United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
AUDREY G. FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs’ motion (Doc. No. 20) to reconsider the Court’s Order (Doc. No. 19) dismissing Count Five and dismissing in part Count Six of Plaintiffs’ complaint. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs’ motion shall be granted.
Plaintiffs in this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action asserted six claims against the City of Ferguson, arising out of the City’s policies and practices of jailing them for failure to pay fines owed from traffic and other minor offenses. In its May 26, 2015 Memorandum and Order (the “Order”), the Court largely denied the City’s motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ complaint. However, the Court granted the City’s motion with respect to two of Plaintiffs’ six claims.
Count Five of Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the City’s imposition of “unduly harsh and punitive restrictions on debtors whose creditor is the government compared to those who owe money to private creditors” violates the Equal Protection Clause. (Doc. No. 1 at 53.) Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged 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. The City argued that this claim should be dismissed because Plaintiffs are not similarly situated to private debtors as a matter of law. Plaintiffs responded that, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in James v. Strange, 407 U.S. 128 (1972), states may not “impose unduly harsh or discriminatory terms” on debtors whose “obligation is to the public treasury rather than to a private creditor.” See Doc. No. 13 at 18 (quoting James, 407 U.S. at 138).
In its prior Order, this Court held that, unlike the plaintiffs in James, 407 U.S. at 138, who were found to be similarly situated to private judgment debtors where they owed the state reimbursement for legal defense fees, Plaintiffs’ fines in this case were not alleged to be merely court fees or costs. Rather, Plaintiffs’ fines were alleged to be imposed in connection with traffic and other municipal offenses. Although Plaintiffs argued in opposition to dismissal that unpaid court fines may be considered civil judgments because Missouri Revised Statute § 560.031 provides that unpaid fines may be collected by means used to enforce money judgments,  Plaintiffs did not allege or argue that the underlying traffic and other offenses for which the fines were first imposed were civil judgments. And upon review of the complaint, the Court found that Plaintiffs had not adequately alleged that they are similarly situated to private judgment debtors. Therefore, the Court found that Plaintiffs failed to state an equal protection claim in Count Five.
Count Six of Plaintiffs’ complaint challenged the City’s warrant procedures under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs alleged that the City regularly issues and serves arrest warrants for “failure to appear, ” even when the City has not provided adequate notice of a court date, for example, because City officials moved a person’s hearing date without informing that person. Plaintiffs further alleged 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 indigent, unrepresented persons to remove arrest warrants. The City argued that this claim should be dismissed as duplicative of Count One, and because Plaintiffs offered no authority for the proposition that the City’s warrant procedures violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs responded that their allegations sufficiently stated a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which requires all warrants to be based on probable cause. Plaintiffs also argued that Count Six stated an equal protection violation arising out of the City’s policy of allowing wealthier and/or represented people to automatically remove warrants but not allowing indigent, unrepresented people to do the same.
The Court agreed with Plaintiffs’ latter argument and held that Plaintiffs’ allegations in Count Six regarding the City’s different treatment of them based on their inability to pay were sufficient to state an equal protection claim. However, the Court held that Plaintiffs did not state a Fourth Amendment claim in Count Six. The Court found that Plaintiffs’ allegations that they were arrested for “failure to appear” without being provided adequate notice of a court appearance may have given rise to a tort claim but did not rise to the level of a constitutional claim.
Plaintiffs have moved for reconsideration of both of these rulings. With respect to Count Five, Plaintiffs argue that the Court erred in holding that Plaintiffs did not adequately plead that they are similarly situated to private judgment debtors. Plaintiffs cite Missouri caselaw suggesting that violations of municipal ordinances are, at most, only quasi-criminal in nature. Therefore, Plaintiffs argue that the fines imposed for these violations are similar enough to civil money judgments to give rise to an equal protection violation for failure to treat the debts similarly. Plaintiffs also note that their debts include not only their offense-related fines but also separately assessed court surcharges and fees that are more akin to the court costs at issue in James.
With respect to Count Six, Plaintiffs argue that they have stated a valid Fourth Amendment claim, notwithstanding their facially valid arrest warrants, based on the City’s alleged policy of issuing arrest warrants without probable cause.
The City responds that the Court correctly dismissed both claims. The City argues that Count Five was correctly dismissed because, even if the underlying offenses for which Plaintiffs’ fines were imposed are only quasi-criminal in nature, Plaintiffs have not adequately pleaded that, as quasi-criminal judgment debtors, they are similarly situated to private judgment debtors. The City also argues that Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claim in Count Six was correctly dismissed because Plaintiffs’ allegations were based on signed and issued warrants, and any argument about the underlying probable cause for those warrants was not adequately pleaded in the complaint.
A “district court has the inherent power to reconsider and modify an interlocutory order any time prior to the entry of judgment.” K.C.1986 Ltd. P’ship v. Reade Mfg., 472 F.3d 1009, 1017 (8th Cir. 2007); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b) (“[A]ny order or other decision, however designated, that adjudicates fewer than all the claims . . . may be revised at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims[.]”). Thus, district courts have substantial discretion in ruling on motions for reconsideration. However, in general, “[m]otions for reconsideration serve a limited function: to correct manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered evidence.” Hagerman v. Yukon Energy Corp., 839 F.2d 407, 414 (8th Cir. 1988) (citation omitted).
Regarding Count Five, the Court notes that in order to state an equal protection claim based on being treated differently than private judgment debtors, Plaintiffs bear the burden to demonstrate that are similarly situated to private judgment debtors. See Klinger v. Dep’t of Corrs., 31 F.3d 727, 731(8th Cir. 1994) (“Absent a threshold showing that she is similarly situated to those who allegedly receive favorable treatment, the plaintiff does not have a viable equal protection claim”). There is some question whether Plaintiffs can meet that burden in this case because, as the Court previously found, their complaint does not describe in any detail their underlying offenses and does not allege whether the nature of the fines imposed for these offenses was such as to render Plaintiffs similarly situated to private judgment debtors. See United States v. Cunningham, 866 F.Supp.2d 1050, 1058 (S.D. Iowa 2012) (distinguishing James v. Strange and holding that prohibiting a criminal judgment debtor from invoking exemptions afforded private judgment debtors did not violate equal protection). ...