United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
CATHERINE REGINA HARPER, on behalf of herself and those similarly situated, et al., Plaintiffs,
PROFESSIONAL PROBATION SERVICES, INC., et al., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter comes before the court on Defendant Professional
Probation Services, Inc.'s motion to dismiss the second
amended complaint. (Doc. 57).
case, Professional Probation Services (PPS) contracted with
the Municipal Court of the City of Gardendale, Alabama, to
perform probation supervision for the Municipal Court. Under
the contract, neither the Municipal Court nor Gardendale had
to pay PPS for its services because PPS charged offenders who
had been sentenced to probation monthly service fees. Three
of those probationers-Catherine Harper, Shannon Jones, and
Jennifer Essig- brought this lawsuit, alleging that PPS
violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
to the United States Constitution because it had a financial
conflict of interest in the probation cases assigned to it,
and that PPS violated Alabama law by abusing the process of
probation to extort money from the probationers it
supervised. Ms. Harper and Ms. Jones bring their claims
individually and on behalf of a putative class, and Ms. Essig
brings her claims individually.
moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting that the court
lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the due process claim
under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and that
Plaintiffs failed to state either a due process claim or an
abuse of process claim. The court GRANTS IN
PART and DENIES IN PART the motion
the court finds that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine
does not bar this court's consideration of the due
process claim because no state court has adjudicated
Plaintiffs' claims, nor are their claims inextricably
intertwined with the state court judgments against them.
Next, the court concludes that Plaintiffs have not stated a
due process claim against PPS because they have not alleged
facts showing that any due process violations were
attributable to PPS and, even if they have alleged those
facts, the State has provided an adequate post-deprivation
remedy. Accordingly, the court GRANTS the
motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' due process claim and
DISMISSES that claim WITH
PREJUDICE. Finally, the court determines that
Plaintiffs have stated an abuse of process claim because they
allege that PPS, acting with an ulterior purpose, used the
probation process to extract additional money from them. The
court therefore DENIES the motion to dismiss
the abuse of process claim.
stage, the court must accept as true the factual allegations
in the complaint and construe them in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff. Butler v. Sheriff of Palm
Beach Cty., 685 F.3d 1261, 1265 (11th Cir. 2012). The
court may also consider exhibits attached to the complaint.
Hoefling v. City of Miami, 811 F.3d 1271, 1277 (11th
Cir. 2016). Plaintiffs attach to their second amended
complaint PPS's contract with the Municipal Court.
(See Doc. 56-1). As a result, the court's
description of the facts incorporates not only
Plaintiffs' allegations but the content of the contract.
a for-profit corporation that supervises probationers. (Doc.
56 at 8). Gardendale's Municipal Court hears cases
involving city ordinance violations, including traffic
tickets and misdemeanors. (Id. at 7-8). In 1998, a
judge of the Municipal Court and PPS entered a contract under
which PPS agreed to serve as the Municipal Court's sole
probation provider. (Id. at 8-9; Doc. 56-1). Under
the contract, PPS did not charge Gardendale for its services
because probationers paid monthly fees to PPS to cover the
costs of supervision and any additional services, such as
anger management or substance abuse classes. (Doc. 56 at
10-11). The contract permitted PPS to charge probationers $30
per month for basic probation services. (Doc. 56-1 at 9). In
practice, PPS charged offenders a $40 monthly supervision
fee. (Doc. 56 at 15).
PPS in charge of providing probation services, a typical case
would proceed as follows. The Municipal Court would order an
offender to pay a fine or court cost and, if the offender
could not immediately pay the entire amount owed, the Court
would automatically issue a probation order assigning the
offender to probation. (Id. at 11). A standard
probation order would list the length of probation, the type
of supervision, and any special conditions, such as
completion of vocational rehabilitation. (See Id. at
14). The probation order did not state the amount of any fine
or court costs. (See id.).
the Municipal Court issued the probation order, the offender
would meet with a PPS employee in a different room within the
courthouse. (Id. at 15). The Municipal Court judge
would have pre-signed a “Sentence of Probation”
form, and the PPS employee would complete the form during the
first meeting with the new probationer. (Id.). The
Sentence of Probation form indicated the total fine and court
costs owed, the monthly service fee of $40, the length of
probation, and any additional conditions. (See Id.
at 15-16). The Municipal Court judge did not review the
Sentence of Probation form after PPS filled it out.
(Id. at 16).
filling out the Sentence of Probation form, the PPS employee
would complete a PPS Enrollment Form, which listed the name
of the probationer's probation officer, the date of her
first appointment at PPS, the amount due at that appointment,
and instructions for the probationer, including how and by
when probationers could reschedule appointments.
(Id. at 17-19).
contract between PPS and the Municipal Court indicates that
the Municipal Court would make any indigency determinations.
