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Lewis v. Bentley

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

January 31, 2017

MARNIKA LEWIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ROBERT J. BENTLEY., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on (1) Defendant Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.'s Motion to Dismiss (Doc. # 28), and (2) the Motion To Dismiss filed by the State Of Alabama and Attorney General Strange (Doc. # 30). The State Defendants' Motion has been fully briefed. (Docs. # 40, 43, 44, 50 and 51).

         At issue in this case is the tug of war between the State of Alabama and the City of Birmingham (and others) over the authority to establish a minimum wage. Plaintiffs have painted this dispute as yet another chapter in Alabama's civil rights journey. Defendants disagree and frame it as a simple matter of ensuring consistency in how employers operating within the state are treated. After careful review, the court concludes there are fatal flaws affecting Plaintiffs' claims: (1) they have not sued the correct Defendants (i.e., they have not included the appropriate characters in their “painting), ” and this affects their standing to pursue certain of their claims; (2) they have failed to state a claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; (3) their Section 2 claim is also barred by the Eleventh Amendment; (4) their equal protection claim has not been plausibly pled; (5) their Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendment claims necessarily fail; and (6) they are not entitled to go forward on their race discrimination or “political process” claims.

         I. Background

         For over a century, the Alabama courts have recognized that cities in Alabama are “mere creatures of the legislative power, established as political agencies for the more convenient administration of local government, with such powers . . . as the [legislature] may, from time to time, see fit to confer.” Hare v. Kennerly, 3 So. 683, 684 (Ala. 1888) (citing Meriwether v. Garrett, 102 U.S. 472 (1880)). Alabama municipalities are subject to what is essentially a state version of the Supremacy Clause prohibiting them from “pass[ing] any laws inconsistent with the general laws of [the] state.” Ala. Const. art. IV, § 89; see also Ala. Code § 11-45-1 (authorizing cities to “adopt ordinances” except as “inconsistent with the laws of the state”).

         The federally mandated minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). Congress last adjusted the minimum wage in 2007. 29 U.S.C. § 206 (a). In April 2015, the Birmingham City Council adopted a resolution urging the Alabama Legislature to exceed the federal minimum wage on a statewide basis. (Doc. # 18, ¶ 82). When the Legislature did not act, the Birmingham City Council responded with a series of ordinances first enacting, and later expediting, a local minimum wage of its own. (Doc. # 18, ¶¶ 21, 24-25, 85, 90-92). Various state legislators then proposed bills that would require statewide adherence to the federal minimum wage. In the 2016 regular session -- just as Birmingham's ordinance was set to go into effect -- the Legislature enacted the Alabama Uniform Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act at issue in this lawsuit (“Act 2016-18” or “the Act”). See Ala. Act No. 2016-18, provisionally codified at Ala. Code §§ 25-7-40 et seq. The purpose of the Act was to “ensure that [labor] regulation and policy is applied uniformly throughout the state.” Act No. 2016-18, § 6(a). The Act further establishes the Legislature's “complete control” over not only minimum wage policy, but also other issues such as “collective bargaining under federal labor laws, ” and “the wages, leave, or other employment benefits provided by an employer” to its employees. Id. The Act parallels similar legislation adopted in at least sixteen other states prohibiting localities from enacting their own minimum wage ordinances.

         Plaintiffs principally allege that Act 2016-18 has the purpose and effect of transferring control over minimum wages and all matters involving private sector employment in the City of Birmingham from municipal officials elected by a majority-black local electorate to legislators elected by a statewide majority-white electorate. They further contend that Act 2016-18 was enacted with the intent of discriminating against the people who live and work in the City of Birmingham on the basis of race in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301, as well as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

         The Amended Complaint names as Defendants the State of Alabama, Luther Strange in his official capacity as Attorney General, the City of Birmingham, and William Bell in his official capacity as Mayor of Birmingham. It contains the followings counts:

1. Count I: Violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act: Results Standard
2. Count II: Perpetuation of Alabama's de jure Policy of Maintaining White Control over Local Black Majorities in Violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
3. Count III: Perpetuation of Alabama's de jure Policy of Maintaining White Control over Local Black Majorities in Violation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause.
4. Count IV: Perpetuation of Alabama's de jure Policy of Maintaining White Control over Local Black Majorities in Violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.
5. Count V: Perpetuation of Alabama's de jure Policy of Maintaining White Control over Local Black Majorities in Violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.
6. Count VI: Vestiges of de jure Racial Segregation in Violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
7. Count VII: Intentional Racial Discrimination in Violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
8. Count VIII: Racially-Motivated Enactment of Act 2016-18 Violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
9. Count IX: Equal Protection Claim Based on the Political Process Doctrine.

(Doc. # 18).

         After careful review, and for the reasons stated below, the court concludes that Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiffs' claims.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require only that the complaint provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). However, the complaint must include enough facts “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Pleadings that contain nothing more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" do not meet Rule 8 standards, nor do pleadings suffice that are based merely upon “labels and conclusions" or “naked assertion[s]" without supporting factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, courts view the allegations in a complaint in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Watts v. Fla. Intl. Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement, '" the complaint must demonstrate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. A plausible claim for relief requires “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence" to support the claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         In considering a motion to dismiss, a court should “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” Kivisto v. Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, PLC, 413 Fed.Appx. 136, 138 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Am. Dental Assn. v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010)). That task is context specific and, to survive the motion, the allegations must permit the court based on its “judicial experience and common sense . . . to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. Further, “courts may infer from the factual allegations in the complaint ‘obvious alternative explanation[s], ' which suggest lawful conduct rather than the unlawful conduct the plaintiff would ask the court to infer.” Am. Dental, 605 F.3d at 1290 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 682). If the court determines that well-pleaded facts, accepted as true, do not state a claim that is plausible, the claims are due to be dismissed. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         III. Analysis

         The court will first take up Mayor Bell's Motion, to which no opposition has been filed. The court will then address the overarching standing issues relevant to all claims in this case, examine each individual claim, and discuss the specific issues applicable to each of the claims.

         A. Mayor Bell's Motion to Dismiss

         In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs state:

The City of Birmingham and Mayor Bell are named as defendants only for the purpose of providing complete relief among the parties with respect to the claims raised herein.

(Doc. # 18 at & 18). Plaintiffs have indicated that Mayor Bell is a party because he “has not acted to enforce Ordinance 16-28[1] because of Act 2016-18.” (Doc. # 18 at & 17). Similarly, they have sued the City due to its non-enforcement of “Ordinance 16-28 because of Act 2016-18.” (Doc. # 18 at & 16). Mayor Bell is only named in the Amended Complaint in his official capacity. He seeks dismissal of the claims against him as duplicative of the claims against the City. Plaintiffs have not opposed Mayor Bell's Motion.

         “Official-capacity suits ... ‘generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.'” See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n. 44 (1978)). Thus, “[b]ecause suits against a municipal officer sued in his official capacity and direct suits against municipalities are functionally equivalent, there no longer exists a need to bring official-capacity actions against local government officials, because local government units can be sued directly ... .” Busby v. City of Orlando, 931 F.2d 764, 776 (11th Cir. 1991). Upon review, the court finds that Plaintiffs' claims against Mayor Bell are entirely duplicative of Plaintiffs' claims against the City. (Doc. # 18 at 8). Permitting Plaintiffs to ...


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