59.1(dc).
Williams filed an appeal to the circuit court on November 12, 2013. Capital One and Holloway filed a motion to dismiss the appeal on the basis that the appeal had been untimely filed. On February 3, 2014, the circuit court entered an order granting the motion to dismiss. Williams filed a postjudgment motion on February 28, 2014; that motion was denied by the circuit court on April 10, 2014. Additionally, in the circuit court's April 10, 2014, order denying Williams's postjudgment motion, the circuit court awarded attorney's fees in the amount of $1, 112.50 as a sanction against Williams, as requested by Capital One and Holloway. Williams filed his notice of appeal to this court on May 15, 2014.
Capital One argues on appeal that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction and, therefore, that it properly dismissed Williams's appeal from the district court. This court outlined the appropriate standard of review in M.E.W. v. J.W., 142 So.3d 1168, 1171 (Ala. Civ. App. 2013):
“‘The timely filing of a notice of appeal is a jurisdictional act.' Rudd v. Rudd, 467 So.2d 964, 965 (Ala. Civ. App. 1985); see also Committee Comments to Rule 3, Ala. R. App. P. The question whether the mother's appeal was timely and, thus, whether the circuit court acquired subject-matter jurisdiction over the mother's appeal is a question of law; thus, we review de novo the dismissal of the mother's appeal by the circuit court. See Banks v. Estate of Woodall, 129 So.3d 294 (Ala. Civ. App. 2013); see also Ex parte Terry, 957 So.2d 455 (Ala. 2006) (stating that a claim that a court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction presents a question of law, which an appellate court reviews de novo).”
As discussed above, Williams's October 3, 2013, postjudgment motion was denied by operation of law on October 17, 2013. “A notice of appeal from a judgment of a district court must be filed ‘within 14 days from the date of the judgment or the denial of a posttrial motion, whichever is later.' Ala. Code 1975, § 12-12-70(a).” McCaskill v. McCaskill, 111 So.3d 736, 737 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012). Williams filed his notice of appeal to the circuit court on November 12, 2013, well over 14 days following the denial by operation of law of his October 3, 2013, postjudgment motion. Thus, that notice of appeal was untimely, and the circuit court never acquired jurisdiction over Williams's appeal. See Ryans v. State ex rel. Stoudmire, 963 So.2d 95, 96 (Ala. Civ. App. 2007). Although the circuit court properly dismissed Williams's appeal, Williams proceeded to file a postjudgment motion from that dismissal, and the circuit court purported to deny that postjudgment motion and to award attorney's fees as a sanction against Williams. Because the circuit court never obtained jurisdiction over Williams's appeal, however, it lacked jurisdiction to entertain any further motions or pleadings. See Maclin v. Congo, 106 So.3d 405, 408 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012). Thus, the circuit court's April 10, 2014, order is void. Id.
Based on the foregoing, we affirm the circuit court's judgment dismissing Williams's action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, albeit with instructions to the circuit court to vacate its April 10, 2014, void order.

Williams v. Capital One Bank (USA), N.A., 192 So.3d 4, 5-6 (Ala. Civ. App. 2015) (footnote supplied, all other alterations and capitalization in original).[6]

         The credit file maintained by Equifax Information Services, Inc., listed Capital One's $4, 078.83 default judgment against plaintiff. See doc. no. 107 (Equifax Motion for Summary Judgment), ECF 45 (Declaration of Celestina Gobin), at ¶ 30 (“Mr. Williams' Equifax file contained a judgment in the amount of $4, 078 in favor of Capital One Bank . . . .”).[7]

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff asserts that Equifax's inclusion of the Capital One default judgment in his credit file violated two provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. (“FCRA”). First, plaintiff asserts that Equifax violated 15 U.S.C. § 1681e(b), which provides that: “Whenever a consumer reporting agency prepares a consumer report it shall follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning the individual about whom the report relates.” Second, he asserts that Equifax also violated 15 U.S.C. § 1681i(a)(1), which requires a credit reporting agency to reinvestigate items disputed by consumers: i.e.,

(A) In general. - Subject to subsection (f), if the completeness or accuracy of any item of information contained in a consumer's file at a consumer reporting agency is disputed by the consumer and the consumer notifies the agency directly, or indirectly through a reseller, of such dispute, the agency shall, free of charge, conduct a reasonable reinvestigation to determine whether the disputed information is inaccurate and record the current status of the disputed information, or delete the item from the file in accordance with paragraph (5), before the end of the 30-day period beginning on the date on which the agency receives the notice of the dispute from the consumer or reseller.
(B) Extension of period to reinvestigate. - Except as provided in subparagraph (C), the 30-day period described in subparagraph (A) may be extended for not more than 15 additional days if the consumer reporting agency receives information from the consumer during that 30-day period that is relevant to the reinvestigation.
(C) Limitations on extension of period to reinvestigate. - Subparagraph (B) shall not apply to any reinvestigation in which, during the 30-day period described in subparagraph (A), the information that is the subject of the reinvestigation is found to be inaccurate or incomplete or the consumer reporting agency determines that the information cannot be verified.

