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McCullough v. City of Montgomery

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

May 14, 2019

ANGELA MCCULLOUGH, et al., Plaintiffs,



         In McCullough v. Finley, the Eleventh Circuit reversed this Court's denial of judicial immunity to the presiding judge of the municipal court for the City of Montgomery (the "City") and of qualified and state-agent immunity for the City's mayor and two police chiefs. 907 F.3d 1324, 1335 (11th Cir. 2018). In doing so, the Circuit held that all of the judge's alleged actions . were judicial acts for which he was entitled to absolute immunity. Id. at 1332. And for the mayor and police chiefs, the Circuit found that the plaintiffs failed to plausibly state a claim sufficient to overcome qualified and state-agent immunities. Id. at 1335. Although the City was not a party to that interlocutory appeal in Finley, it now argues that the Circuit's holdings necessitate dismissal of all claims against it. For the reasons stated herein, this Court agrees with some of the City's arguments while disagreeing with others. The City's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF No. 180] will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court need not go in depth on the background of this case, as the facts have been summarized in both this Court's prior opinion, McCullough v. City of Montgomery, No. 2:15-cv- 463, 2017 WL 956362, at * 1-2 (M.D. Ala. March 10, 2017), and in the Circuit's opinion in Finley. 907 F.3d at 1328-30. Briefly, plaintiffs in this case filed their complaint on behalf of a proposed class of indigent jailees, alleging the City subjected them to an extortionate scheme designed to increase municipal revenues. According to the complaint, the City instituted aggressive policies to collect fines and court costs owed by individuals for various offenses, often minor traffic tickets.

         One of these policies was the placement of plaintiffs onto "probation" with Judicial Corrections Services, Inc. ("JCS"). The City contracted with JCS to run its probation program. Individuals placed on JCS probation were required to pay JCS monthly installments on their debts to the City, along with a $10 set-up fee and $40 monthly probation fees to JCS. Probationers unable to pay their monthly installment in full were threatened with or subjected to probation revocation and incarceration for their debts.

         Another key part of the alleged scheme was the City's operation of a modern day debtors' prison. Indigent offenders or probationers were forced to "sit out" their fines at a rate of $50 per day. Additionally, the plaintiffs claim the City coerced them to participate in a work program, which allowed them to reduce their time in jail by working for an additional credit of $25 a day.

         Plaintiffs' amended complaint included fourteen claims related to the policies described above against the City, JCS, the presiding judge of the City's municipal court in his official capacity, as well as against the presiding judge, the City's mayor, and two of its police chiefs in their individual capacities. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 178-281, ECF No. 32. The plaintiffs allege various constitutional torts and state law torts, as well as violations of federal statutes by either some or all of the defendants, depending on the claim. Id.

         Most of plaintiffs' causes of action made it past the motion to dismiss stage, including claims against certain defendants in their individual capacities. See Order, ECF No. 132. Specifically, the Court held that neither the presiding judge nor the former presiding judge could rely on judicial immunity, McCullough, 2017 WL 956362, at *9, and that the chief of police, the former chief of police, and the mayor could not rely on qualified immunity. Id. at *12.

         On interlocutory appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed that holding. Finley, 907 F.3d at 1135. For the judge, the Circuit found he was entitled to judicial immunity because all the alleged acts were judicial in nature and his motivation was irrelevant to the immunity analysis. Id. at 1330-33. For the mayor and chiefs, the Circuit found there were no non-conclusory allegations connecting them to the alleged constitutional violations. Id. at 1332-35. Accordingly, the panel concluded the mayor and police chiefs were entitled to qualified and state-agent immunity. Id. at 1335.

         The City attempted to participate in the appeal in Finley, but its appeal was dismissed. See Finley, Order (Aug. 17, 2017) at 3, No. 17-11554. The City claimed a right to appeal because the claims against it were "both inextricably intertwined with and solely dependent upon the actions" of the municipal court judge. Finley, Appellants' Joint Suppl. Mem. Jurisdiction, No. 17-11554. The Circuit rejected this argument, stating that it was this Court's denial of immunity that entitled the appellants to interlocutory appeal and that the City could not "piggyback" on the other defendants' proper appeal. See Finley, Order (Aug. 17, 2017) at 2, No. 17-11554. Specifically, the Circuit held: (1) that this Court "left open the possibility the judge and the City were independently responsible for creating the policies at issue;" (2) that "the City's liability does not necessarily match the judge's;" and (3) that "the City's appeal is not inextricably intertwined with the judge's entitlement to immunity." Id. at 3.

