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Pepper v. Routh Crabtree, APC

Supreme Court of Alaska

November 20, 2009

Robin L. PEPPER, Appellant,
v.
ROUTH CRABTREE, APC; Richard L. Crabtree; and CRI, LLC a/k/a Checkrite of Anchorage, Appellees.

James J. Davis, Jr., Alaska Legal Services Corporation, Anchorage, and Deepak Gupta, Public Citizen Litigation Group, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Richard L. Crabtree and Ryan W. Fitzpatrick, Routh Crabtree, APC, Anchorage, for Appellees.

Joanne S. Faulkner, National Association of Consumer Advocates, New Haven, Connecticut, Charles Delbaum, National Consumer Law Center, Boston, Massachusetts, and Thomas M. Daniel, Perkins Coie, LLP, Anchorage, for Amici Curiae.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, WINFREE, and CHRISTEN, Justices.

OPINION

EASTAUGH, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Robin Pepper sued an Anchorage debt collection agency and its lawyers, claiming that they violated Alaska's Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA) when they: (1) sued Pepper in state district court without first sending a written demand, (2) misrepresented to the court that Pepper was competent, and (3) applied for default judgment without first informing Pepper's attorney. The superior court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, reasoning that the Noerr - Pennington doctrine required the court to strictly construe the UTPA to avoid burdening conduct protected by the petition clauses of the United States and Alaska Constitutions. Because we conclude that it would not unconstitutionally burden the defendants' petitioning activities to require them to litigate debt collection claims in a fair manner, we reverse the dismissal of Pepper's complaint.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In February and June 2004 Robin Pepper allegedly wrote fifteen checks on which payment was later refused.[1] The affected merchants assigned the dishonored checks, which totaled $518.80, to CRI, LLC (" Checkrite" ) for collection. Checkrite retained attorney Richard Crabtree and his law firm, Routh Crabtree, APC, to recover the amount owed on the checks.

In October 2006 Routh Crabtree mailed to Pepper a demand letter on behalf of its client in an attempt to recover the amount owed on the dishonored checks. Routh Crabtree mailed the letter to " 601 E. 5th Avenue" in Anchorage; that address did not match the one on Pepper's dishonored checks, was not an address at which Pepper had ever lived, and did not correspond to any actual building.

In December 2006 Checkrite sued Pepper in state district court, alleging that she had not tendered the amount owed.[2] On April 14, 2007, Pepper was personally served with a summons and notice of judicial assignment. By letter of April 25, an attorney from Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) notified Routh Crabtree that ALSC was representing Pepper. The letter claimed that Checkrite had " failed to effectuate service" on Pepper and stated that ALSC would not file an answer until proper service was made.

Without notifying ALSC, Checkrite applied on May 30, 2007 for entry of default and default judgment against Pepper, claiming that " [t]he time within which [Pepper] could plead in or otherwise defend this action has expired." Checkrite's application stated that, " [u]pon information and belief, based on the Defense Manpower Data Center search certificate ... [Pepper] is not an infant, incompetent, nor a member of the Armed Forces of the United States protected by the Civil Relief Act." [3] The clerk of court entered default against Pepper on June 11, 2007.

On July 16, 2007, Checkrite, through Routh Crabtree, withdrew its application for default judgment on the ground an ALSC attorney had " communicated to the undersigned his intent to represent the defendant in the instant case."

Also on July 16, Pepper sued Routh Crabtree, Richard Crabtree, and CRI, LLC in superior court, alleging multiple instances of " unfair or deceptive acts or practices" in violation of the UTPA.[4] Pepper's complaint alleged that: (1) the written demand was not made in accordance with AS 09.68.115, which requires that the demand be " personally delivered or sent by first class mail to the address shown on the dishonored check" ; [5] (2) Pepper is mentally disabled, and the defendants swore out a false averment to the court by stating that Pepper was not incompetent; and (3) the attorney defendants, Routh ...


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