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Worthy v. City of Phenix City

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

July 18, 2019

THOMAS F. WORTHY, individually and on behalf of those similarly situated, JAMES D. ADAMS, individually and on behalf of those similarly situated, WILLCOX-LUMPKIN CO., INC., individually and on behalf of those similarly situated, Appellants,

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 3:17-cv-00073-JZ-GMB

          Before TJOFLAT and NEWSOM, Circuit Judges, and ANTOON, [*] District Judge.


         Appellants Thomas F. Worthy, James D. Adams, and Willcox-Lumpkin Co., Inc. each received citations for running red lights in Phenix City, Alabama. A red-light camera-installed and operated pursuant to Alabama statute and Phenix City ordinance-captured their alleged violations. The same state and local provisions that governed the installation and operation of the red-light cameras also created a two-part process for citation recipients to challenge their citations. But Appellants did not fully utilize the procedures provided for challenging citations, nor did they pay their fines. Instead, they filed this lawsuit in federal court challenging the ordinance under the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Alabama.

         The district court dismissed the case after determining that Appellants lacked standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. While we disagree in part with that determination, we conclude that dismissal of Appellants' federal claims was warranted because the complaint failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted. Appellants allege that the ordinance imposed a criminal penalty without providing constitutionally sufficient procedural safeguards. But the ordinance imposed a civil penalty, and thus the procedures prescribed by the ordinance are constitutionally sufficient. Because we conclude that Appellants have not stated any federal claims, we decline to consider their state law claims.

         I. Background

         a. Phenix City's Red-Light Camera Regime

         In October 2012, after authorization from the Alabama legislature, Phenix City adopted Ordinance Number 2012-21, which permitted the installation and operation of cameras to enforce traffic-control-device violations at certain intersections in Phenix City. Phenix City contracted with Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc.-a private company specializing in red-light camera installation and operation throughout the United States-to install and operate the cameras.

         The ordinance establishes a straightforward enforcement scheme. When a motorist runs a red light at one of the covered intersections in Phenix City, a camera captures a video of the vehicle and photographs the red light and the vehicle's license plate. A Redflex employee reviews the video and photographic evidence of the potential violations and sends the information to a Phenix City police officer, who has full discretion to issue a citation. If the police officer decides to issue a citation, he signs a notice and directs Redflex to mail it to the registered owner of the vehicle. The ordinance requires that the notice include: (1) the details of the violation; (2) an image of the violation; and (3) instructions on how the citation recipient should respond to the citation, including information on how to contest the citation. Subject to a few affirmative defenses, a motorist who receives a notice of violation is liable for a $100.00 civil penalty. These civil penalties, which Phenix City contends are aimed at enhancing public safety, are not reported on the driver's driving record.

         If a citation recipient opts to contest the civil penalty, he must request an administrative hearing in writing. The administrative hearing is held before a non-judicial hearing officer, and Phenix City has the burden of proving the violation by a preponderance of the evidence. Proof may be introduced via affidavit, meaning that the city is not required to produce a live witness to prove its case. If a citation recipient is found liable or fails to appear at the hearing, an additional $25.00 fee is assessed for hearing costs. Citation recipients found liable at the administrative hearing may appeal that finding to the Circuit Court of Russell County, Alabama, upon payment of the standard circuit court filing fee of $279.00. On appeal, the circuit court sits as trier of both law and fact. With the exception of the lower burden of proof, the enabling statute requires that the circuit court "use the procedures that apply to criminal convictions in municipal court." If the citation recipient prevails in circuit court, both the filing fee and the hearing costs are refunded.

         b. Appellants' Red-Light Citations

         Each Appellant received a red-light citation from Phenix City. In response to his citation, Worthy requested and attended an administrative hearing. Though the hearing officer found Worthy liable for the violation, Worthy did not pursue an appeal to circuit court because the circuit court filing fee exceeded the cost of the fine. Adams and Willcox did not challenge their citations. Appellants "have been threatened with legal action and some have been pursued through collection efforts in connection with the civil penalties imposed," but they have not paid the civil penalties assessed.

         Appellants instead filed this lawsuit. They allege that the Phenix City ordinance violates their federal and state constitutional rights because it imposes penalties without providing constitutionally sufficient processes to challenge those penalties. And they claim that Redflex conspired with Phenix City to profit from the allegedly unconstitutional ordinance. Phenix City and Redflex moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Appellants lacked constitutional standing to sue and that even if they had standing, they failed to state a viable claim for relief.

         The district court agreed that Appellants lacked standing to challenge the procedures provided in the ordinance "because they cannot trace any injury to a process which they failed to utilize." Concluding that all of Appellants' claims related to the ordinance's appeal procedures, the district court dismissed all of Appellants' claims without addressing whether the complaint stated any viable claims for relief.

         II. Standing

         a. Standard of Review

         A dismissal for lack of standing is akin to a dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). See Morast v. Lance, 807 F.2d 926, 932 n.6 (11th Cir. 1987). Thus, we review the district court's decision to dismiss the case for lack of standing de novo. See McElmurray v. Consol. Gov't of Augusta-Richmond Cty., 501 F.3d 1244, 1250 (11th Cir. 2007).

         b. Discussion

         To bring suit in federal court, a party must have constitutional standing, which is "an essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III." Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). The elements that form the "irreducible constitutional minimum of standing" are well-known: (1) "the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact-an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical"; (2) "there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of-the injury has to be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant, and not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court"; and (3) "it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision." Id. at 560-61 (alterations omitted) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "The party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing these elements." Id. at 561.

