In Alston v. Orion Portfolio Servs., LLC, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland ordered a pro se plaintiff to pay nearly $15,000 in legal fees incurred by the defendants in defending a frivolous claim asserted under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.
This case concerns and alleged debt of $1,391 resulting from a failure to return rented television equipment. Plaintiff Jonathan T. Alston alleged that defendant Orion Portfolio Servs., LLC purchased this debt from the original creditor, then hired defendant Trident Asset Management to collect the amount due. Alston claimed that in doing so, the defendants defamed him and violated the FDCPA.
The Court initially granted a motion to dismiss but permitted Alston to file an amended complaint. In its opinion granting the motion to dismiss, the Court noted the high number of lawsuits filed by members of Alston’s family and took judicial notice of the LinkedIn profile of his brother, Thomas Alston. Although Thomas Alston is not an attorney, he advertises legal services, including work on fair debt collections cases, and has been a plaintiff in numerous FDCPA cases. Based on this, the Court directed Alston to file an affidavit addressing whether the case had been brought in good faith.
Alston filed an affidavit indicating that, although he has had general discussion with his family regarding the FDCPA, he did not discuss the specifics of this case with his brother; however, Alston then failed to attend a pretrial conference, and his non-attorney brother appeared on his behalf. When questioned by the Court, Thomas Alston conceded that, contrary to the plaintiff’s testimony, he may have assisted in preparing the pleadings in the case.
Following the pretrial conference, the Court granted a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, finding that Alston “has floated claims of dubious veracity, has held back documents, and has given dodgy responses to critical inquiries when it has suited him to do so and that his suit appeared to be little more than a classic nuisance suit.”
The Court further granted the defendants’ motion for sanctions under Section 1692k(a)(3) of the FDCPA. Under this provision, a court may, if it finds that a FDCPA claim was brought in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment, grant the defendants an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees.
The defendants sought nearly $20,000 in attorneys’ fees for the more than seventy hours that counsel spent defending the claims. Alston argued against the imposition of sanctions, asserting that he lacked the means to pay and that he had been “sufficiently deterred from bringing such litigation in the future.” Although the Court found the fees requested to be reasonable, it reduced the fees by 25% based on Alston’s financial situation, and awarded defendants $14,876.76 in fees.
This case stands as a reminder that the FDCPA’s attorneys fee provision works both ways. When presented with dubious claims by professional plaintiffs, Section 1692k(a)(3) provides a mechanism for recovering fees and discouraging the filing of additional frivolous claims.