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Malone v. City of Decatur

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

October 9, 2018

SAMANTHA MALONE, HOLLY KIMMONS, MARK BLEDSOE, ANDY FENNELL, and TRAVIS MOSELY, on behalf of themselves and those similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF DECATUR, ALABAMA; EMILY BAGGETT; CHRISTY MILLER; UNIVERSAL HEALTH SERVICES, INC.; and PROFESSIONAL PROBATION SERVICES, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the defendants' motions to dismiss the second amended complaint. (Docs. 42, 44, 45, 48, 53). The parties have fully briefed the motions. After considering the parties' submissions, the Court grants in part and denies in part the motions to dismiss as set forth below.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 12(b)(6) enables a defendant to move to dismiss a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint against the “liberal pleading standards set forth by Rule 8(a)(2).” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Pursuant to Rule 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). “To survive a motion to dismiss, 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Specific facts are not necessary; the statement need only ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Erickson, 551 U.S. at 93 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, (2007)); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (Rule 8 generally does not require “detailed factual allegations.”).

         In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a court must view the allegations in a complaint in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007). A court must accept well-pleaded facts as true. Grossman v. Nationsbank, N.A., 225 F.3d 1228, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000). In other words, “[o]n a motion to dismiss, the facts stated in the . . . complaint and all reasonable inferences therefrom are taken as true.” Bickley v. Caremark RX, Inc., 461 F.3d 1325, 1328 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Stephens v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 901 F.2d 1571, 1573 (11th Cir. 1990)). Nevertheless, on a motion to dismiss, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986).

         Pursuant to this standard, the Court describes the facts alleged in the second amended complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs Samantha Malone, Holly Kimmons, Mark Bledsoe, Andy Fennell, and Travis Mosely are residents of the City of Decatur, Alabama. (Doc. 41, ¶¶ 15- 19). Defendant City of Decatur is a municipal corporation located in Morgan County, Alabama. (Doc. 41, ¶ 20). Defendant Emily Baggett is the prosecutor for Decatur. (Doc. 41, ¶ 21). Defendant Christy Miller is one of several attorneys who may be appointed to represent indigent criminal defendants in the Decatur Municipal Court. (Doc. 41, ¶ 22). Defendant Professional Probation Services (PPS) is a corporation with its principal place of business in Georgia. (Doc. 41, ¶ 24). PPS is registered with the Alabama Secretary of State and was actively engaged in business in Alabama and Decatur at all times relevant to this case. (Doc. 41, ¶ 24). PPS is a wholly owned subsidiary of defendant Universal Health Services, Inc. (UHS), one of the country's largest health care management companies. (Doc. 41, ¶¶ 24-25). The plaintiffs assert that the defendants have been “extorting money from impoverished individuals under threat of jail” and “misusing the criminal justice system and probation process for profit.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 1).

         The plaintiffs allege that the City of Decatur contracted with PPS to provide probation services to the Municipal Court. (Doc. 41, ¶ 8). When an individual appearing before the Municipal Court is assessed fines or costs and cannot pay them in full, the Municipal Court orders that individual to serve a suspended sentence and places the individual on probation with PPS for a number of months. (Doc. 41, ¶¶ 36, 39). According to the plaintiffs, each month that an indigent defendant is on PPS-administered probation, the Municipal Court requires the defendant to pay a specified amount toward his fine and a $35.00 supervision fee to PPS. (Doc. 41, ¶ 40). The plaintiffs allege that when an individual cannot make one of the monthly payments, PPS alerts the Municipal Court, and the Municipal Court initiates probation revocation proceedings. (Doc. 41, ¶ 47). The Municipal Court charges individuals who cannot make a monthly payment with violation of their probation, increases the length of the term of probation, and imposes additional fees and fines. (Doc. 41, ¶ 50).

         The plaintiffs allege that they were incarcerated under this scheme for failure to pay the fees charged by PPS. They also allege that the City, through its contract with PPS, “has affected hundreds of low income people who were issued traffic tickets and/or arrested for misdemeanors.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 11). In their second amended complaint, the plaintiffs assert the following claims on behalf of themselves and a potential class of similarly situated individuals: violation of the Fourteenth Amendment against the City of Decatur; violation of the Fourth Amendment against the City of Decatur, Ms. Baggett, and Ms. Miller; violation of the Sixth Amendment against the City of Decatur, Ms. Baggett, and Ms. Miller; false imprisonment against the City of Decatur, Ms. Baggett, and Ms. Miller; RICO violations (18 U.S.C. § 1962(a) - (d)) against UHS and PPS; and abuse of process against PPS. (Doc. 41, ¶¶ 141-219).

