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Woods v. Judicial Correction Services, Inc.

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

June 5, 2019

HALI WOODS, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This matter is before the court on Defendant Judicial Correction Services, Inc.'s (“JCS”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 181). The Motion has been fully briefed. (Docs. # 183, 192, and 202). For the reasons discussed below, the Motion is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. The Rule 56 Evidence and the Undisputed Facts[1]

         In 2006, the City of Columbiana entered into a contract with JCS under which JCS was to provide probation services to the Columbiana municipal court. (Doc. # 157). Municipal court Judge Mike Atchison first learned of JCS from other municipalities that used JCS's services. (Docs. # 160 at 24, # 158 at 38-40). Joanna Seale, a municipal court magistrate and the court clerk, had also heard about JCS during continuing education programs taken in connection with her magistrate position. (Doc. # 158 at 37). Seale called Susan Fuqua, a magistrate in Hoover, Alabama, to ask about that court's experience with JCS. (Id. at 38-40). The Columbiana municipal court explored using JCS for probation services in an effort to save the municipal court from having to hire another full time employee. (Id. at 37).

         JCS marketed itself as an offender-paid system which did not charge a municipality any money for its services. (Doc. # 180-31 at 193). It claimed that: (1) it could provide an incentive for probationers to pay their fines at a higher and faster rate, (2) its system increased partial payment rates, and (3) under its system, partial payments averaged eighty to ninety percent of the total fine. (Doc. # 193-2). Offenders placed on probation were generally ordered to pay JCS a one-time $10 set-up fee and $35 for each month of probation. (See, e.g., Doc. # 168 at 16).

         A. The Contract

         The Contract with JCS was signed on behalf of Columbiana by then-Mayor Allan Lowe, and on behalf of JCS by the President of JCS Alabama, Kevin Egan. (Doc. # 183-2). The Contract provides for compensation to JCS of a “[p]robation fee of $35.00 per month” and a “[o]ne-time probationer set-up fee of $10.00.” (Id. at 5). However, Exhibit A to the Contract provides that, “Probationers who pay their entire fine and Court costs within one week of the sentencing date will not be charged a probation supervision fee by JCS, although they would be responsible for $10 set-up fee.” (Id. at 3).

         Under the Contract, JCS agreed to “supervise all probated cases sentenced by the Court” and “supervise indigent cases when determined by the Court.” (Id. at 4). JCS agreed to “comply with the Court's ruling in reference to sentencing or possible revocation of probation” and that “[a]ny modification to the original court sentence will be decided by the Court.” (Id. at 4-5).

         On April 15, 2015, Columbiana Mayor Stancil Handley terminated Columbiana's JCS Contract. (Doc. # 157-1 at 58). JCS no longer operates in Alabama. (Doc. # 80).

         B. JCS Operations in the Columbiana Municipal Court

         Columbiana's municipal court generally held two monthly court sessions. (Doc. # 183-1 at 38, 55). Magistrate Seale sat at a table next to Judge Atchison during court. (Doc. # 183-26 at 1). At the beginning of each court session, Judge Atchison read prepared remarks. (Id. at 1, 5-6).[2]The prepared remarks informed defendants, among other things, that they had a right to be represented by counsel and that, if jail was a possible punishment and they were unable to pay for an attorney, one may be appointed. (Id. at 2, 5-6). During court, defendants were given a copy of Unified Judicial System form C-44B, Explanation of Rights Plea of Guilty. (Id. at 3, 8-9).[3]

         Judge Atchison was responsible for investigating a person's ability to pay a fine, and this indigency review was to occur prior to any involvement by JCS. (Docs. # 158 at 93-96, # 158-1 at 53, 74, 93-94). Magistrate Seale gave defendants an affidavit of substantial hardship, another state form, when Judge Atchison told her to do so or when an attorney was appointed at a bond hearing. (Doc. # 183-1 at 96). However, Plaintiffs Woods and Douglas both testified that they told Judge Atchison that they were unable to pay the fines he imposed, but he nonetheless imposed the fines and referred them to JCS. (Docs. # 183-8 at 54-55, 86, 212-14, # 183-27 at 71, 75-76, # 193-4, # 193-5). Magistrate Seale testified that, if a defendant could not pay a fine in full, the normal procedure was to sentence them to either probation with JCS or to jail. (Doc. # 183-1 at 121-23). There were a few occasions where Judge Atchison instructed Seale to accept periodic payments. (Id.). Despite the fact that they explained their inability to pay, Woods and Douglas were not offered any options other than probation with JCS or jail. (Docs. # 193-4, # 193-5). Douglas was told that she either had to “go on JCS or go to jail.” (Doc. # 193-4). At one point Woods asked Judge Atchison if community service was an option, but he responded that it was not offered. (Doc. # 193-5 at 2).

