Court of Appeals of Ohio, First District, Hamilton
Appeal From: Hamilton County Municipal Court TRIAL NO.
Appealed From Is: Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part, and
D. Donnett for Appellants
Nicholas DiNardo for Appellee.
In this landlord-tenant dispute, a limited-liability company
and its owner appeal the trial court's judgment entered
in favor of a former tenant. For the reasons that follow, we
determine that the trial court erred in holding the
individual owner liable under the Fair Debt Collection
Practices Act ("FDCPA") for filing an eviction
action, and in holding the company liable for failure to
return the tenant's security deposit, as well as
assessing attorney's fees. We affirm the remainder of the
Background and Procedural Posture
Sherry Whitlock and her husband are co-owners of The
Principle Group, LLC, ("The Principle Group"), an
entity they formed to own residential rental properties.
Stephanie C. Smith entered into a lease agreement with The
Principle Group in January 2012 to rent an apartment on Vera
Avenue. Smith lived at the property for four years, seemingly
without issue, until January 2016, when Smith reported to the
Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority ("CMHA")
and the Cincinnati Health Department ("CHD") that
she had a leak in the bathroom of her apartment, which had
caused mold to form. Whitlock repaired Smith's property
in April, and the next month, Whitlock claimed that she had
not received Smith's May rent. Smith reassured Whitlock
that she had already mailed rent in the form of money orders,
and Smith paid to have the money orders traced. A week later,
Whitlock filed an action against Smith for forcible entry and
detainer and money damages.
Smith represented herself during the eviction matter, and the
magistrate ruled against her. Smith obtained counsel, who
then filed objections. Fearing the uncertainty of her living
situation, Smith vacated the property. On objections,
Smith's counsel argued that Whitlock had falsely
represented that she owned the property, when, in fact, The
Principle Group had title ownership of the property. Whitlock
dismissed the eviction matter without prejudice.
Subsequently, The Principle Group filed the instant action
against Smith seeking unpaid rent and money damages. Smith
filed a counterclaim, alleging that The Principle Group had
wrongfully withheld her security deposit, and that The
Principle Group breached the lease agreement when Whitlock
prematurely filed an eviction action. Smith also filed a
third-party complaint against Whitlock under the FDCPA,
stemming from Whitlock's action in filing the initial
eviction complaint in her own name, instead of in the name of
The Principle Group. Smith also sought attorney's fees.
The matter proceeded to a bench trial. The trial court found
that Whitlock had lied when she claimed that she did not
receive Smith's May rent, thus enabling Whitlock to file
an eviction action against Smith in retaliation for
Smith's complaints to CMHA and CHD regarding the mold.
The trial court also determined that The Principle
Group's allegations that Smith had damaged the rental
premises were grossly exaggerated, and that any claimed
damages beyond a couple of broken toilets were the result of
normal wear and tear. The trial court determined that Smith
owed The Principle Group $847 for unpaid rent for May 2016,
because the money orders Smith had mailed were automatically
cancelled once Smith had them traced. The trial court also
found Smith owed $200 for the cost to repair broken toilets.
The trial court also determined that Smith could recover $1,
000 under a contract theory of recovery for The Principle
Group's premature eviction action, which caused Smith and
her children to be homeless.
The trial court determined that The Principle Group
wrongfully withheld Smith's security deposit, so that
Smith was entitled to damages in the amount of twice her
security deposit. Finally, the trial court determined that
Whitlock violated the FDCPA by falsely representing that she
owned the Vera Avenue property. The trial court also awarded
Smith attorney's fees. This appeal by The Principle Group
and Whitlock ensued.
Claim Against Whitlock
We first address the fifth assignment of error pertaining to
the trial court's decision holding Whitlock liable under
The FDCPA is a federal statutory scheme meant to target
third-party debt collectors. Taylor v. First Resolution
Invest. Corp., 148 Ohio St.3d 627, 2016-Ohio-3444, 72
N.E.3d 573, ¶ 11. The FDCPA was enacted to"
'eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt
collectors, to insure that those debt collectors who refrain
from using abusive debt collection practices are not
competitively disadvantaged, and to promote consistent State
action to protect consumers against debt collection
abuses.'" Lewis v. ACB Business Servs.,
Inc., 135 F.3d 389, 398 (6th Cir.1998), quoting 15
In order to establish a prima facie violation under the
FDCPA, a ...