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Fant v. City of Ferguson

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

May 26, 2015

KEILEE FANT, et al., Plaintiffs,


AUDREY G. FLEISSIG, District Judge.

Plaintiffs in this putative class action claim that they were repeatedly jailed by the City of Ferguson (the "City") for being unable to pay fines owed to the City from traffic tickets and other minor offenses, without being afforded an attorney and without any inquiry into their ability to pay. The City has moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, and has also moved for a more definite statement and to strike redundant or immaterial matter. (Doc. No. 8.) For the reasons set forth below, the City's motion shall be granted in part and denied in part.


The named Plaintiffs are 11 individuals who allege that they have been jailed by the City on numerous occasions because they were unable to pay fines owed from traffic and other minor offenses, were not afforded counsel or any inquiry into their ability to pay, and were held in jail indefinitely, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and denied access to basic hygiene products and medical care. They filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on February 8, 2015, asserting claims under the Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments.[1] They seek to represent a declaratory and injunctive class of "[a]ll persons who currently owe or who will incur debts to the City... from fines, fees, costs, or surcharges arising from cases prosecuted by the City, " and a damages class of "[a]ll persons who, from February 8, 2010, until the present, were held in jail by the City because of their non-payment of a monetary sum required by the City." (Doc. No. 1 at 44-45.)

Count One of the complaint alleges that the City violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment by jailing and threatening to jail Plaintiffs indefinitely for their inability to pay debts owed from traffic and other minor offenses, without conducting any inquiry into Plaintiffs' ability to pay and without considering alternatives to imprisonment. Plaintiffs allege that, as a matter of policy and practice, when arrestees are booked at the City's jail, they are told by jail staff that they can be released immediately but only if they pay cash to the City. Thus, Plaintiffs allege that "[a]t any moment, a wealthier person in the Plaintiffs' position could have paid a sum of cash and been released from jail." (Doc. No. 1 at 51.)

Count Two alleges that the City violated Plaintiffs' rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments by jailing Plaintiffs without affording them the benefit of counsel or obtaining a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of counsel. Plaintiffs allege that the City has a policy and practice of not informing people of their right to counsel and not appointing counsel "in proceedings in which indigent people are ordered to be imprisoned in the City jail for non-payment, which are, in turn, based on payment plans arising from traffic and other violations at which the person was also unrepresented." (Doc. No. 1 at 52.) Plaintiffs contend that they were not provided any hearing prior to their incarceration for non-payment of fines, and at the hearings on their traffic and other offenses at which the fines were first imposed, they were also unrepresented while the City was represented by experienced prosecutors.

Count Three alleges that the City's use of indefinite and arbitrary detention violates the Due Process Clause. Plaintiffs allege that the City has a policy and practice of jailing indigent persons owing debts to the City "indefinitely and without any meaningful legal process through which they can challenge their detention by keeping them confined... unless or until they could make arbitrarily determined cash payments." (Doc. No. 1 at 52.) Plaintiffs further allege that "inmates routinely do not even have future court dates set and are held indefinitely without being brought to court"; that "[i]f a person... misses any future payment, the City, without any legal process confiscates any previous amounts paid by the person to secure their release from jail and resets the person's debts"; and that the City also adds "warrant fee[s]" for any missed payments, which increases the total debt owed by Plaintiffs. Id. at 37. The complaint alleges specific instances of City jail staff and supervisors holding Plaintiffs in jail for days or weeks, without setting future court dates or bringing Plaintiffs to court, and then gradually and incrementally reducing the amount of money required to buy a Plaintiff's release, not through any formal court process, but by negotiating or bargaining with Plaintiffs or their families regarding the amount of money they are able to pay. For example, the complaint alleges that named Plaintiff Keilee Fant was on one occasion "held in jail by the City of Ferguson for nearly 50 days... for unpaid traffic tickets because she could not afford to buy her release." (Doc. No. 1 at 9.) Plaintiffs further allege that "[i]n many cases, after significant jail time, the City will release the person for free if it is clear that the City cannot extract any money from the person during that jail stay." Id. at 23, 35.

Count Four alleges that the totality of the conditions of the City's jail amount to punishment of the pre-trial detainee and post-judgment debtor Plaintiffs, in violation of the Due Process Clause. Plaintiffs allege that while in jail, they were kept in "materially the same... conditions, " though for different amounts of time. See, e.g., Doc. No. 1 at 10, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 30, 32. Plaintiffs allege they were forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded cells smeared with feces, blood, and mucus; denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and feminine hygiene products; kept in the same clothes for days without access to a shower, laundry, or clean undergarments; kept in cold temperatures and forced to share thin blankets; routinely denied medical care and prescription medication; provided only honeybuns and potpies to eat; provided only a single source of water connected to the top of the toilet, which produced warm water with an "unpalatable stench"; and deprived of books, legal materials, exercise, television, internet, and natural light. Id. at 41.

Count Five alleges that the City's use of jail and threats of jail to collect debts owed to the City violates the Equal Protection Clause because it imposes "unduly harsh and punitive restrictions on debtors whose creditor is the government compared to those who owe money to private creditors." (Doc. No. 1 at 53.) Plaintiffs allege that the "City takes advantage of its control over the machinery of the City jail and police systems to deny debtors the procedural and substantive statutory protections that every other Missouri debtor may invoke against a private creditor." Id.