         Judge Atchison expected JCS to follow his orders. (Doc. # 183-7 at 16, 19, 68). Judge Atchison signed pre-printed Probation Orders provided by JCS in blank before court, and JCS's probation officer, Lisha Kidd, completed the Orders afterward based on the Judge's notes on the ticket. (Doc. # 158 at 99-100). Judge Atchison wrote the fine amount on the back of a defendant's ticket, signed it, and the ticket was given to JCS. (Doc. # 183-47 at 535-36). The Probation Orders were three-part forms: one copy for the court, one for JCS, and one for the defendant. (Doc. # 158 at 99). Following the court session, Magistrate Seale reviewed the tickets and the Probation Orders to make sure the information matched. (Doc. # 183-1 at 100-01).

         The Probation Orders specified the amount of the fine imposed and the required monthly payments. (Doc. # 183-11). A probationer also indicated on the pre-printed Orders if they waived the right to counsel. (Id.). The Orders instructed that the probationer was to “make a full and truthful report to your probation officer as instructed” and pay JCS “$35.00 for each month on probation” and “a one time $10.00” charge. (Doc. # 183-11). When a probationer paid off his or her fine and fees, probation ended. (Doc. # 183-8 at 125-26). Judge Atchison occasionally referred a defendant who submitted a substantial hardship affidavit to probation with JCS, but instructed JCS to waive their fees for that individual. (Doc. # 160 at 28-29). However, the Rule 56 evidence indicates that procedure was not followed with respect to Plaintiff Woods. (Docs. # 165 at 13-14, # 183-8 at 128-29).

         In 2011, Judge Atchison ordered that all individuals on probation attend a compliance hearing ninety days after their initial appearance. (Docs. # 183-1 at 90-91, # 146-47, # 183-46 at 130). At the compliance hearing, Judge Atchison established a date certain for full payment. (Doc. # 183-46 at 134). A revocation hearing was then set for a future date. (Doc. # 183-46 at 134-35).

         JCS kept the court informed regarding the status of probationers' payments and appointments with their probation officers. (Docs. # 66-7, # 66-1, # 66-12). When a probationer missed a payment or a meeting, JCS attempted to contact the probationer using the numbers provided. (Doc. # 183-46 at 233-34). If a probationer failed to appear for a meeting after a telephone call, JCS sent a letter. (Id. at 233-34). JCS informed probationers that if they continued to miss appointments or payments, they could be jailed. (Doc. # 183-27 at 17, 302-03).

         Where offenders repeatedly failed to meet with JCS or make the required payments, JCS informed Magistrate Seale and/or prepared a petition to revoke the probation informing the court of the missed appointments and/or payments. (Docs. # 183-46 at 131-32, # 183-28 at 10, 15). After receiving non-compliance information from JCS, Judge Atchison decided whether to revoke probation. (Docs. # 183-7 at 19-20, # 183-46 at 131-32). For a period of time before mid-2012, when Shelby County Judge Harrington issued a scathing order regarding the Harpersville municipal court, JCS provided notice of court hearings to probationers. (Doc. # 183-1 at 83). At some point after June 2012, the court began to issue summonses for probationers to report for compliance hearings. (Doc. # 183-1 at 83-85). After that time, notices of court dates all came from the court. (Doc. # 183-27 at 283).

         Occasionally, JCS requested that the court issue arrest warrants for non-compliance. (Docs. # 66-7, # 66-10, # 66-12). The warrants were issued by either Judge Atchison or Magistrate Seale. (Docs. # 183-1 at 21-22, 78, # 183-7 at 67-68). The bond amount was set at the time a warrant issued by a state-issued schedule. (Doc. # 183-1 at 21-22). JCS policy did not allow payments from probationers on warrant status. (Doc. # 183-50 at 512-13).

