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Thurman v. Judicial Correction Services, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Montgomery Division

September 13, 2017

LINDA THURMAN, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This case is before the court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Second Amended Complaint (Doc. # 49), Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. # 85), and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 109). The motions have been fully briefed. (See Docs. # 52, 99, 104, 116, 118). The court held oral argument for the motions on July 24, 2017. After careful review of the parties' submissions and the Rule 56 record, the court concludes that while Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment is due to be denied, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.[1]

         I. Procedural History

         In Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs Linda Thurman and Courtnee Carroll raise four categories of claims against Defendants Judicial Correction Services, Inc. (“JCS”) and Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc. (“CHC”). (See Doc. # 53 at ¶¶ 30-41). First, Plaintiffs claim that they are entitled to declaratory judgments against Defendants. (Id. at ¶ 32). Specifically, Plaintiffs ask the court to declare that: (1) JCS violated state and federal law by commanding probationers to pay fines and fees pursuant to documents that were not lawful orders of probation; (2) JCS violated state and federal law by commanding or coercing monetary payments from individuals above the relevant statutory maximums; (3) JCS violated state and federal law by imposing probation for periods longer than the relevant statutory maximum; (4) JCS was unjustly enriched by its conduct; and (5) JCS obstructed justice and violated Plaintiffs' equal protection rights. (Id.). Second, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were unjustly enriched by their collection of fees without legal authority and “should be ordered to disgorge the ill-gotten gains.” (Id. at ¶ 35). Third, they allege that Defendants unlawfully obstructed the administration of law, in violation of Alabama Code § 13A-10-2, by warning the named Plaintiffs to not contact the municipal court about probation matters. (Id. at ¶¶ 20, 39-41). Finally, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. at ¶¶ 40-41).

         In January 2013, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint. (Doc. # 49). In that motion, Defendants argue that: (1) the Second Amended Complaint fails to state a claim for relief; (2) the Second Amended Complaint fails to allege a causal connection between Defendants' conduct and Plaintiffs' alleged injuries; (3) Defendants are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity; (4) JCS did not act under the color of state law; and (5) the Second Amended Complaint does not plead fraud with particularity. (See generally Doc. # 50).

         In April 2013, Plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment. (Doc. # 85). In their summary judgment motion, Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that JCS was not authorized to collect probation fees from orders that had not been signed by a municipal court judge. (See Id. at 2). In turn, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in September 2013. (Doc. # 109).

         II. Factual Background[2]

         Plaintiffs' claims arise from their traffic cases before the Municipal Court for Montgomery, Alabama (“Municipal Court”). The court addresses the material facts regarding each Plaintiff's claims, in turn.

         A. Courtnee Carroll

         In April 2010, Montgomery police issued three tickets to Plaintiff Carroll for failing to use a child restraint, switching tags, and driving without a license. (See Doc. # 99-14 at 2, 5, 8). When Carroll received the tickets, she called the Municipal Court and asked them how much she would be required to pay for the tickets. (Doc. # 85-3 at 6-7). A Municipal Court employee told Carroll that she would be required to pay approximately $500 for the three tickets. (Id. at 7).

         In May 2010, Carroll pled guilty to all three charges. (See Doc. # 99-14 at 3, 6, 9). Carroll went to the Municipal Court on the assigned court date. (Doc. # 85-3 at 6). She informed an employee at the Municipal Court's window that she wanted a payment plan, and the employee instructed her to wait by a door. (Id. at 9). Carroll has testified that she wanted to admit that she was guilty of the offenses so that she could pay off the fines and not wait. (Id. at 10). Moreover, she desired to pay off the fines and fees levied against her. (Id.). The Municipal Court imposed $25 fines for the child-restraint and switched-tag offenses and a $75 fine for driving without a license. (See Doc. # 99-14 at 3, 6, 9). The Municipal Court also charged Carroll $113 in court costs for each offense. (See id.). The Municipal Court's orders regarding the tickets state that it referred Carroll to JCS. (See id.) (statement stamped onto the orders).

         On May 14, 2010, Carroll signed an “order of probation, ” issued on the Municipal Court's letterhead. (See Doc. # 85-2 at 2). The order placed Carroll on probation for 12 months. (Id.). It directed her to pay a $10 set-up fee and a $40 per month fee to JCS. (Id.). It also directed her to pay $140 per month towards the amounts she owed to the Municipal Court and JCS. (Id.). The order listed the fines and costs Carroll owed for her April 2010 offenses. (Id.). But, the probation order also stated that Carroll owed $341 from an earlier case. (Id.).

