Harvey Ruvin, clerk of courts, in his Miami-Dade County office. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM.

A federal judge dismissed a putative class action against Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin and a debt collector over the imposition of 40 percent collection fees on penalties such as traffic ticket fines.

Plaintiff Natacha Guerra alleged the clerk acted improperly by automatically charging her a $163.20 fee even though the collections company hadn’t yet performed any work to collect a late payment on her $392 traffic ticket. A $16 late fee was also assessed, and Guerra said she paid the full $571.20 that day, before any collection services were needed.

“The relative injustice of the automatic imposition of a massive 40 percent unlawful, unearned collection fee is evident,” claimed the lawsuit against Ruvin and Texas-based debt collector Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson. “For comparison, Florida law defines as usurious the payment of interest exceeding 18 percent per annum, and interest exceeding 25 percent per annum is criminal usury.”

U.S. District Chief Judge K. Michael Moore dismissed the lawsuit on Tuesday for failure to state a claim, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the law requires collections companies to perform work before a fee can be assessed.

“Even construing the plain language of the statute in [the] plaintiff’s favor, the statute does not speak about the timing of the imposition of the collection fee,” Moore ruled. “Rather it vests the clerk of court with discretion to assess a collection fee of up to 40 percent of the amount otherwise owed per each unpaid fine. That is precisely what the clerk did in this instance.”

Aventura solo practitioner Bret Lusskin, who filed the lawsuit, declined to comment Tuesday because the order had just come down.

The lawsuit claimed millions of dollars in damages to those assessed penalties in Miami-Dade court. The plaintiff’s eight claims included unjust enrichment, and violations of due process and the federal and state constitutional clauses forbidding excessive fines.

“Because the court finds that the purpose of collection fee is remedial instead of punitive, the collection fee does not fall within the scope of the excessive fines clauses of the Constitution or the Florida Constitution,” Moore ruled.

Ruvin’s attorney, Scott Wagner of Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami, represents the clerk’s office in this litigation and other federal matters. He said lawsuits over court fees are not common, and the clerk never viewed this one as having any merit.

“The most challenging thing was … having to deal with the time and expense of responding to a complaint that was not meritorious,” he said.

Linebarger Goggan was represented by Miami attorney Gavin White of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, who also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.