         Magistrate Seale generally conducted bond hearings for arrestees within forty-eight to seventy-two hours of arrest. (Doc. # 183-1 at 24-25). At the bond hearing, she or another magistrate discussed the charges, the required bond, the defendant's rights, and the potential need for an attorney to be appointed for the defendant. (Doc. # 183-1 at 27-28). The factors Magistrate Seale covered during the bond hearings are listed on a standard form issued by the state. (Doc. # 183-1 at 27-28). At the bond hearing, the standard bond amount can be reduced. (Doc. # 183-1 at 24).[4] Judge Atchison determined whether to award credit against fines and fees for time served in jail. (Doc. # 183-1 at 272-73). As a general rule, Judge Atchison awarded a $20 credit per day spent in jail against the amount of a fine. (Doc. # 183-1 at 272-73).

         C. Plaintiff Hali Woods

         Plaintiff Hali Woods's employment history was sporadic because she was unable to make enough money to cover the cost of going to work. (Doc. # 183-8 at 43-56).

         On June 27, 2013, Woods, a sixteen year old, was ticketed for failure to wear a seat belt while driving. (Docs. # 183-8 at 74, # 183-9, # 193-5). On August 13, 2013, Woods appeared in court. (Doc. # 183-8 at 81). Woods spoke with Magistrate Seale, who asked her how she wanted to plead. (Id.). Woods pleaded guilty. (Docs. # 183-8 at 78-79, # 165 at 3-4). She signed an Explanation of Rights Plea of Guilty form. (Doc. # 165 at 3-4). Her fine and court costs totaled $41. (Doc. # 183-9). Judge Atchison asked Woods if she had the money to pay the fine. (Doc. # 183-8 at 81). Woods explained that she did not have the money, that she lived with her mother whose only source of income was disability income, and that she did not have a job. (Docs. # 183-8 at 81, # 193-5). Atchison instructed her to sign up for a payment plan. (Id.). Atchison placed Woods on probation, and ordered her to pay $51 per month until her financial obligations were met. (Doc. # 165 at 5). The Order of Probation required Woods to pay JCS $35 for each month of probation and a $10 registration fee. (Id. at 5).[5] The August 13, 2013 Order required Woods to return to court on November 12, 2013 to show “completion of compliance.” (Id.).

         Consistent with the August 13, 2013 Order of Probation, on October 24, 2013, Magistrate Seale signed a Summons to Appear requiring Woods to appear in the municipal court on November 12, 2013. (Id. at 6). As of November 12, 2013, Woods had only paid $20. (Id. at 7). Half of this amount was credited against Woods's fine; the other half was credited towards Woods's JCS set-up fee. (Doc. # 193-17 at 4). Judge Atchison told Plaintiff to pay the balance of her fine and fees in full or he would see her back “in orange.” (Doc. # 183-8 at 115). Atchison signed another Order of Probation which reinstated Woods to probation and required payment in full by January 22, 2014. (Doc. # 183-16 at 2). Judge Atchison's signature on the Probation Order is dated November 11, 2013, the day before Woods's November 12, 2013 court appearance. (Doc. # 193-20).

         JCS prepared a violation report dated January 8, 2014, indicating that Woods had missed six of her twelve probation appointments and had paid only $10 on a balance of $181 in fines and fees. (Doc. # 183-18). Also on January 8, 2014, Magistrate Seale signed another Summons to Appear requiring Woods to appear in the municipal court on January 28, 2014. (Doc. # 183-17). The January 28, 2014 court date was rescheduled (Doc. # 183-19), and on February 10, 2014, Magistrate Seale signed another Summons to Appear requiring Woods to appear in the municipal court on February 25, 2014. (Doc. # 165 at 9). On February 25, 2014, Woods appeared and presented an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship on State of Alabama Unified Judicial System Form C-10. (Id. at 13-14). Woods told Judge Atchison that she had filled out the Affidavit and had $41 to pay off her fine. (Doc. # 183-8 at 128-29). Judge Atchison told her “it's not [his] problem and she could put that money toward what she owed.” (Id.). The Affidavit was marked “not approved.” (Doc. # 165 at 13-14). Judge Atchison signed another Probation Order which noted Woods's $41 payment and instructed her to return to court on May 27, 2014. (Doc. # 183-21).

         On April 14, 2014, Woods paid JCS $130. (Doc. # 193-19). On April 22, 2014, less than one year after she was ticketed, Judge Atchison signed a Successful Termination of Probation form for Woods. (Doc. # 165 at 17).

