The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine and Absent Class Members in FDCPA Actions

In the Ninth Circuit, Rooker-Feldman only applies when “plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly erroneous decision by a state court, and seeks relief from a state court judgment based on that decision . . . . If, on the other hand, a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly illegal act or omission by an adverse party, Rooker-Feldman does not bar jurisdiction.” Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1164 (9th Cir. 2003). 

Generally, Plaintiffs in FDCPA actions do not challenge as erroneous any decisions by state courts. Typically, the wrongful conduct of debt collectors is not challenged when they bring state court actions to reduce debts to judgment. Indeed, many debtors do not even received adequate notice of such actions against them, and those who do are usually not equipped to meaningfully challenge the actions. Accordingly, such state court judgments typically do not address the conduct at issue in subsequent FDCPA class actions. Therefore, Rooker-Feldman does not apply. Id.; see also Satre v. Wells Fargo Bank, NA, 507 Fed. Appx. 655, 656 (9th Cir. 2013) (In an FDCPA case, holding:  “The district court incorrectly concluded that it lacked jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The [plaintiffs] alleged in their complaint illegal acts and omissions by defendants, not an error by the state court.”) (citing Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1163-65 (9th Cir. 2003); Kougasian v. TMSL, Inc., 359 F.3d 1136, 1140 (9th Cir. 2004).

As demonstrated in Kougasian, 359 F.3d at 1140, even if a federal action covers the exact same conduct at issue in a prior state court action, Rooker-Feldman does not apply if the plaintiff is not attacking legal errors by the state court. As explained by the Ninth Circuit: 

Kougasian does not, in these causes of action, allege legal errors by the state courts; rather, she alleges wrongful acts by the defendants, such as negligently designing the ski run and negligently placing or failing to remove the rock. It is true that factual allegations and legal claims in these four causes of action are almost identical to the allegations and claims asserted in state court in Kougasian I and II, but that is not sufficient reason to find the causes of action barred by Rooker-Feldman.

. . . .

In this case, Kougasian has asserted no legal error by the state court. She is therefore not bringing a de facto appeal under Rooker-Feldman. Because she is not bringing a forbidden de facto appeal, there are no issues with which the issues in her federal claims are "inextricably intertwined" within the meaning of Rooker-Feldman. Therefore, even though Kougasian's remaining four causes of action are essentially identical to the causes of action already adjudicated in Kougasian I and/or II, Rooker-Feldman does not bar Kougasian's federal suit on those causes of action.

Kougasian, 359 F.3d at 1142 (emphasis added). 

            In sum, a debt collectors’ obtaining of a state court judgment against a debtor will usually not preclude that debtor from participating in a subsequent FDCPA class action.


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