Wheeling v. Selene Fin. LP, No. 27, Sept. Term, 2020

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtBooth, J.
Citation250 A.3d 197,473 Md. 356
Parties Whitney WHEELING, et al. v. SELENE FINANCE LP, et al.
Docket NumberNo. 27, Sept. Term, 2020
Decision Date30 April 2021

473 Md. 356
250 A.3d 197

Whitney WHEELING, et al.
v.
SELENE FINANCE LP, et al.

No. 27, Sept. Term, 2020

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

April 30, 2021


Argued by Olivia N. Sedwick, Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow (Public Justice Center, Baltimore, MD; Phillip Robinson, Consumer Law Center LLC, Silver Spring, MD), on brief, for Petitioners.

Argued by Gerard G. Magrogan (Monshower, Miller & Magrogan, LLP, Ellicott City, MD) and Andrew K. Stutzman (Thomas F. Lucchesi, Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, LLP, Washington, DC), on briefs, for Respondents.

Amicus Curiae Attorney General of Maryland: Brian E. Frosh, Esquire, Atty. Gen. of Maryland, William D. Gruhn, Esquire, Chief, Consumer Protection Division, Elizabeth J. Stern, Esquire, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of the Atty. Gen., 200 Saint Paul Place, 16th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202.

Amici Curiae Civil Justice, Pro Bono Resource Center, and Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware, Inc: Jane Santoni, Esquire, Santoni, Vocci, and Ortega, LLC, 409 Washington Avenue, Suite 1000, Towson, MD 21204.

Argued before: Barbera, C.J.; McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Booth and Glenn T. Harrell, Jr. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Booth, J.

250 A.3d 202

This case requires that we determine whether the circuit court and the Court of Special Appeals erred in dismissing an amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Petitioners, Eric and Whitney Wheeling and Joanne Rodriguez, were occupants of residential property that they owned or leased. They initiated this action in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, against Respondents, Selene Finance LP ("Selene"), a mortgage servicer, and Gina Gargeu d/b/a Century 21 Downtown ("Gargeu" or "Century 21"), a real estate broker, after Respondents posted eviction notices on Petitioners' properties, attempting to gain possession of the properties through self-help measures without a court order.

Petitioners' amended complaint alleges that the Respondents violated two statutes—Maryland Code Real Property Article ("RP") § 7-113, and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (the "MCPA"), codified at Maryland Code Commercial Law Article ("CL") § 13-101 et. seq. Both statutes create a private right of action that authorize, among other things, a plaintiff to recover his or her actual damages incurred as a result of the defendant's unlawful conduct. RP § 7-113 was enacted by the General Assembly in 2013 and restricts the use of self-help in certain kinds of residential evictions. Without a court order, a person claiming the right to possession of a residential property may only resort to self-help evictions if the person posts a notice that complies with the requirements of the statute, and only if he or she "reasonably believes the protected resident has abandoned or surrendered possession of the property based on a reasonable inquiry into the occupancy status of the property[.]" RP § 7-113(b)(2)(ii)(1).

After learning of the eviction notices that were posted on their respective properties, the Petitioners allege that they consulted with counsel to "know their rights." In both instances, the Petitioners did not vacate the premises in response to the eviction notices. Although the Respondents' actions did not cause them to leave, the Petitioners allege that the Respondents' unlawful act of posting the eviction notices without ascertaining the occupancy status of the property caused them to suffer two forms of compensable damages—(1) "emotional damages and losses with physical manifestations" such as fear that they would lose their home; and (2) economic damages in the form of attorney's fees they incurred to understand their rights.

Selene and Ms. Gargeu filed motions to dismiss the amended complaint on the basis that it failed to state a cause of action. The circuit court granted both motions. The Wheelings and Ms. Rodriguez noted a timely appeal. In a reported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment of the circuit court. Wheeling v. Selene Finance LP , 246 Md. App. 255, 228 A.3d 791 (2020).