         Woods's fines and court costs did not exceed $500. (Doc. # 183-8 at 168). Woods never asked for an attorney to be appointed, she was never arrested in relation to her June 2013 offense, and a warrant for her arrest was never issued. (Docs. # 165, # 183-8 at 202-03).

         D. Plaintiff Susan Douglas

         Plaintiff Susan Douglas has never held a valid driver's license. (Doc. # 183-27 at 231). She has only held a learner's permit, which has been repeatedly suspended or revoked. (Id. at 9, 231). Douglas's permit was initially suspended because she received a ticket and she did not appear in court or pay the ticket. (Id. at 231-32). To have her permit reinstated, Douglas was obligated to go six months without receiving a ticket. (Id. at 232-33).

         When Douglas originally moved to Alabama, she moved in with her grandmother, who resided on Highway 46 in Shelby, Alabama. (Id. at 32-39). In 2010, Douglas moved to a group home, where she remained until approximately 2011. (Id.). From the time Douglas moved out of the group home until the summer of 2014, Douglas lived with her grandmother on Highway 46. (Id.). Douglas moved to Austin, Texas for three or four months in or around the summer of 2014. (Id.). Douglas returned to live with her grandmother again from the fall of 2014 until August 2015. (Id.). Since 2015, Douglas has lived in Alabaster, Alabama. (Doc. # 183-27 at 24-25).

         Douglas has a cell phone, but her service has been “cut off quite often” because she did not have the money to pay the bill. (Id. at 16-17). Therefore, she provided her grandmother's and sister's contact information to JCS so that she could be reached. (Id. at 17). On one occasion in 2013, when there was a warrant out for Douglas's arrest, her sister was pulled over by Columbiana Police to ask where they could find Douglas. (Id. at 18).

         1. Nos. TR12-18 and TR12-19

          On January 14, 2012, Douglas was cited in Columbiana for driving while her license was suspended, a misdemeanor (No. TR 12-18), and for operating a vehicle without insurance, another misdemeanor (No. TR 12-19). (Docs. # 165 at 19-40, # 165-1 at 2). Fine and court costs for these citations were $390 and $340, respectively. (Id.). In its Probation Tracker system, JCS erroneously listed the fine and court costs for these offenses as $390 and $540, respectively. (Doc. # 149-11 at 1).

         At a February 14, 2012 hearing, Douglas pleaded guilty to both charges. (Doc. # 183-27 at 71-72). She signed an Explanation of Rights Plea of Guilty form for each charge. (Docs. # 183-28 at 2-3, # 183-29 at 2-3). Judge Atchison asked Douglas if she had the money to pay the fines in full. (Doc. # 183-27 at 71-76). Douglas responded that she did not have a job and did not have the money. (Id.). Atchison told Douglas that she could either pay the tickets in full, sign up for JCS, or go to jail. (Id.). Douglas asked what JCS was, and Atchison told her it was a payment plan. (Doc. # 183-27 at 76). JCS prepared an Order of Probation that required Douglas, among other things, to pay her fine and costs in monthly installments, to pay a monthly probation fee of $35, to pay a one-time set-up charge of $10, and to meet with a JCS probation officer regularly. (Docs. # 183-28 at 5, # 183-29 at 5). The Order also required Douglas to return to court on May 8, 2012. (Id.). The original Order of Probation for these offenses was not signed by Judge Atchison. (Docs. # 183-28 at 5, # 183-29 at 5).

         On March 29, 2012, JCS's Lisha Kidd prepared a Petition for Revocation of Probation listing the total due from Douglas as $1, 080. (Doc. # 183-28 at 10).

         On April 3, 2012, $270 was paid on Douglas's account. (Doc. # 149-11 at 5). From that payment, $10 was credited to Douglas's JCS set-up fee, $70 was credited to Douglas's monthly probation fees, and $190 was credited to her court fines. (Id.).

         On May 8, 2012, Douglas appeared in court and was reinstated to probation. (Doc. # 182-28 at 9). Again, the Order of Probation was not signed by Judge Atchison. (Id.). On May 8, 2012, $280 was paid on Douglas's account. (Doc. # 149-11 at 5). From that payment, $35 was credited to Douglas's monthly probation fees, and $245 was credited to her court fines. (Id.).

         Later in May 2012, in a matter unrelated to the Columbiana cases, Douglas was arrested for failing to pay a traffic ticket from Shelby County, and she was jailed for a month. (Doc. # 183-27 at 91-92). On May 21, 2012, someone called JCS to report that Douglas was in jail. (Doc. # 183-30 at 7).