         Because these requirements are not "mere pleading requirements but rather an indispensable part of the plaintiff's case, each element must be supported in the same way as any other matter on which the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, i.e., with the manner and degree of evidence required at the successive stages of the litigation." Id. Here, the standing challenge occurred at the motion-to-dismiss stage, meaning that "it may be sufficient to provide 'general factual allegations of injury resulting from the defendant's conduct.'" Bochese v. Town of Ponce Inlet, 405 F.3d 964, 975 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fla. Pub. Interest Research Grp. Citizen Lobby, Inc. v. EPA, 386 F.3d 1070, 1083 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         The parties agree that Appellants suffered an injury when they received the civil penalties for their red-light violations. And there can be no doubt that the relief Appellants seek-an order declaring the ordinance unconstitutional, awarding Appellants damages, and enjoining further use of red-light cameras in Phenix City-would redress their injuries. The question of causation, however, proves more vexing. This complication stems from Appellants' failure to fully utilize the allegedly unconstitutional procedures provided in the ordinance.

         Whether an injury is causally connected to the alleged injury-causing government conduct turns on whether "the line of causation between the illegal conduct and injury [is] too attenuated." Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 752 (1984), abrogated on other grounds by Lexmark Int'l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 572 U.S. 118 (2014). Here, Appellants' shotgun complaint, see Weiland v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff's Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1321 (11th Cir. 2015), makes it difficult to discern the types of claims they are asserting and whether they pleaded facts sufficient to causally connect those claims to the injury they suffered. Cf. Allen, 468 U.S. at 752 ("Typically . . . the standing inquiry requires careful judicial examination of a complaint's allegations to ascertain whether the particular plaintiff is entitled to an adjudication of the particular claims asserted.").

         The district court concluded that because all of the challenges in the complaint relate to the procedures provided in the ordinance for challenging the civil penalties, the complaint challenges only those procedures. But the complaint can also be read more broadly-as a challenge to the constitutionality of the ordinance as a whole. Under that reading, Appellants are not asserting that the process they received under the ordinance was constitutionally deficient because of some error, but rather that the ordinance itself is constitutionally deficient as a whole because of the procedures-or lack thereof-that it provides.

         The latter reading properly characterizes Appellants' challenge to the ordinance, as Appellants seek to invalidate the whole ordinance because of the deficient procedures it provides. And at this stage, when there are two equally plausible ways to read a complaint, we should adopt the reading that is most favorable to Appellants. See La Grasta v. First Union Sec., Inc., 358 F.3d 840, 845 (11th Cir. 2004) ("We must view the allegations of the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, consider the allegations of the complaint as true, and accept all reasonable inferences therefrom." (alteration omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Because Appellants are challenging the ordinance as a whole-and not just the procedures it provides-they have standing to bring their claims for damages. As noted above, the asserted "injury in fact" is the civil penalty assessed against Appellants under the ordinance. Plainly, there is a causal connection between the ordinance and this injury. And Appellants' injuries would be redressed by a court order awarding damages and declaring the ordinance unconstitutional.

         In Hughes v. City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Eighth Circuit addressed standing to challenge the appeal procedures of a similar red-light ordinance. 840 F.3d 987 (8th Cir. 2016). The court determined that the citation recipients had standing even though they did not utilize the procedures provided in the ordinance because the "alleged injury . . . [was] inadequate process directly traceable to the City." Id. at 994. Our conclusion here is not as broad. An abstract allegation of inadequate process is not a legally cognizable Article III injury. See Olim v. Wakinekona, 461 U.S. 238, 250 (1983) ("Process is not an end in itself. Its constitutional purpose is to protect a substantive interest to which the individual has a legitimate claim of entitlement."); see also Seal v. Morgan, 229 F.3d 567, 574 (6th Cir. 2000) ("There is no abstract federal constitutional right to process for process's sake."). Here, the legally cognizable Article III injury is the imposition of the civil penalty pursuant to the ordinance, not the exposure to inadequate process. Accordingly, Appellants have standing to bring their claims for damages only because they challenge the ordinance as a whole, thus causally linking the ordinance to the injury that they suffered.

         Our conclusion that Appellants have standing to bring their damages claims does not end the standing inquiry, however, because Appellants also seek injunctive relief. Specifically, Appellants seek an order enjoining further use of red-light cameras in Phenix City and requiring that the cameras be removed. "[T]o demonstrate that a case or controversy exists to meet the Article III standing requirement when a plaintiff is seeking injunctive or declaratory relief, a plaintiff must allege facts from which it appears there is a substantial likelihood that he will suffer injury in the future." Malowney v. Fed. Collection Deposit Grp., 193 F.3d 1342, 1346 (11th Cir. 1999) (emphasis added) (citing City of L.A. v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 102 (1983)); see also Lyons, 461 U.S. at 105 (noting that a single injury likely confers standing to bring a damages action but that "standing to seek . . . [an] injunction . . . depend[s] on whether . . . [the plaintiff] was likely to suffer future injury from the [complained of government conduct]"). In determining "whether a future injury is likely to ...

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