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Baker v. City of Florissant

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

December 11, 2017

THOMAS BAKER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF FLORISSANT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER [1]

          NANNETTE A. BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs in this putative class action claim that they were repeatedly jailed by the City of Florissant (the “City”) due to their inability to pay fines, fees and other costs arising from traffic tickets or other minor municipal offenses, without being offered legal representation or any inquiry into their ability to pay. The City has moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' first amended complaint for failure to state a claim, and has also moved for a more definite statement and to strike redundant or immaterial matter, or, in the alternative, that any counts not dismissed or struck be repleaded to comply with Rules 8(a) and 10(b). (Doc. No. 22). For the reasons set forth below, the City's motion shall be denied.

         Background

         The named Plaintiffs are all purportedly impoverished Missourians who allege that they have been repeatedly jailed and held indefinitely by the City solely because they could not afford to pay for their release, a practice that they liken to a modern-day debtors' prison. They allege that they were never offered or afforded legal representation or any inquiry into their ability to pay, and were held in overcrowded, unsanitary, uncomfortably cold cells, where they were denied access to warm blankets, clean drinking water, and basic hygiene products such as toothbrushes and soap, that they were forced to wear the same dirty clothes for days without access to laundry, and were denied proper medical care. They filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting claims under the Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and are seeking declaratory, injunctive, and compensatory relief. They seek to represent two declaratory and injunctive classes 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, as well as “all persons who, either because they owe debts to the City . . . or for any other reason, will . . . [be] subjected to its post-arrest wealth-based detention procedures.” (Doc. No. 16 at 37). They also seek to represent two damages classes of “[a]ll persons, whether or not such person has ever been jailed, who have paid any amount to the City . . . to satisfy fines, fees. . . costs, or surcharges . . . and who have not been provided an opportunity to prove indigence, ” as well as “[a]ll persons who have been jailed by the City . . . for non-payment . . . and who (1) were not provided an opportunity to prove indigence prior to jailing; (2) were not considered a danger to the community by notation in the City's file; and (3) were not designated as a flight risk at the time of jailing.”[2] (Doc. No. 16 at 37).

         Count One of the amended complaint alleges that the City violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment by jailing Plaintiffs or threatening to imprison them for their inability to pay debts owed from minor offenses, without conducting any inquiry into their ability to pay and without considering alternatives to imprisonment. 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, ” yet Plaintiffs were forced to remain in jail due to the City's policy and practice of holding them indefinitely until they could pay an “arbitrarily determined and constantly-shifting” sum of money. (Doc. No. 16 at 46).

         Count Two alleges that the City violated Plaintiffs' Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by imprisoning them without affording them the benefit of counsel or obtaining their knowing, intelligent, and voluntarily waiver of counsel. Plaintiffs allege that the City has a policy and practice of not informing people of their right to counsel and “not providing . . . 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. 16 at 46-47).

         Count Three alleges that the City's use of indefinite and arbitrary detention violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs allege that the City has a policy and practice of jailing indigent persons “indefinitely and without any meaningful legal process through which they can challenge their detention . . . until they could make arbitrarily determined cash payments, or until City employees decided to release them for free.” Id. at 47. Plaintiffs further allege that the City routinely held persons in jail for indeterminate amounts of time, without setting any future court dates or bringing Plaintiffs to court. Id. at 26. Plaintiffs allege that City jail staff have a practice of engaging in informal negotiations with prisoners, making it clear that payment would result in immediate release, and pressuring them to ask friends and family for cash; as it becomes apparent that the person cannot pay the initial cash amount requested, the amount required for release is incrementally reduced, all without resort to any formal court process. Id. at 26, 31.

         Count Four alleges that the totality of conditions in the Florissant jail “constitute[s] impermissible punishment unrelated to serving any criminal judgment, ” in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 33, 47. Plaintiffs allege that although they were each held for varying amounts of time during different time periods, they were all exposed to the same “deplorable conditions, ” including overcrowded, filthy cells, [3] lack of basic hygiene products, [4] lack of access to clean water, [5] uncomfortably cold conditions, [6] denial of medical care, and insufficient food. Id. at 2, 9- 13, 15-16, 18, 33.

         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.” Id. at 48. 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, including those solely based on nonpayment of monetary debt, ” in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. Plaintiffs allege that the City routinely issues and serves arrest warrants against those who have not paid their traffic debt, and that these warrants are “sought, issued, and served without any finding of probable cause that the person has committed the elements of any offense, ” and “without any inquiry into the person's ability to pay.” Id. at 48-49.

         Count Seven alleges that the City's “extended detention of warrantless arrestees without a neutral judicial finding of probable cause” violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 49. Plaintiffs allege that the City “routinely fails as a matter of policy and practice to make a neutral finding of probable cause . . . and keeps people in jail for longer than 48 hours without a neutral finding of probable cause based on sworn evidence.” Id. at 50. Plaintiffs further allege that because the City's policy is to hold people on cash bond and then to eventually release people for free if they cannot pay, these detentions are “unrelated to any legitimate government interest and entirely unconnected from any need to prepare for any . . . hearing because the City does not hold probable cause or preliminary hearings.” Id. at 50.

         Plaintiffs allege that the above described challenged actions often took place entirely outside of the judicial process[7] and were, in all cases, “caused by and representative of the City's policies and practices concerning collecting unpaid fines, fees, costs, and surcharges arising from traffic tickets and other minor offenses over at least the past five years. Id. at 24. Plaintiffs further allege that “[i]t is the policy and practice of the City of Florissant to use its municipal court and its jail as significant sources of revenue generation for the City.”[8] Id. at 23. Plaintiffs also allege that they still owe money to the City and live with the fear that they will again be detained and jailed due to nothing more than their inability to pay these debts. Id. at 11, 19, 21, 27, and 36.

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

         The City moves to dismiss, or alternatively to strike and for a more definite statement of, Plaintiffs' amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8(a), 10(b), 12(b)(6), 12(e), and 12(f). (Doc. No. 22).

         Defendant's Arguments

         Defendant argues that all Counts of the amended complaint should be dismissed “on the basis that it fundamentally fails to comply with the applicable rules of pleading, disadvantaging the Defendant in its ability to provide a meaningful answer.” (Doc. No. 23 at 2). Specifically, the City argues that the amended complaint does not comply with Rule 8(a), as “it is not a short and plain statement of claims, ” and that it also fails to comply with Rule 10(b) because its numbered allegations are not limited “as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances.” Id. at 7. Defendant also alleges that the amended complaint should be stricken or repleaded because it “utilizes scandalous verbiage unrelated to any claim actually stated, serving only to vilify the Defendant and portray it in a derogatory light.” Id. at 9.

         The City also argues that Counts One through Three and Five through Seven should be dismissed for failure to state a claim, because the City cannot be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the actions of “the separate and distinct municipal court, ” which Defendant argues is outside of the City's control. (Doc. No. 22 at 2). Defendant argues that Count Four should be dismissed because Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim based upon conditions of confinement, asserting that Plaintiffs have not pleaded sufficient exposure to conditions that could be found to be unconstitutionally punitive. (Doc. No. 23 at 27-28). The City asserts an alternative basis for the dismissal of Count Five, arguing that Plaintiffs are not similarly situated to private debtors, and thus there can be no Equal Protection violation. Id. at 29-30. Finally, Defendant asserts that Plaintiffs “are not entitled to injunctive relief, as Plaintiffs lack Article III standing, prudential standing, . . . ripeness, [and] failure to sufficiently allege all elements required for injunctive relief.” Id. at 31.

         Rule 12(e) Motion for a More Definite Statement and ...


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