         Although the City was unable to participate in the appeal, it argues that the Court is bound by the Circuit's findings in Finely-findings that necessitate its dismissal from the case entirely. Accordingly, it has moved for judgment on the pleadings. City's Mot. J. Pleadings, ECF No. 180.


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), a party may move for judgment on the pleadings "[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial." "A motion for judgment on the pleadings is governed by the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)." Carbone v. Cable News Network, Inc., 910 F.3d 1345, 1350 (11th Cir. 2018): Accordingly, 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 is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting BellAtl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570'(2007)). A complaint states a plausible claim for relief "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Id. at 679. And the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.


         After this Court's opinion on the motion to dismiss, seven counts from plaintiffs' amended complaint remain against the City. Order, ECF No. 132. These are largely Section 1983 claims alleging constitutional violations. Count III claims the City violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments through its alleged policy and practice of issuing warrants on those individuals who have not paid traffic debts or monthly payments to JCS. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 191-96, ECF No. 32. Count IV alleges various constitutional violations for the City's use of a fixed-sum bail schedule, which requires payment of pre-fixed amounts to gain pre-trial release without regard to indigency or ability to pay. Id. ¶¶ 197-03. Count V claims the City violated the Constitution by imprisoning people for failure to pay fines without conducting meaningful inquiries into their indigency or ability to pay. M ¶¶ 204-14. Count VI faults the City for failing to provide adequate counsel. Id. ¶¶ 215-21. Count VII alleges that the jail work program violated the Thirteenth Amendment, as well as federal statutes outlawing peonage and forced labor. Id. ¶¶ 222-34. Count VIII claims constitutional violations through the use of probation and threats of probation revocation to collect fines and fees. Id. ¶¶ 235-242. And Count IX alleges the City violated the Constitution through requiring appeal bonds without inquiry into indigency or ability to pay. Id. ¶¶ 243-50. The City argues that each of these causes of action are due to be dismissed on the pleadings.

         A. The Eleventh Circuit's opinion in Finley requires the Court to reevaluate whether plaintiffs state a plausible claim against the City.

         To determine what effect, if any, the Circuit's opinion in Finley has on the plaintiffs' claims against the City, the Court must examine what the Circuit actually did and said.

         The Circuit did not have jurisdiction to hear an appeal over this Court's entire opinion, but rather only the Court's denial of immunity to the defendants sued in their individual capacities. Finley, 907 F.3d at 1330. This included the denial of judicial immunity to Judge Hayes, presiding judge of the City's municipal court, and denials of qualified and state-agent immunities to Mayor Todd Strange and police chiefs Ernest Finley and Kevin Murphy. Id. Because plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed most individual capacity claims and because this Court granted the City's motion to dismiss on some others, the only individual capacity claims before the Circuit were: (1) Count VII's statutory anti-peonage and forced labor claims against all four individual defendants, and (2) Count XII's false imprisonment claims against the Mayor and Judge Hayes. Id. at 1329-30.

         1. The Circuit held that Judge Hayes was entitled to judicial immunity.

         The opinion in Finley first addressed whether Judge Hayes was entitled to judicial immunity. Id. at 1330-32. "A judge enjoys absolute immunity from suit for judicial acts performed within the jurisdiction of his court." Id. at 1330 (citing Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57 (1978)). So, in deciding whether judicial immunity applies, courts must "look at the nature and function of his act, not the propriety of the act itself, and consider whether the nature and function of the particular act is judicial." Id. at 1330-31.

         In the prior motion to dismiss opinion, this Court found that the allegations in the complaint were for non-judicial actions "[g]iven that municipal revenue generation is not a function normally performed by a judge." McCullough, 2017 WL 956362, at *9. But the Circuit disagreed. Finley, 907 F.3d at 1331. The Circuit held that the judge's alleged desire to generate revenue went to his motivation, rather than the character of his action. Id. "A judge's motivation is irrelevant to determining whether his act was judicial." Id. And even if Judge Hayes was motivated to generate municipal revenue, his act "does not become less judicial by virtue of an allegation of malice or corruption of motive." Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227 (1988).

         The Circuit instructed that the Court should have instead evaluated whether the acts alleged in the amended complaint were judicial based on four factors:

(1) the precise act complained of is a normal judicial function; (2) the events involved occurred in the judge's chambers; (3) the controversy centered around a case then pending before the judge; and (4) the confrontation arose directly and ...

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