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Chestnut v. Merrill

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

March 27, 2019

LAKEISHA CHESTNUT, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JOHN H. MERRILL, in his official capacity as Alabama Secretary of State Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the court on Defendant John Merrill's “Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings” pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), filed on November 2, 2018. (Doc. 27). In this motion, Defendant raised three grounds for judgment on the pleadings: (1) jurisdiction lies with a three-judge court, (2) the complaint fails to demonstrate that a remedy exists, and (3) the claims are barred by the doctrine of laches.

         On November 7, 2018, the court ordered the parties to brief all three issues raised in the motion. (Doc. 30). Plaintiffs filed “Plaintiffs' Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings” on November 30, 2018. (Doc. 31). On December 21, 2018, Defendant filed “Secretary of State John Merrill's Reply in Support of His Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 27).” (Doc. 37).

         On January 16, 2019, the court held a hearing solely on the issue of whether jurisdiction of this case lay with this court or with a three-judge panel. On January 28, 2019, the court entered an Order denying Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the jurisdictional issue. (Doc. 41). Because the court has jurisdiction, the case remains before this court. So, the remaining two grounds raised by Defendant in his motion for judgment on the pleadings are now ripe for review.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs are eight African-American citizens of Alabama. One Plaintiff resides in Congressional District (“CD”) 1, one resides in CD 2, one resides in CD 3, and five reside in CD 7. The redistricting plan currently used in Alabama, Senate Bill 484, allegedly “packs” African-American voters into CD 7. See S.B. 484, 2011 Reg. Sess. (Ala. 2011). The Alabama legislature established CD 7 as a majority-minority district following the 1982 Amendments of the Voting Rights Act. Nearly one-third of Alabama's African-American population falls into CD 7.[1] Prior to the passage of S.B. 484, the black voting age population (BVAP) of CD 7 under the 2002 redistricting plan was 58.33%. Now, the CD 7 BVAP is 60.91%.

         Plaintiffs argue that S.B. 484 redrew district lines to “move” African-American voters from predominantly white districts into CD 7 to “pack” the district designated as a majority-minority district with African-American voters. But the plan also allegedly “cracks” African-American voters in CDs 1, 2, and 3 by splitting among three districts those African-American voters who could be grouped together in a second majority-minority district. Plaintiffs contend that the African-American population in these districts should be united to form a second majority-minority CD.

         Plaintiffs raise a Section 2 violation of the Voting Rights Act, alleging vote dilution. The Supreme Court identified three preconditions necessary to establish a vote dilution claim: (1) the minority group “is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in the single-member district, ” (2) the minority group is “politically cohesive, ” and (3) “the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it-in the absence of special circumstances, such as the minority candidate running unopposed-usually to defeat the minority's preferred candidate.” Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 50-51 (1986) (internal citations omitted).

         II. Standard of Review

         Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a party to move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed, but early enough to not delay trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). A judgment on the pleadings is appropriate “when there are no material facts in dispute, and judgment may be rendered by considering the substance of the pleadings and any judicially noticed facts.” Horsley v. Rivera, 292 F.3d 695, 700 (11th Cir. 2002). To determine whether the movant is entitled to a judgment on the pleadings, the court should “accept as true all material facts alleged in the non-moving party's pleading, and . . . view those facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Perez v. Wells Fargo N.A., 774 F.3d 1329, 1335 (11th Cir. 2014).

         The court analyzes a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings the same way as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Dial v. City of Bessemer, No. 2:14-cv-01297-RDP, 2016 WL 3054728, at *3 (N.D. Ala. May 31, 2016). (“A Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is analyzed the same as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.”). “A motion to dismiss and a motion for judgment on the pleadings should not be granted unless ‘the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” Losey v. Warden, 521 Fed.Appx. 717, 719 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Horsley v. Feldt, 304 F.3d 1225, 1131 (11th Cir. 2002)). So, “to survive a motion for judgment on the pleadings, ‘a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that it plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

         To be plausible on its face, the claim must contain enough facts that “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Although “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, '” the complaint must demonstrate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. “Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id. (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557 (2007)).

         The Supreme Court has identified “two working principles” for the district court to use in applying the facial plausibility standard. The first principle is that, in evaluating motions to dismiss, the court must assume the veracity of well-pleaded factual allegations; however, the court does not have to accept as true legal conclusions even when “couched as . . . factual allegation[s]” or “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The second principle is that “only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Id. at 679.

         Thus, under prong one, the court determines the factual allegations that are well-pleaded and assumes their veracity, and then proceeds, under prong two, to determine the claim's plausibility given the well-pleaded facts. That task is “context-specific” and, to survive the motion, the allegations must permit the court based on its “judicial experience and common sense . . . to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. If the court determines that well-pleaded facts, accepted as true, do not state a claim that is plausible, the claim must be dismissed. Id.

         III. Discussion

         Defendant raises two grounds why he is entitled to a judgment on the pleadings: first, Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the existence of a proper remedy; and second, Plaintiffs' claims are barred by the doctrine of laches. The court will discuss each argument in turn.

         a. Existence of ...


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