15 U.S.C. § 1681i(a)(1) (emphasis supplied).[8]

         A. The Basic Requirement: Proof that a consumer reporting agency either recorded or reported inaccurate information

         Both of plaintiff's claims require a showing that a consumer reporting agency like Equifax either recorded or reported inaccurate information about a consumer's credit. See, e.g., Cahlin v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 936 F.2d 1151, 1156 (11th Cir. 1991) (“In order to make out a prima facie violation of section [§ 1681e(b)], the Act implicitly requires that a consumer must present evidence tending to show that a credit reporting agency prepared a report containing ‘inaccurate' information. If he fails to satisfy this initial burden, the consumer, as a matter of law, has not established a violation of section [1681e(b)], and a court need not inquire further as to the reasonableness of the procedures adopted by the credit reporting agency.” (alterations and emphasis supplied, footnotes omitted)); id. at 1160 (“[A section 1681i(a)(1)] claim is properly raised when a particular credit report contains a factual deficiency or error that could have been remedied by uncovering additional facts that provide a more accurate representation about a particular entry.” (alteration and emphasis supplied)). See also Jackson v. Equifax Information Services, LLC., 167 Fed.Appx. 144, 146-47 (11th Cir. 2006) (affirming the entry of summary judgment in favor of Equifax on claims under §§ 1681e(b) & 1681i(a) when the plaintiff presented no evidence that inaccurate information in his credit report caused a denial of credit).

         Plaintiff contends that the amount of Capital One's default judgment was based upon a “factual error” in the original entry of judgment by the state court:

Williams argument is NOT “based on a contention that he does not owe the state court judgment” . . . rather, it is based on a FACTUAL ERROR reported regarding the amount of the judgment, as Capital One Bank (USA) N.A. knows it cannot obtain POST JUDGMENT interest and fees WITHOUT a cardholder agreement . . . .

Doc. no. 109 (Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment), at ECF 19 (capitalization and italicized emphasis in original, first ellipsis in original, second ellipsis supplied).

         That contention misses the point of the Fair Credit Reporting Act provisions on which plaintiff's claims are based. He has not demonstrated that the state court judgment was either inaccurately recorded by Equifax, or inaccurately reported to a third party. Unquestionably, a judgment in the principal amount of $4, 078.83 was entered against plaintiff in the District Court of Madison County, Alabama, on January 21, 2011, and that judgment was upheld on subsequent appeal. Plaintiff may believe that judgment should have been entered for a lesser amount, but the time for asserting that contention was either before judgment was entered against him, or on direct appeal from the judgment in the state court system. Equifax can only record and report the information that is available in the public record.

         B. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

         Plaintiff's Fair Credit Reporting Act claims against Equifax also are barred by the “Rooker-Feldman doctrine.” See Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983).

The doctrine is a jurisdictional rule that precludes the lower federal courts from reviewing state court judgments. Nicholson v. Shafe, 558 F.3d 1266, 1270 (11th Cir. 2009). This is because “[28 U.S.C.] § 1257, as long interpreted, vests authority to review a state court judgment solely in th[e Supreme] Court.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 292, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 161 L.Ed.2d 454 (2005). The Supreme Court recently has cautioned that “[t]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine . . . is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Id. at 284, 125 S.Ct. 1517; see also Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 464, 126 S.Ct. 1198, 163 L.Ed.2d 1059 (2006) (per curiam) (noting the “narrowness” of the Rooker-Feldman rule). We have since explained that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine operates as a bar to federal court jurisdiction where the issue before the federal court was “inextricably intertwined” with the state court judgment so that (1) the success of the federal claim would “effectively nullify” the state court judgment, or that (2) the federal claim would succeed “only to the extent that the state court wrongly decided the issues.” Casale v. Tillman, 558 F.3d 1258, 1260 (11th Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Alvarez v. Attorney General for Florida, 679 F.3d 1257, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2012) (emphasis added, alterations in original).

         1.The application of the doctrine to plaintiff's claims

         Two unpublished decisions from other federal district courts that address claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”), tend to support by analogy Equifax's argument that plaintiff's Fair Credit Reporting Act claims are inextricably intertwined with the legitimacy of the state court default judgment and, therefore, are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Franklin v. Dean, No. 2:11-CV-683-WKW, 2013 WL 1867105 (M.D. Ala. May 3, 2013); and Graham v. Tasa Group, Inc., No. 2:13-CV-00748-LSC, 2015 WL 875228 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 2, 2015).

         a. Fra ...


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