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Peterson v. Meyer

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 22, 2016

CARL ERIC PETERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
W. CHRISTIAN MEYER, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH S. VAN BOKKELEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Carl Peterson sued W. Christian Meyer for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Both parties moved for summary judgment.

         A. Facts

         Carl and Penny Peterson were married at all relevant times. In early September 2014, a medical provider treated Penny. She signed agreements to pay the medical provider for these services. But, for a period of time, she did not pay the balance due after insurance payments. The medical provider eventually referred the unpaid amount to attorney Meyer for collection. Carl asserts he is not liable for the debt. (Pl.'s Reply, DE 23 at 1.)

         On March 3, 2015, Meyer sent a dunning letter to Penny attempting to collect the alleged debt in the amount of $2, 136.08, plus $52.37 in interest, plus $875.78 in attorney's fees. Meyer addressed this letter to Penny only. The letter does not mention Carl.

         Penny showed the letter to Carl, who called Meyer's office on March 9, 2015, and spoke with Meyer's assistant. According to the assistant, Carl mentioned that he and his wife hoped to refinance their home. (Def.'s Br., DE 18 at 4.) Carl and the assistant discussed a payment plan. Carl's understanding was that the payment plan was exclusively for his wife, and did not obligate him. Regarding the first phone call, Carl testified “I understood that I had helped my wife set up a payment agreement . . . .” (Dep. Carl Peterson, DE 17-1 at 26:6-7.)

         Carl then spoke with Meyer or his assistant on March 11, 2015. They discussed payment arrangements. Counsel for Meyer asked Carl at his deposition about this phone call:

Q: As you sit here eight months later, what do you remember about that first phone call where you talked with Attorney Meyer?
A: I just remember talking about possible payment arrangements.
Q: Do you remember the parameters of those discussions?
A: I think we were just talking about what we could possibly handle or what my wife could handle, because there have been quite a few other medical bills the last year or so and I was trying to help her get it as low as possible just so she could continue to pay hers and I could continue to pay mine, because this was not the only one we had.
Q: Do you recall any discussion in either of those first two phone calls where there was any discussion about who was going to be responsible for making the payments?
A: I guess my thought was that it was my wife.
Q: And I appreciate that. What I'm asking is, was there ever a statement made that this will only be your wife or was it something that was left unstated?
A: I think it was unstated. If there was something specific, I don't remember.

(Id. at 27:9-28:2.)

         Carl acknowledges that the result of these telephonic communications was an agreement to a payment arrangement (Pl.'s Br., DE 13 at 1) but the parties disagree about whether the arrangement would bind Carl. Carl claims he never agreed to be legally obligated for the debt. (Id. at 2.)

         The same day, on March 11, 2015, [1] Meyer's assistant sent the Petersons a proposed Payment Agreement. This document identifies Carl and Penny collectively as “Obligor, ” and sets out a payment plan by which Carl and Penny would agree to pay various sums per month, with the final payment due in March 2016. This proposed agreement contains separate signature blocks for Carl and Penny. But the Petersons did not sign this proposed agreement.

         Carl claims the proposed Payment Agreement was an attempt to collect the medical debt from him. Indeed, the document identifies itself as an attempt to collect a debt: “THIS COMMUNICATION IS AN ATTEMPT TO COLLECT A DEBT AND ANY INFORMATION OBTAINED WILL BE USED FOR THAT PURPOSE.” (Payment Agreement, DE 13-1 at 5.)[2]

         Meyer filed a lawsuit regarding the debt against only Penny in Tippecanoe Superior Court on March 23, 2015: Cause Number 79D04-1503-SC-01137.

         On March 30, 2015, Carl called Meyer's office and said he did not agree with the proposed Payment Agreement because it called for his signature and he didn't think he had an obligation to sign for his wife's debt. Carl claims the office told him he was responsible for the debt because it was medical debt incurred by his wife. (Aff. Carl Peterson, DE 13-1, ¶ 11.) Carl argues that the office's claim notes tend to confirm that the office made this statement. (Pl.'s Br., DE 13 at 2, citing Exhibit C, DE 13-3.) But Meyer and his staff deny ever telling Carl he was legally obligated to pay his wife's debt. (Def.'s Br., DE 18 at 2.) During this call, Meyer's assistant told Carl about the lawsuit. This was his first notice of the lawsuit because Penny had not yet been served.

         Meyer personally called Carl back the same day. The parties also dispute the contents of this conversation. Carl claims Meyer told him that he was responsible for his wife's medical debt because of the doctrine of necessities, and that Meyer asked Carl to sign an Agreed Judgment in exchange for the medical provider's agreement to accept payments on the debt. (Aff. Carl Peterson, DE 13-1, ¶ 13.) Carl testified that Meyer said Indiana law holds the husband responsible for all his wife's bills, and that Carl concluded based on this conversation that Meyer would file a lawsuit against Carl based on the debt. (Dep. Carl Peterson, DE 17-1 at 33:22-35:1.)

         But Meyer says he merely explained the doctrine of necessities and explained that he lacked sufficient information to determine whether or not Carl was liable for the debt. (Aff. Meyer, DE 17-3, ¶ 14.) Meyer says he explained that he was asking Carl to sign the Payment Agreement in exchange for the ability to make payments and avoid further legal action against Penny. (Def.'s Br., DE 18 at 6, quoting Aff. Meyer, DE 17-3, ¶ 14.) Meyer claims Carl agreed that he and his wife would sign Agreed Judgments. Id. Meyer and his assistant claim they never told Carl he was legally obligated for his wife's debt. (Aff. Meyer, DE 17-3, ¶ 15; Aff. DeLion, DE, 17-4, ¶ 9.)

         On April 1, 2015, Meyer sent a letter and two proposed Agreed Judgments to Carl and Penny. This letter purports to concern the then-pending small-claims lawsuit and lists Carl's name in the reference to that lawsuit: “Re: GLHS Unity Surgical Center v. Carl E. & Penny S. Peterson Cause No. 79D04-1503-SC-01137.” (Letter, April 1, 2015, DE 1-3 at 1.) But Carl was not a party to that lawsuit. And Carl claims he was not liable for the debt.

         In the letter, Meyer references his telephone conversation with Carl on March 30, 2015, and says the enclosed Agreed Judgment “outlines the terms of your agreement for payment of the medical account . . . .” (Id.) Meyer says in the letter that once the Petersons sign and return the Agreed Judgments, he will file Penny's with the Tippecanoe Superior Court, and he will hold Carl's pending receipt of timely payments. (Id.)

         One enclosed proposed Agreed Judgment bears a caption listing Penny S. Peterson as the Defendant in the case filed in Tippecanoe Superior Court, and calls for her signature. The other enclosed proposed Agreed Judgment bears a caption listing Carl E. Peterson as the Defendant in the same case, and calls for his signature. Again, Carl was not actually a party to that lawsuit. The Petersons did not sign the proposed Agreed Judgments.

         Carl called Meyer's office again on April 3, 2015, and indicated he still did not think he should have to sign for Penny's debt.

         Penny was served with the small-claims lawsuit on April 7, 2015. Carl understood at all times that he was not a party to that lawsuit.

         Carl appeared with Penny at a hearing in the small-claims lawsuit on May 20, 2015, and discussed the debt with Meyer in person, on the record. They discussed a payment plan. Carl mentioned efforts to refinance their home, and their desire to avoid a judgment. Meyer and Penny executed a Withheld Judgment the same day. Carl did not sign this document.

         B. Claims and ...


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