Count Six alleges that the City has a policy and practice of issuing and serving invalid warrants, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs allege that the City regularly issues and serves arrest warrants for "failure to appear, " even when there was no court appearance scheduled[2] or when the City has not provided adequate notice of a court date, for example, because the City has moved a person's hearing date without informing that person. Plaintiffs further allege that the City informs people that they can immediately remove outstanding warrants by paying a sum of money or by retaining a lawyer, but the City does not offer a way for unrepresented, indigent persons to remove arrest warrants.

As relief, Plaintiffs seek a declaration that the City's policies and practices, as outlined above, violate Plaintiffs' constitutional rights; a permanent injunction preventing the City from enforcing these policies and practices; and an award of compensatory damages, attorneys' fees, and costs.

On March 2, 2015, the City moved to dismiss, or alternatively to strike and for a more definite statement of, Plaintiffs' complaint, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), 12(e), and 12(f). (Doc. No. 8.)


The City's Arguments

The City first argues that Plaintiffs' 55-page complaint violates Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8 and 10, which require a "short and plain" statement of the claims, set forth in "numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, 10. The City argues that if the Court does not dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint for the reasons stated below, it should order Plaintiffs to replead their complaint with more definiteness, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(e), and should strike from Plaintiffs' pleading any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter, pursuant to Rule 12(f).

Next, the City argues that all six counts of Plaintiffs' § 1983 action are barred by two federal court doctrines. The first, derived from Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 447 (1994), bars § 1983 plaintiffs from recovering damages "for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, " unless they prove that "the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal..., or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus[.]" Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87. The City argues that because Plaintiffs have failed to satisfy Heck 's so-called "favorable-termination" requirement by pleading that their convictions or sentences have been reversed, expunged, declared invalid, or called into question by a writ of habeas corpus, their claims must be dismissed under Heck.

The second doctrine the City invokes is Rooker-Feldman, which bars unsuccessful state court parties from seeking what amounts to appellate review of the state judgment in a federal district court. See Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). The City argues that Plaintiffs' claims are barred under this doctrine because Plaintiffs "ultimately state that their damages sustained pursuant to each and every count resulted in unconstitutional judgments, " and "state proceedings allow for their own administrative review and appellate processes for such constitutional assertions." (Doc. No. 9 at 10.)

Turning to the merits of Plaintiffs' claims, the City contends that Plaintiffs fail to plead sufficient facts in support of any constitutional violation. With respect to their claim in Count One, regarding jailing those who are unable to pay fines, the City argues that Plaintiffs fail to state an equal protection violation because Plaintiffs have not pleaded that similarly situated persons were treated differently.

Regarding Count Two's right-to-counsel claim, the City argues that "at least one Plaintiff, Alfred Morris, alleges that he was informed of the need[]' of obtaining an attorney, " and it is "unclear" if this claim is asserted on behalf of all Plaintiffs, including Morris. (Doc. No. 9 at 12.) The City also notes that Plaintiffs have a right to self-representation in state court proceedings.

The City argues that Plaintiffs' due process claims in Counts Three and Four, regarding indefinite and arbitrary detentions and conditions of confinement, should be dismissed or repleaded with more specificity because "Plaintiffs do not delineate which of many alleged detentions are constitutionally significant (and upon which detentions Plaintiffs seek recovery of damages), " and because "Plaintiffs do not... specify which alleged deprivation listed in their Complaint [was] experienced by which Plaintiff and which[] of these serves as their basis for this cause of action." (Doc. No. 9 at 12-13, 15.)

With respect to Count Five's equal protection claim comparing the treatment of Plaintiffs to the treatment of debtors owing money to private creditors, the City argues that Plaintiffs are not similarly situated to private debtors as a matter of law.

Regarding Count Six's claim that the City's warrant procedures are unconstitutional, the City argues that this claim should be stricken as duplicative of Count One, and that, in any event, Plaintiffs offer no authority for the proposition that the City's warrant procedures violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Finally, the City argues that Plaintiffs' request for declaratory and injunctive relief should be denied for lack of an actual controversy and lack of ripeness. The City argues that Plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief are not justiciable because Plaintiffs allege only past harm and have not pleaded a reasonable likelihood that they will again be arrested and subject to any of the City's allegedly unlawful policies and practices.

Plaintiffs' Response

Plaintiffs respond, first, that the City misunderstands the federal pleading rules. Plaintiffs argue that their complaint satisfies Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8 and 10 and that, although lengthy, it provides background information necessary to give context to the City's policies and practices.

Next, Plaintiffs argue that neither the Heck nor Rooker-Feldman doctrines apply in this case. Plaintiffs argue that they do not challenge their underlying convictions and sentences imposed for those convictions-i.e., the underlying traffic and other minor offenses and resulting fines. Instead, Plaintiffs describe their claims as "freestanding civil rights violations" arising out of post -judgment municipal procedures to collect money. (Doc. No. 13 at 7.) Plaintiffs note that the constitutionality of this post-judgment scheme has "no bearing on the validity of guilt in a traffic case or the propriety of the amount of fine originally assessed." Id. at 6. Indeed, Plaintiffs argue, "one of the central claims of this case is that the Plaintiffs were detained and ransomed entirely apart from any judicial process, let alone pursuant to a valid conviction and sentence." Id. Plaintiffs contend that because their complaint does not challenge any state court judgment, Heck and Rooker-Feldman are inapplicable.

Regarding the merits of their claims, Plaintiffs argue that it is well established that the City's practice of jailing those who are unable to pay fines, as alleged in Count One, violates both the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses. Plaintiffs contend that they plead all elements of an equal protection claim because they allege facts to establish that the City jails the poor ...

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