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Geeslin v. On-Line Information Services, Inc.

Supreme Court of Alabama

May 8, 2015

Kevin Geeslin
v.
On-Line Information Services, Inc., and Chief Justice Roy S. Moore

         As Amended July 9, 2015.

          Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court. (CV-12-901574).

         For Appellant: Joel E. Dillard, Baxley, Dillard, McKnight & James, Birmingham; Charles E. Robinson, Jr., The Robinson Law Firm, Ashville; M. Clay Ragsdale, Ragsdale, LLC, Birmingham.

         For Chief Justice Roy S. Moore, Appellee: Luther Strange, Atty. Gen., John C. Neiman, Jr., Deputy Atty. Gen., William G. Parker, Jr., Laura E. Howell, Asst. Attys. Gen.

         For On-Line Information Services, Inc., Appellees: Matthew H. Lembke, R. Aaron Chastain, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, Birmingham.

         MURDOCK, Justice. Parker, Main, Wise, and Bryan, JJ., concur. Moore, C.J., recuses himself.

          OPINION

          MURDOCK, Justice.

         Kevin Geeslin filed this action challenging a " convenience fee" and " token fee" charged in connection with his on-line electronic filing of a civil action -- fees assessed in addition to the statutorily defined filing fee that were mandated by a September 6, 2012, administrative order issued by then Chief Justice Charles Malone. That order purported to make mandatory the on-line, or electronic, filing of all documents filed in civil actions in Alabama circuit courts and district courts by parties represented by an attorney. Alabama's on-line document-filing system, known as " AlaFile," requires credit-card payment of filing fees and charges users a " convenience fee" in addition to the filing fees. Geeslin filed this putative class action in the Montgomery

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Circuit Court, naming as defendants Chief Justice Malone in his official capacity[1] and On-Line Information Services, Inc. (" On-Line" ), the company that manages and maintains the electronic-filing system for the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts (" AOC" ). Geeslin alleges that Chief Justice Malone's order was unconstitutional and that the fees collected over and above the statutorily defined filing fee amounted to an illegal tax. Geeslin sought a judgment declaring the convenience fee and another " token fee" unconstitutional and a refund of the fees paid by him and the other putative class members. The Chief Justice and On-Line moved to dismiss the complaint. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, and Geeslin appeals. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and render a judgment for Geeslin on his declaratory-judgment claim.

         I. Background

         Before the issuance of Chief Justice Malone's administrative order of September 6, 2012, electronic filing was an optional method of filing in civil cases in Alabama circuit and district courts. Electronic filing in legal actions in Alabama is of relatively recent origin. On July 29, 2005, this Court issued an administrative order authorizing a pilot program for electronic filing for civil matters in certain Alabama counties. The order authorized the Administrative Director of Courts (" the ADC" ) to promulgate procedural rules for electronic filing and to issue any administrative directives necessary to implement the pilot program. Under the administrative regulations developed by the ADC, attorneys who participated in voluntary electronic filing could do so only by paying court fees associated with electronically filed documents by credit card, for which they were charged an additional 4% " convenience fee." Because the electronic filing requiring this payment was voluntary, however, so too, in effect, was the conveniencece fee.[2]

         In connection with this Court's authorization of the pilot program, AOC began working with On-Line, a software-development company, to develop a system for electronic filing. On-Line and AOC eventually developed what is now known as AlaFile and also developed related document-storage and document-management systems. At all times relevant to this appeal, On-Line has provided software

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support and management and development services to AOC under the terms of a licensing and services agreement. In the agreement, On-Line is designated as a " limited agent of the AOC" for the purpose of collecting all charges and filing fees paid through use of AlaFile. On-Line collects all statutory filing fees and convenience fees as a limited agent of AOC and remits the statutory filing fees to AOC. The agreement entitles On-Line to retain the convenience fees.

         The pilot program was successful and eventually was expanded statewide so that all circuit and district courts could participate in electronic filing through AlaFile. Effective October 24, 2008, this Court amended Rule 5 of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure to recognize electronic filing as an optional means of filing and service in every county in Alabama. See Rule 5(b) and (e), Ala. R. Civ. P. Indeed, the Committee Comments to Amendments to Rule 5 Effective October 24, 2008, which were also approved by this Court, made clear that electronic filing was an " optional" means of filing and service. (" The additions to Rule 5(b) and Rule 5(e) recognize that electronic filing is now an optional means of filing and service in every county in Alabama." (Emphasis added.)) The administrative regulations concerning electronic filing developed by AOC continued to provide that users were to pay a 4% convenience fee above the filing fees and court costs paid. Furthermore, users of AlaFile can elect to store their payment information for future use. Users who elected to store such information were charged a $0.05 " token fee." This charge, however, is purely voluntary. See note 2, supra, and accompanying text.

         On September 6, 2012, Chief Justice Malone issued his administrative order purporting to direct that, effective October 1, 2012, all documents filed in civil actions in Alabama circuit courts or district courts by a party represented by an attorney must be filed electronically. The order reads as follows:

" IN THE SUPREME COURT OF ALABAMA " ADMINISTRATIVE ORDER
" WHEREAS, pursuant to Article VI, Section 149, of the Constitution of Alabama, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama is the administrative head of the judicial system; and
" WHEREAS, Section 12-2-30(b)(7), Code of Alabama 1975, authorizes and empowers the Chief Justice, '[t]o take affirmative and appropriate action to correct or alleviate any condition or situation adversely affecting the administration of justice within the state'; and
" WHEREAS, Section 12-2-30(b)(8), Code of Alabama 1975, authorizes and empowers the Chief Justice '[t]o take any such other, further or additional action as may be necessary for the orderly administration of justice within the state, whether or not enumerated [in the law],'
" IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED AND DIRECTED that effective October 1, 2012, all documents filed by any party represented by an attorney shall be filed electronically through the AlaFile application in all civil divisions of the circuit and district courts including: Circuit Civil (CV); District Civil (DV); Small Claims (SM); Domestic Relations (DR); and, Child Support (CS). Documents may still be filed in open court at the trial judge's discretion. If documents are filed in open court, the attorney filing the document is responsible for filing the document electronically through AlaFile on the ...

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