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Serrania v. LPH, Inc.

Supreme Court of Montana

April 28, 2015

KARRIE LYNN SERRANIA, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
LPH, INC. dba NORTHWEST COLLECTORS, a Montana Corporation, and DISCOVERY DENTAL GROUP, Defendants and Appellees

Submitted on Briefs: March 18, 2015.

Released for Publication May 14, 2015.

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, In and For the County of Missoula, Cause No. DV 12-781. Honorable Edward P. McLean, Presiding Judge.

For Appellant: Terry A. Wallace, Attorney at Law, Missoula, Montana.

For Appellee: David J. Steele, II., Geiszler Steele, PC, Missoula, Montana.

BETH BAKER. We concur: MIKE McGRATH, PATRICIA COTTER, MICHAEL E WHEAT, JIM RICE. Justice Beth Baker delivered the Opinion of the Court.

OPINION

Page 1238

Beth Baker, Justice.

[¶1] Karrie Lynn Serrania sued LPH, Inc., and Discovery Dental Group, PLLC (DDG), in the Fourth Judicial District Court, Missoula County, over their attempt to collect a disputed dental bill. After months of litigation, the District Court entered judgment and sanctions against Serrania and her counsel, Terry Wallace. Serrania and Wallace appeal. We address the following issues:

1. Whether the appeal is justiciable.
[379 Mont. 18] 2. Whether the District Court correctly awarded LPH summary judgment on Serrania's Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claim.
3. Whether the District Court abused its discretion in sanctioning Wallace.

[¶2] We affirm all aspects of the judgment properly before us, with the exception of one portion of the sanctions.

Page 1239

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

[¶3] In 2009, Serrania went to DDG with a toothache. She signed a contract before receiving treatment. The contract states, " Payment of all treatment and services rendered are my responsibility and I agree to pay collection and legal fees if any delinquent balance is placed with an agency or attorney for collection of suit." The contract also states, " I understand that I am responsible for all costs and dental treatment."

[¶4] In July 2011, DDG referred Serrania's account to LPH, a debt collection agency. DDG informed LPH that Serrania owed $1,112.13. The debt comprised costs for treatment rendered to Serrania, her then-husband, and her son, along with interest on unpaid amounts, and a fee for a bad check. LPH initiated steps to collect the debt. LPH mailed Serrania a letter that notified her of the debt and explained that if she did not dispute the debt within thirty days, LPH would presume the debt's validity. After thirty days passed without dispute, LPH mailed Serrania a collections placement letter with charges for additional interest and collection fees. Serrania did not immediately pay the debt, nor did she advise LPH of a dispute within thirty days. A few months later, LPH filed a complaint against her in Missoula County Justice Court, but the complaint was eventually dismissed after Serrania filed counterclaims that exceeded the Justice Court's jurisdiction.

[¶5] In July 2012, Serrania sued LPH and DDG in the Fourth Judicial District Court, alleging that LPH violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), that DDG committed credit defamation, and that both violated the Montana Consumer Protection Act. Serrania sought to recover approximately $650,000 in damages. LPH and DDG counterclaimed for breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

[¶6] In December 2012 and January 2013, LPH and DDG jointly moved for partial summary judgment on their contract counterclaim, and LPH individually moved for partial summary judgment on Serrania's FDCPA claim. Serrania responded to the joint motion for summary judgment on the contract counterclaim, but failed to respond to LPH's motion on the FDCPA claim.

[¶7] On February 27, 2013, the District Court held a pretrial conference. Wallace, Serrania's attorney, failed to attend the [379 Mont. 19] conference. On LPH and DDG's motion, the District Court ordered Wallace to pay $1,000 in sanctions each to counsel for LPH and DDG for the unwarned absence. The Court also entered summary judgment against Serrania on the contract and FDCPA claims. In the months that followed, Serrania moved to vacate the sanctions and moved for ...


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