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Sutton v. Marshall

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

November 7, 2019

LENA SUTTON, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVE MARSHALL, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of Alabama, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In one 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. Sutton complains.

         This 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.

         I. Standard of Review

         The law 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.

         The 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 omitted).

         In 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).

         As 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 judgment.

         II. Factual Background

         On 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.

         State 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.

         In her 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.

         Ms. 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.

         III. ...


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