In Dressler v. Equifax, Inc., et al., before entering final judgment in favor of all but one defendant, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida gave pro se plaintiff Sandra K. Dressler three attempts to amend her complaint, which alleged violations of various consumer protection statutes by student loan servicer Navient, the United States Department of Education, Florida Department of Education, debt collectors Education Credit Management Corporation, and Pioneer Credit Recovery, Inc., and certain credit reporting agencies. Dressler appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed that Dressler’s third attempt to correct her “shotgun pleading” hit the target for six counts, but missed the mark on two.
Between May 2018 and January 2019, Dressler filed a total of four complaints, with the first two attempts being dismissed on the grounds that each was a “shotgun pleading,” including several causes of action but failing to specifically allege facts that connected the defendants to those causes of action. Upon each dismissal, the District Court gave Dressler leave to amend, directing her to resources for pro se litigants and offering her a stern warning that if she again submitted a shotgun pleading, it could be dismissed on that basis alone. Dismissing her second amended complaint, the District Court warned her that another shotgun pleading would be dismissed with prejudice and without leave to amend. Dressler filed a third amended complaint against the same defendants, alleging violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
Ruling on her third amended complaint, the District Court found that six of the alleged counts continued to provide generic factual allegations and lumped the defendants together. The Court held that the allegations failed to put each defendant on notice of which facts gave rise to each cause of action. The District Court also dismissed two other counts, finding that the claims against Pioneer for alleged attempts to collect a tax obligation were not actionable because the tax obligation did not constitute a “debt” under the FDCPA.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reiterated its intolerance for “shotgun pleadings” as a waste of valuable judicial resources, but found that Dressler’s complaint did not exhibit the typical characteristics of a shotgun pleading. The Court observed that a shotgun pleading typically is filled with “conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action; does not separate causes of action into separate counts; or asserts multiple claims against multiple defendants while failing to specify which defendants are responsible for which acts or omission.” Although it was not a “model of clarity,” the Eleventh Circuit held that Dressler’s complaint was reasonably concise, did not contain a general statement of facts that made it difficult to determine the basis of each claim, separated the causes of action into separate counts, and stated concrete actions and omission undertaken by specific defendants under each count. Giving a specific nod to the fact that the complaint was drafted by a pro se litigant, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the lower court abused its discretion by dismissing six of Dressler’s counts.
Notwithstanding the Court’s lenient view of Dressler’s complaint, it did affirm the lower court’s dismissal of the two FDCPA counts against Pioneer. The Court affirmed that tax obligations are not “debts” under the FDCPA. The mere obligation to pay an amount owed does not constitute a “debt.” To be subject to the FDCPA, at a minimum, the obligation to pay must involve a business dealing of some kind or a consensual obligation, which tax obligations do not. Where a plaintiff does not make a threshold showing that the money being collected qualifies as a “debt,” the claim must be dismissed.
Although a win for tax debt collectors, the ruling serves as a reminder that pro se litigants will be afforded substantial lenience by courts – a factor to consider when developing a strategy for responding to pro se filings.