The intermediate appellate court determined that the amended complaint alleges facts that, if proven, establish that the Respondents violated RP § 7-113. Id. at 260, 228 A.3d 791. However, the court concluded that a private cause of action arising under RP § 7-113 is only extended to residents who vacate the property as the result of the improperly posted eviction notice. Id. at 279, 228 A.3d 791. The Court of Special Appeals further determined that, "[a]ssuming for purposes of analysis that Selene's actions violated the MCPA, the amended complaint fails to allege damages with the specificity required for private causes of action under that statute." Id. at 261, 228 A.3d 791.

250 A.3d 203

For the reasons set forth more fully below, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals in part and affirm it in part. We hold that the Petitioners' amended complaint adequately sets forth a cause of action under RP § 7-113 and that the statute does not require that a protected resident be deprived of actual possession as a condition to bringing a private cause of action. We further hold that, under our jurisprudence, we have not established a more demanding standard for pleading damages in private actions brought under the MCPA. Although actual damages must be pleaded in a private cause of action brought under that statute, the general rule of pleading as articulated in Maryland Rule 2-303(b) applies. Under Maryland law, damages for emotional injury may only be recovered if they are accompanied by physical manifestations capable of objective determination. Petitioners' amended complaint alleges that Petitioners suffered "emotional damages and losses with physical manifestations[.]" Although the emotional damages pleaded in the amended complaint are sparse, they supply the minimum to state a claim. We affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals, however, with respect to the Petitioners' assertion that they are entitled to their attorney's fees incurred to "know their rights" as separate compensable damages. Under both RP § 7-113 and the MCPA, Petitioners would be entitled to their reasonable attorney's fees incurred to prosecute their case (assuming they prevail). We determine that the Petitioners' damages claim related to their pre-litigation, consultation attorney's fees do not fall within any of our common law exceptions to the American Rule, which prohibits recovery of attorney's fees as separate compensable damages.

I.

Factual Background and Procedural History

Because this case was decided on a motion to dismiss, we take the well-pleaded allegations set forth in the amended complaint as true for purposes of our analysis, and we recount them here as alleged.

A. Facts as Alleged in the Complaint

The Wheeling Claim

At all times relevant to this case, the Wheelings and their children were renting property in Anne Arundel County from the property owner, Donna Poole. Prior to the Wheelings' tenancy, Ms. Poole purchased the property through a mortgage loan with CitiMortgage, Inc. After Ms. Poole defaulted on her loan in 2013, the loan was acquired by Christiana Trust, as trustee for Normandy Mortgage Loan Trust Series 2013-9 ("Normandy").

Selene is a mortgage lender and servicer licensed to operate in Maryland. Selene acted as Normandy Mortgage's servicer for Ms. Poole's mortgage. On May 15, 2015, Selene, on behalf of Normandy, claimed to have a right to possess the property and posted an eviction notice on the home. The notice stated, in pertinent part:

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT EVICTION

A PERSON WHO CLAIMS THE RIGHT TO POSSESS THIS PROPERTY BELIEVES THAT THIS PROPERTY IS ABANDONED. IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY RESIDING IN THE PROPERTY, YOU MUST IMMEDIATELY CONTACT:

Selene Finance NAME9990 Richmond Avenue, Suite 400 S Houston, TX 77042 ADDRESS
250 A.3d 204
(877) 768-3759 TELEPHONE NUMBER

5/15/15 DATE OF THIS NOTICE

IF YOU DO NOT CONTACT THE PERSON LISTED ABOVE WITHIN 15 DAYS AFTER THE DATE OF THIS NOTICE, THE PERSON CLAIMING POSSESSION MAY CONSIDER THIS PROPERTY ABANDONED AND SEEK TO SECURE THE PROPERTY, INCLUDING CHANGING THE LOCKS WITHOUT A COURT ORDER

When the eviction notice was placed on the door, the Wheeling property was not subject to any foreclosure proceeding, nor did Selene have any reasonable basis to believe that the Wheeling property was vacant. On the contrary, the Wheelings and their children openly occupied the house, and Selene was in the process of negotiating with Ms. Poole about a short sale.