(See Doc. 56-1 at 9 (“Those offenders the
Court shall determine as indigent shall be ordered as such
and supervised at no cost.”). But in practice, the
Municipal Court did not assess indigency and PPS did not
evaluate probationers for indigency or assist them in
obtaining an indigency determination from the Municipal
Court. (Doc. 56 at 11- 12, 20).
probation review hearings, the probation officer would appear
at the Municipal Court with the probationer. (Id. at
28-29). PPS would report offenders' alleged
non-compliance with the probation conditions to the Municipal
Court without filing a contempt citation or revocation
paperwork, and it did not provide probationers with any
information about the alleged violations. (Id. at
29). When offenders had their probation revoked and spent
time in jail, they did not receive any credit toward the fine
or court costs. (Id. at 31). And when offenders
could pay only a part of the amount due monthly, PPS took its
$40 fee out of that amount before applying any of the payment
to the probationer's fine or court costs. (Id.
at 23). Finally, PPS never offered any additional services,
such as substance abuse treatment or anger management
classes, to probationers. (Id. at 24). Instead, PPS
simply required probationers to appear for in-person
appointments to make a payment and receive the next
appointment date. (Id.).
November 1, 2017, a Municipal Court judge ordered all
probationers supervised by PPS to stop reporting to PPS, to
stop making payments to PPS, and to either pay the Municipal
Court all outstanding court debt or appear in court to
request a payment plan. (Id. at 9-10). After the
Municipal Court entered that order, PPS terminated its
contract with the Court. (Id. at 10). PPS no longer
operates in Gardendale. (Id.).
that background, the court will describe the factual
allegations particular to Ms. Harper, Ms. Jones, and Ms.
Essig, all offenders whom the Municipal Court sentenced to
probation under PPS. (Id. at 32, 45, 53).
February 2017, Ms. Harper pleaded guilty to driving on a
revoked license, and the Municipal Court imposed a $500 fine,
$215 in court costs, a sentence of 48 hours of jail to serve,
and one year's probation. (Doc. 56 at 32-33). A PPS
employee informed Ms. Harper that she would have to pay PPS
$80 per month, of which $40 was the monthly supervision fee.
(Id.). Ms. Harper's Sentence of Probation form
changed her period of probation from twelve months to
twenty-four months. (Id. at 34).
the next eight months, Ms. Harper repeatedly told her
probation officer that she could not afford to pay $80 per
month and asked about performing community service instead.
(Id. at 34-36, 39-41). Her probation officer told
her to discuss community service with the Municipal Court,
but when she asked the Municipal Court, the judge told her
and her probation officer that PPS, not the Court, had to
order community service. (Id. at 38-39). The same
probation officer later told Ms. Harper that PPS could not
give her community service unless the Municipal Court ordered
it. (Id. at 39). When Ms. Harper continued to ask
about community service, the probation officer told her that
she could not complete community service because she worked a
full-time job, and community service could be performed on
only weekdays. (Id. at 41). Over the period during
which PPS supervised Ms. Harper's probation, she never
made a full payment, typically paying nothing or between $20
and $30. (Id. at 35-44). By the time the Municipal
Court ordered all probationers to stop reporting to PPS, she
had paid $90 total, all of which went toward PPS's
monthly fees, and none of which had been applied to her fine
or court costs. (Id. at 44).
Harper also missed a number of appointments, but she alleges
that she almost always called before the scheduled
appointment to reschedule. (Id. at 36- 43). The only
time she missed an appointment without rescheduling it
beforehand was when PPS failed to notify her of the
appointment. (Id. at 41).
September 2017, Ms. Harper's probation officer reported
to the Municipal Court that Ms. Harper had missed
appointments and was non-compliant with the terms of her
probation. (Id. at 40). Ms. Harper asked for a list
of the appointments she had missed but received no answer.
(Id.). She asserts that the probation officer was
counting appointments that she had rescheduled pursuant to
the instructions given by PPS to probationers. (Id.
at 42). Based on the probation officer's representations
that Ms. Harper was non-compliant, the Municipal Court
ordered her to jail for five days. (Id. at 40-41).
August 19, 2016, Plaintiff Shannon Jones pleaded guilty to
driving with a suspended license, two charges of driving
under the influence, and driving without insurance. (Doc. 56
at 45). The Municipal Court orally sentenced her to 60 days
in jail and various fines and court costs, but the probation
order that PPS gave Ms. Jones after the hearing stated that
she had a suspended jail sentence of 30 days and probation
for one year, and that she would have to “pay fine
[sic], court costs, restitution, fees.” (Id.
at 46). Neither the oral sentence nor the probation order
indicated the total amount Ms. Jones owed. (Id. at
the hearing, Ms. Jones met with a PPS employee who gave her a
Sentence of Probation form, which, in contrast to the oral
sentence and probation order, stated that Ms. Jones was
sentenced to 240 days in jail (instead of 30 or 60 days), two
years' probation (instead of one year), and $9, 440 in
fines and court costs. (Id. at 46). The form
informed Ms. Jones that she would have to pay PPS $445 per
month, made up of $370 for the fines and court costs and $75
monthly for an interlock device. (Id.). She would
also have to pay the monthly service fee of $40.
(Id.). Accordingly, the total amount Ms. Jones owed
PPS each month was $485. (See id.).
first court review hearing, Ms. Jones requested a reduction
in her monthly fees and asked how she could be declared
indigent. (Id. at 47-48). The Municipal Court told
her that it could not reduce her monthly payments and that
PPS had ...