Landlords of Sieron family classify themselves as 'technical owners' in class action pursuit

By Steve Korris | Oct 11, 2013

To pursue a class action against East St. Louis and trash hauler Waste Management, landlords of the Sieron family classify themselves as “technical owners” of homes they intend to sell.

That means their businesses can sue the city and Waste Management under federal debt collection law, Belleville lawyer Alvin Paulson wrote on Oct. 7.

Three Sieron corporations claim East St. Louis improperly issues nuisance citations that force residents to pay delinquent bills to Waste Management.

Waste Management moved to dismiss the action on Sept. 27, arguing that the law applies only to transactions for personal, family, or household purposes.

Paulson replied, “Although it is true that the lead Plaintiffs in the class action suit are business entities, the relevant Waste Management debts that trigger the ordinance citations are those of the families that occupy the homes owned by the plaintiffs.

“Plaintiffs engage in selling residential lease-to-own homes whereby the plaintiffs retain title to the home and occupier pays rent until a set period of time passes where the renter will then have the option to buy the house using some of the rent already paid as a down payment of sorts.

“As the technical owner of the home, the plaintiffs are ultimately responsible for property ordinance violations incurred by their tenants, and thus receive citations under the debt collection scheme provided in the class action complaint.”

Paulson also rejected Waste Management’s argument that the law defines the company as a creditor rather than a debt collector.

He wrote that the law makes an exception for a creditor who uses another name that would indicate a third person is collecting or attempting to collect a debt.

Waste Management is the true source of the city’s citations, he wrote, and it sends the city a list of debtors knowing the city will automatically issue citations to those on the list.

He wrote that a consumer almost certainly would view a citation issued by a city as even more imposing than a demand letter from an attorney.

“Though it is true that the ordinance citations say nothing about a consumer’s debt with Waste Management, that fact becomes very clear at the hearing regarding the ordinance violation where the consumer is told that they did not actually violate any ordinance but rather received the ticket because they were on a list sent to the city by Waste Management,” he wrote.

“Obviously, this practice wrongfully coerces customers into paying their Waste Management bill through abusive and deceptive harassment.”

Paulson also stood behind a conspiracy claim against the city and Waste Management.

“The function of a conspiracy claim is to extend liability in tort beyond the active wrongdoer to those who have merely planned, assisted or encouraged the wrongdoer’s act,” he wrote.

The element of intent is satisfied when a defendant knowingly and voluntarily participates in a common scheme to commit an unlawful act, he wrote. He also argues that conspiracy actions by their very nature do not permit a plaintiff to allege all the details of the conspiracy or the exact roles of the defendants.

“In fact, a conspiracy is rarely susceptible of direct proof; instead, it is established from circumstantial evidence and inferences drawn from evidence, coupled with commonsense knowledge of the behavior of persons in similar circumstances.”

Chief District Judge David Herndon has set a trial date in 2015.

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