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Harper v. Professional Probation Services, Inc.

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

November 14, 2018

CATHERINE REGINA HARPER, on behalf of herself and those similarly situated, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This matter comes before the court on Defendant Professional Probation Services, Inc.'s motion to dismiss the second amended complaint. (Doc. 57).

         In this 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.

         PPS 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 to dismiss.

         First, 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         At this 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.

         PPS is 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).

         With 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.).

         After 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).

         After 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).

         The 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).

         At 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.).

         On 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.).

         Against 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).

         1. Gina Harper

         In 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).

         Over 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).

         Ms. 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).

         In 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).

         2. Shannon Jones

         On 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 45-46).

         After 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.[1] (See id.).

         At her 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 ...

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