         The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages and “such other relief as the Court deems just and appropriate.” (Doc. 41, pp. 46-47). The defendants have moved to dismiss most of these claims. (Docs. 42, 44, 45, 48, 53).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Ms. Baggett's Motion to Dismiss

         Ms. Baggett asks the Court to dismiss all claims against her because she is entitled to prosecutorial immunity. The plaintiffs argue that Ms. Baggett is not entitled to immunity because she was “acting at the behest of a third-party intent on maximizing its profits on the backs of indigent defendants.” (Doc. 18, p. 16). The plaintiffs allege the following facts with respect to Ms. Baggett:

• “Defendant Emily Baggett (“Baggett”) acting under color of law in her individual and official capacity has prosecuted individuals in the [C]ity of Decatur for being unable to pay fines and fees on municipal violations using a policy, practice or custom in violation of said individuals' constitutional rights.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 5).[1]
• “Defendant Emily Baggett (“Baggett”) is the Prosecutor for the City of Decatur, Alabama. The Prosecutor position for the City of Decatur is a full time job.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 21).
• “The full time Prosecutor is Attorney Emily Baggett.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 29).
• “Defense Counsel is not appointed in every case and the City's full time prosecutor Emily Baggett informs the Defendants that they are going to be placed on probation.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 33).
• “The injuries of Plaintiffs and the proposed class all arise out of the same policies and practices of Defendants City of Decatur, Emily Baggett in her individual and official capacity, Christy Miller in her individual and official capacity and Professional Probation Services, the wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Health Services, Inc.” (Doc. 41, pp. 26-27).
• “The full time Municipal Prosecutor for the City of Decatur, Emily Baggett, assisted in the furtherance of the policy and custom of placing low income individuals who could not afford to pay fines in full on probation with Professional Probation Services.” (Doc. 41, pp. 28-29).

         In sum, the plaintiffs' factual allegations concerning Ms. Baggett pertain to her role as a municipal prosecutor. (Doc. 41, ¶ 5).

         Prosecutorial immunity has its roots in judicial immunity. Hart v. Hodges, 587 F.3d 1288, 1294 (11th Cir. 2009) (“[T]raditional common-law immunities for prosecutors … derived from immunities recognized for judges …”). Executive branch public officials are entitled to absolute immunity from damages claims in actions for activities that “are intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.” Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430 (1976). In determining whether certain activities are intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, a functional approach has evolved that “looks to the nature of the function performed, not to the identity of the person who performed it.” Hart, 587 F.3d at 1295-96 (citing Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 269 (1993)). The Supreme Court has applied functional analysis and determined that prosecutors are immune from claims for damages in a number of scenarios. See Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S. 335 (2009) (failure to institute a system of information-sharing among deputy district attorneys regarding confidential jailhouse informants); Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478 (1991) (court appearance in support of an application for a search warrant and presentation of evidence at that hearing); Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 342-43 (1986) (malicious prosecution). Like judges, “prosecutors do not enjoy absolute immunity from [declaratory relief] claims.” Tarter v. Hury, 646 F.2d 1010, 1012 (5th Cir. 1981).[2]

         “Applying these principles, [the Eleventh C]ircuit has emphasized that, ‘[a] prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity from allegations stemming from the prosecutor's function as advocate.'” Hart, 587 F.3d at 1295 (quoting Jones v. Cannon, 174 F.3d 1271, 1281 (11th Cir. 1999)). A prosecutor's function as an advocate encompasses “acts undertaken in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial, and which occur in the course of his role as an advocate.” Hart, 587 F.3d at 1295 (quoting Jones 174 F.3d at 1281) (internal quotation marks omitted). Specifically, this includes, and absolute immunity thus extends to, “filing an information without investigation, filing charges without jurisdiction, filing a baseless detainer, offering perjured testimony, suppressing exculpatory evidence, refusing to investigate . . . complaints about the prison system, [and] threatening . . . further criminal prosecutions . . . .” Henzel v. Gerstein, 608 F.2d 654, 657 (5th Cir. 1979).

         The conduct about which the plaintiffs complain with respect to Ms. Baggett pertains to her role as an advocate. Even if the plaintiffs can demonstrate that Ms. Baggett chose to prosecute individuals to benefit PPS, she is immune from claims for damages for malicious prosecution. The plaintiffs assert that a prosecutor's motive in initiating an action may overcome immunity from damages for malicious prosecution, but the plaintiffs offer no binding authority for their assertion. The plaintiffs do not request declaratory relief. Accordingly, because Ms. Baggett is entitled to absolute immunity from the plaintiffs' damages claims for her alleged prosecution of individuals in the City of Decatur, the Court will grant Ms. Baggett's motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims against her.

         II. Ms. Miller's Motion to Dismiss

         Ms. Miller asks the Court to dismiss all claims against her. (Doc. 42, p. 2). She argues that the constitutional claims against her cannot succeed because she is not a state actor, and the plaintiffs do not allege facts against her to state a claim of false imprisonment. (Doc. 35, p. 2).

         The plaintiffs allege the following facts with respect to Ms. Miller:

• “Defendant Christy Miller (“Miller”) acting under color of law in her individual and official capacity was appointed to defend individuals in the City of Decatur Municipal Court and failed to provide any defense to individuals but rather told individuals they had to sign up for ...

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