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Worthy v. City of Phenix City

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

October 6, 2017

Thomas F. Worthy, etc., et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
The City of Phenix City, Alabama, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JACK ZOUHARY U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Introduction

         Pending is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, which has been fully briefed (Docs. 8-9, 15-16, 20-21). Defendants argue the Complaint should be dismissed under Federal Civil Rule 12(b)(1) because Plaintiffs lack standing to assert claims based on a lack of due process. They further argue that all of Plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed under Federal Civil Rule 12(b)(6) because the ordinance in question provides a civil rather than criminal penalty, and the process provided by Phenix City is adequate as a matter of law. Plaintiffs contend they have standing, that this Court should not determine whether the penalty is civil or criminal at this stage of the proceedings, and that their allegations are sufficient to support their claims.

         Background

         In 2012, Phenix City adopted Ordinance No. 2012-21, as part of its “Red Light Safety Program.” The Ordinance established an automated system for issuing red-light citations using cameras installed at various intersections throughout the City. Subject to a handful of affirmative defenses, the owner of a vehicle photographed running a red light in the City is liable for a $100 “civil penalty.”

         A notice of violation issued under the Ordinance must provide, among other things, information about the owner's right to contest the civil penalty in an administrative adjudication. A request for an administrative adjudication must be made in writing, after which the City sets a hearing. The burden of proof at that hearing -- held before a “hearing officer” -- is a preponderance of the evidence. Such evidence may be introduced through affidavit; thus, the City is not required to produce a live witness to prove its case, and the owner of the vehicle is therefore not guaranteed an opportunity to cross-examine City witnesses.

         If an owner is found liable after the administrative hearing -- or if the owner fails to appear at the hearing -- an additional $25 fee is assessed for costs. Owners found liable at the administrative hearing may then appeal that finding to the Circuit Court of Russell County, which in turn conducts a trial de novo. If the court finds that the owner is not responsible for a violation, court costs are not assessed, and no costs are owed to the City for the administrative hearing. In other words, no fees or costs are owed in the event of a successful challenge.

         Each of the named Plaintiffs received a notification of violation under the Ordinance, and each disputes liability. Nevertheless, Plaintiffs Willcox-Lumpkin Co., Inc. and James D. Adams did not request an administrative hearing or otherwise participate in the statutory process for contesting liability. Plaintiff Worthy received an administrative hearing (at which he was found liable), but he elected not to pursue an appeal to the Circuit Court.

         Plaintiffs instead filed this proposed class action, alleging that Defendants violated their constitutional rights and unjustly enriched themselves by imposing criminal fines without providing Case 3:17-cv-00073-JZ-GMB Document 22 Filed 10/06/17 Page 3 of 11 constitutionally required protections. More specifically, they contend -- among other things -- that the burden of proof should be beyond a reasonable doubt, that they should be allowed to confront their accusers and cross-examine witnesses, and that they should receive greater protections against self-incrimination. They further argue that the City deprived them of both due process and the right to petition the courts. They seek damages, attorney fees, and a declaratory judgment stating that the Ordinance is unconstitutional.

         Standards of Review

         To survive a motion to dismiss brought under Federal Civil Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A complaint is facially plausible only if it provides enough facts on which this Court can “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         The standard of review for a motion based on a facial challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction brought under Rule 12(b)(1) is similar to the standard under Rule 12(b)(6). That is, under Rule 12(b)(1), the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to establish federal jurisdiction. See Stalley ex rel. U.S. v. Orlando Reg'l Healthcare Sys., Inc., 524 F.3d 1229, 1232 (11th Cir. 2008); Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1528-29 (11th Cir. 1990).

         In considering a motion under Rule 12(b), this Court is generally limited to considering the complaint and its attachments. Nevertheless, “where the plaintiff refers to certain documents in the complaint and those documents are central to the plaintiff's claim, then the Court may consider the documents part of the pleadings.” Brooks v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Fla., Inc., 116 F.3d 1364, 1368-69 (11th Cir. 1997). Moreover, this Court may consider facts or documents that are subject to judicial notice. See Federal Evidence Rule 201; Universal Express, Inc. v. SEC, 177 F. App'x 52, 53 (11th Cir. 2006) (“A district court may take judicial notice of certain facts without converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment.”); La Grasta v. First Union Sec., Inc., 358 F.3d 840, 845 (11th Cir. 2004) (“In analyzing the sufficiency of the complaint, we limit our consideration to the well-pleaded factual allegations, documents central to or referenced in the complaint, and matters judicially ...


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