Mr. Wheeling contacted Selene at the telephone number listed on the eviction notice on May 19, 2015. A Selene representative falsely told Mr. Wheeling that Selene had initiated foreclosure proceedings, when in fact, no such proceedings had been filed. The Selene representative also told Mr. Wheeling that Selene believed that the property was abandoned solely because the Wheelings were not the owners. Additionally, the representative told Mr. Wheeling that if the Wheelings did not vacate the property...

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21 practice notes
  • Neal v. United States, Civil Action ELH-19-1033
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • February 8, 2022
    ...under this rule, “a right to recovery exists for emotional distress ‘if it results in physical injury.'” Wheeling v. Selene Finance LP, 473 Md. 356, 393, 250 A.3d 197, 219 (2021) (quoting Vance, 286 Md. at 494, 408 A.2d at 730). “In Vance . . . for purposes of applying the ‘modern rule,' th......
  • Neal v. United States, Civil Action ELH-19-1033
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • February 8, 2022
    ...under this rule, “a right to recovery exists for emotional distress ‘if it results in physical injury.'” Wheeling v. Selene Finance LP, 473 Md. 356, 393, 250 A.3d 197, 219 (2021) (quoting Vance, 286 Md. at 494, 408 A.2d at 730). “In Vance . . . for purposes of applying the ‘modern rule,' th......
  • Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 38, Sept. Term, 2020
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • August 4, 2021
    ...if proven, would not provide a legally sufficient basis for the cause of action asserted in the complaint." Wheeling v. Selene Finance LP, 473 Md. 356, 250 A.3d 197 (2021). Whether a motion to dismiss was properly granted or not is a legal question. This Court reviews legal questions de nov......
  • Ford v. Edmondson Vill. Shopping Ctr. Holdings, LLC, 1656, Sept. Term, 2019
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • July 2, 2021
    ...for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted, we accept all well-pleaded facts as true. Wheeling v. Selene Fin. LP , 473 Md. 356, ––––, 250 A.3d 197, 207 (2021) ; O'Brien & Gere Eng'rs, Inc. v. City of Salisbury , 447 Md. 394, 403-04, 135 A.3d 473 (2016). Like the court belo......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
19 cases
  • Neal v. United States, Civil Action ELH-19-1033
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • February 8, 2022
    ...under this rule, “a right to recovery exists for emotional distress ‘if it results in physical injury.'” Wheeling v. Selene Finance LP, 473 Md. 356, 393, 250 A.3d 197, 219 (2021) (quoting Vance, 286 Md. at 494, 408 A.2d at 730). “In Vance . . . for purposes of applying the ‘modern rule,' th......
  • Neal v. United States, Civil Action ELH-19-1033
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • February 8, 2022
    ...under this rule, “a right to recovery exists for emotional distress ‘if it results in physical injury.'” Wheeling v. Selene Finance LP, 473 Md. 356, 393, 250 A.3d 197, 219 (2021) (quoting Vance, 286 Md. at 494, 408 A.2d at 730). “In Vance . . . for purposes of applying the ‘modern rule,' th......
  • Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 38, Sept. Term, 2020
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • August 4, 2021
    ...if proven, would not provide a legally sufficient basis for the cause of action asserted in the complaint." Wheeling v. Selene Finance LP, 473 Md. 356, 250 A.3d 197 (2021). Whether a motion to dismiss was properly granted or not is a legal question. This Court reviews legal questions de nov......
  • Ford v. Edmondson Vill. Shopping Ctr. Holdings, LLC, 1656, Sept. Term, 2019
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • July 2, 2021
    ...for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted, we accept all well-pleaded facts as true. Wheeling v. Selene Fin. LP , 473 Md. 356, ––––, 250 A.3d 197, 207 (2021) ; O'Brien & Gere Eng'rs, Inc. v. City of Salisbury , 447 Md. 394, 403-04, 135 A.3d 473 (2016). Like the court belo......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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