         Along with the financial obligations, Carroll's order of probation directed her to report to a probation officer as instructed and to notify the probation officer of any change in residence or employment. (Id.). It instructed Carroll to work during her probation, unless she was a full-time student. (Id.). The order warned Carroll that she could be arrested for violating any term of probation and that her probation could be revoked “accordingly.” (Id.). Carroll and a JCS employee each signed the order. (Id.). But, the signature block for the Municipal Court remained blank. (Id.).

         According to Plaintiffs, Carroll also received a document from JCS with additional probation instructions. (Doc. # 85-4 at 2). JCS's document directed Plaintiff to not contact the Municipal Court. (See Doc. # 85-4 at 2) (“Do not contact the Municipal Court they will be unable to help you.”) (emphasis in original). Instead, JCS directed Carroll to contact her probation officer, Elizabeth Allen, with any questions. (Id.).

         Carroll has conceded that no one forced her to sign the probation order. (Doc. # 111-1 at 5). Nor did anyone coerce or command her to make monthly payments to JCS. (Id. at 12). But, she has testified that she was unaware of the probation sentence and believed that the forms she signed were “the process of the payment plan.” (Doc. # 85-3 at 13). Carroll paid off her financial obligations for the three offenses by January 2011. (See generally Doc. # 99-7).

         B. Linda Thurman

         According to the Municipal Court's electronic records, in January 2012, Plaintiff Thurman received a citation for failing to possess or display insurance. (Doc. # 99-8 at 1-2). Thurman has testified that she was guilty of the offense and agreed to plead guilty to it. (Doc. # 99-3 at 5). She pled guilty to the offense by signing her traffic ticket. (Id. at 5-6). Thurman wished to pay the fine imposed by the Municipal Court “over an extended period of time.” (Id. at 7).

         On February 10, 2012, Thurman signed an “order of probation, ” issued on the Municipal Court's letterhead. (Doc. # 85-11 at 2). The order directed Thurman to pay $279 in court costs for failing to possess or display insurance.[3] (Id.). It instructed her to pay $140 per month towards the amount she owed. (Id.). It also contained the same probation conditions as those in Carroll's order, including the obligation to pay a one-time fee and monthly fees to JCS. (Id.). Thurman and a JCS employee signed the order of probation. (Id.). Judge Les Hayes's last name was handwritten into the order, along with a set of initials. (Id.).

         According to Thurman, she voluntarily agreed to the conditions of probation. (Doc. # 99-3 at 8-9). Although she agreed to sign the probation order, she recalled that she did not have an opportunity to choose whether to pay the $40 probation fee to JCS. (Id. at 9). She did not consider challenging the ticket before one of the Municipal Court's judges. (Id. at 10-11).

         Thurman has testified that a JCS employee instructed her to bring $35 or $40 with her to scheduled probation appointments. (Id. at 7-8). JCS employees threatened to issue arrest warrants against her if she did not bring “at least $5.00” with her to a probation appointment. (Id. at 13). Thurman paid off the amounts owed for the citation on August 3, 2012. (Doc. # 99-8 at 1). On that same day, the Municipal Court entered her guilty plea and the sentence against her. (Id.).

         C. Other Material Facts

         Tonia Hamby, a JCS employee, has testified that the Municipal Court had an unwritten policy for placing individuals on probation at the Municipal Court. (Doc. # 99-12 at 5-6). If a defendant appeared at the clerk's window and agreed to be placed on probation with JCS, a JCS intake specialist would sign the defendant up for probation, write the judge's name on the probation order, and initial the order. (Id. at 6). Judge Hayes memorialized the Municipal Court's probation policy with JCS in a 2013 standing order. (Doc. # 99-11). The standing order explained that, if the defendant owed less than $250, the Municipal Court would grant a 30-day extension to pay the amount owed. (Id.). The Municipal Court placed defendants “with JCS” if they owed less than $1500 to the Municipal Court and requested a payment plan for the amounts owed. (Id.). If a defendant owed more than $1500 and requested a payment plan, the Municipal Court held a hearing before a judge to determine whether the defendant should be placed with JCS.[4] (Id.). According to the general order, the Municipal Court instituted these policies in June 2009. (Id.).

         III. Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(c) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and - by pointing to affidavits, or depositions, answers to interrogatories, and/or admissions on file - designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.

         The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (“Anderson”). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ. For Bibb Cty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1314 (11th Cir. 2007); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving ...

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