United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
of the most enduring songs from the 1960s, Aretha Franklin
sang, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to
me.” Aretha Franklin, Respect, I Never Loved a
Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic Records 1967). To federal
courts, respect-as memorialized in the Younger
abstention doctrine-means refraining from interfering with
ongoing state court proceedings that implicate important
state interests. See Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37,
43-45 (1971) (stating that courts of equity should not enjoin
state criminal proceedings pursuant to the notions of comity
and respect). In this case, respect means abstaining from
interfering with state forfeiture proceedings about which Ms.
matter comes before the court on Alabama Attorney General
Steve Marshall's motion to dismiss Plaintiff Lena
Sutton's amended complaint. (Doc. 17). In her amended
complaint, Ms. Sutton seeks to instigate a class action to
enjoin allegedly unconstitutional actions by the state during
civil forfeiture proceedings. (Doc. 14). Attorney General
Marshall moves to dismiss Ms. Sutton's complaint under
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6),
arguing that Younger abstention applies and that Ms.
Sutton fails to state a claim for which relief can be
granted. For the reasons stated below, the court will GRANT
Attorney General Marshall's motion to dismiss pursuant to
the Younger abstention doctrine.
Standard of Review
lacks clarity regarding whether courts should analyze the
Younger abstention doctrine under Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), challenging jurisdiction, or
12(b)(6), attacking the sufficiency of the complaint.
Compare Fairfield Cmty. Clean Up Crew, Inc. v. Hale,
2:17-CV-308-LSC, 2017 WL 4865545, at *2-3 (N.D. Ala. Oct. 27,
2017) (Coogler, J.) (applying Rule 12(b)(1) standard),
with Cano-Diaz v. City of Leeds, Ala., 882 F.Supp.2d
1280, 1284-85 (N.D. Ala. 2012) (Hopkins, J.) (applying Rule
12(b)(6) standard). But, the choice of which rule to apply
makes little practical difference because the court applies a
standard of review akin to that of Rule 12(b)(6) when a
defendant makes a facial, rather than a factual, attack on
subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1).
Carmichael v. Kellogg, Brown & Root Services,
Inc., 572 F.3d 1271, 1279 (11th Cir. 2009). The Attorney
General's motion to dismiss references both Rule 12(b)(1)
and (6), and his argument against the court exercising
jurisdiction presents a facial attack, so the court applies
Rule 12(b)(6) pleading standards to the motion.
Supreme Court explained that “[t]o survive a motion to
dismiss, 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 Bell Atl.
Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). A complaint
states a facially 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.” Id. (citation
considering a Rule 12(b) motion, the rules generally limit
the court to assessing the face of the complaint and its
attachments. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b); Day v. Taylor, 400
F.3d 1272, 1275-76 (11th Cir. 2005). Where a court properly
takes judicial notice of exhibits attached to the pleadings,
it may consider matters outside of the pleadings in ruling on
a Rule 12(b) motion without converting the motion to one for
summary judgment. See Fed. R. Evid. 201(a)-(d);
Bryant v. Avado Brands, Inc., 187 F.3d 1271, 1276-79
(11th Cir. 1999). The court may take judicial notice of state
court proceedings. Coney v. Smith, 738 F.2d 1199,
1200 (11th Cir. 1984).
reflected in this Memorandum Opinion, Alabama state court
proceedings influence the considerations in this case.
Attorney General Marshall provided the relevant state court
documents along with his motion to dismiss. The court takes
judicial notice of the records of the state court proceedings
without converting his motion to a motion for summary
February 20, 2019, Ms. Sutton loaned her car to a friend of
hers, Roger Maze; police pulled Mr. Maze over while he was
driving Ms. Sutton's car. (Doc. 14). During the traffic
stop, law enforcement found a trafficking amount of
methamphetamine in Ms. Sutton's car. Ms. Sutton had no
knowledge of the methamphetamine and faces no criminal
charges. Nevertheless, the state seized Ms. Sutton's car
because it was used to transport drugs and then instituted a
civil forfeiture action pursuant to Alabama's Civil
Forfeiture Act, Ala. Code § 20-2-93.
court records show that the state served Ms. Sutton with a
complaint in the civil forfeiture action on March 12, 2019.
(Doc. 17-3 at 14-28). After Ms. Sutton failed to adequately
respond to the complaint, the state entered a default
judgement in April of 2019. (Id. at 44). Ms. Sutton
then filed a motion to set aside the default judgment, in
which she stated that she was not accused of any crime and
that the seizure of her car was unconstitutional.
(Id. at 57- 58). In support of her motion to set
aside the default, Ms. Sutton filed a memorandum in which she
argued that the default should be set aside because she had a
meritorious defense to the case, namely that the seizure and
continued custody of her vehicle without a prompt
post-deprivation hearing violated her Fourth, Fifth, Eighth,
and Fourteenth Amendment rights. (Doc. 17-4 at 21- 24). The
state court set aside the default and Ms. Sutton filed an
answer in July 2019, raising claims that the seizure of her
car violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
(Id. at 103). She did not raise her claims regarding
the constitutionality of the retention of her vehicle. The
forfeiture proceedings have yet to go to trial.
amended complaint in this court, Ms. Sutton asserts that
Alabama's seizure of her car and the subsequent civil
forfeiture proceedings deprive her-and other similarly
situated putative class members-of her rights. Ms. Sutton
seeks to bring a class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
She argues that the state's failure to provide a prompt
post-deprivation hearing after it seizes property violates
the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth
Amendments. She further asserts that Alabama's procedures
do not provide defendants in civil forfeiture proceedings
with an opportunity to contest the deprivation of their
property during the pendency of the forfeiture litigation, in
violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
Ms. Sutton also argues that Alabama's civil forfeiture
proceedings violate the Eighth Amendment.
Sutton requests multiple forms of relief. She requests that
the court certify this action as a class action, enter a
declaratory judgment stating that Alabama's civil
forfeiture proceedings are unconstitutional, hold the state
liable for unconstitutional practices, enter injunctions
prohibiting the state from engaging in unconstitutional
forfeiture practices, enter a judgment requiring the state to
immediately institute hearings in all similar civil
forfeiture proceedings, and award attorney's fees.