         On June 12, 2012, Judge Atchison signed an Order of Modification of Probation changing Douglas's status to “jail hold.” (Doc. # 183-28 at 11).

         On July 2 and 3, 2012, Kidd e-mailed Magistrate Seale informing her that Douglas had failed to make a payment. (Doc. # 183-29 at 12-13). Douglas had reported to JCS on June 29, 2012, but she had no money to make a payment. (Doc. # 183-30 at 6). Kidd requested that Seale issue a warrant for Douglas's arrest. (Id.). On July 5, 2012, Magistrate Seale signed a warrant for Douglas's arrest. (Doc. # 183-28 at 15). That warrant was executed and Douglas was committed to jail on November 27, 2012. (Id.). Douglas remained in jail until December 12, 2012, after a hearing on December 11, 2012, and after her sister made a payment on her behalf. (Docs. # 183-27 at 105-08, # 183-28 at 16-18).

         On March 7, 2013, JCS notified Magistrate Seale that Douglas had paid in full on these cases and, in fact, had overpaid $15. (Doc. # 183-30 at 4). JCS terminated Douglas's probation on March 27, 2013. (Id.). Judge Atchison signed notices of Successful Termination of Probation in both cases on April 9, 2013. (Doc. # 165-1 at 23).

         2. Nos. TR12-64, TR12-66, and TR12-67

          On February 5, 2012, Columbiana police stopped and ticketed Douglas for having an expired tag (TR12-64), driving without insurance (TR-12-66), and driving with a suspended license (TR12-67). (Docs. # 183-27 at 123-24, # 183-31 at 2, # 183-32 at 2, # 183-33 at 2). Douglas did not appear for the March 13, 2012 hearing on those tickets because she did not have the money, and the court reset the hearing. (Doc. # 183-27 at 124-25). Before the next hearing, Douglas's sister paid off two of the three tickets, and the third ticket was dismissed. (Doc. # 183-27 at 125-26). Douglas was not placed on probation in relation to these three tickets.

         3. Nos. TR13-95, TR13-260, TR13-262, and MC13-39

          On February 28, 2013, Douglas was cited for driving while her license was revoked, a misdemeanor (No. TR 13-95). (Doc. # 183-34 at 2). Her fine and court costs totaled $416. (Id. at 5). On April 9, 2013, Douglas pleaded guilty and signed an Explanation of Rights Plea of Guilty form. (Id. at 3-4). At the hearing, Douglas again told Judge Atchison she did not have the money to pay her fine, and he told her she could either sign up for JCS or go to jail. (Doc. # 183-27 at 133). Judge Atchison placed Douglas on probation and ordered her to pay $110 per month until her financial obligations were met. (Doc. # 183-34 at 5). Judge Atchison's Probation Order also ordered Douglas to pay JCS $35 for each month of probation and a $10 registration fee. (Id.). Douglas was also ordered to return to court on July 9, 2013 to show “completion of compliance.” (Id. at 5).

         On April 8, 2013, the day before her court appearance in No. TR 13-95, Columbiana police stopped and again ticketed Douglas for driving with a revoked license (No. TR13-262). (Doc. # 183-40 at 2). At the hearing on No. TR13-262, Douglas pleaded guilty, signed an Explanation of Rights Plea of Guilty form, but again could not pay her fine. (Id. at 3-4). Judge Atchison signed a Probation Order requiring Douglas to pay a fine and costs of $366. (Id. at 5).

         On April 10, 2013, the day following her initial appearance in No. TR-13-95, and two days after receiving the ticket in No. TR 13-262, Douglas was arrested for attempting to elude a police officer, a misdemeanor (Case. No. WA 13-38). (Docs. # 183-27 at 180-82, # 183-42 at 3). Concurrently with this arrest, Douglas was ticketed yet again for driving with a revoked license (No. TR-13-260). (Docs. # 183-27 at 178, # 183-39 at 2). Douglas was bonded out on these charges within an hour. (Docs. # 183-27 at 181-83, # 183-42 at 8-9).

         On May 28, 2013, Douglas pleaded guilty to attempting to elude and signed an Explanation of Rights Plea of Guilty form. (Doc. # 183-42 at 14-15). Judge Atchison signed a Probation Order requiring Douglas to pay a fine and costs of $713. (Id. at 16). However, that Probation Order ...

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