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Fant v. City of Ferguson

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

August 6, 2019

KEILEE FANT, et al., Plaintiffs,



         Plaintiffs in this putative class action claim that they have been jailed by Defendant, the City of Ferguson (the “City”), on numerous occasions because they were unable to pay cash bonds or other debts resulting from their traffic and other minor offenses. Plaintiffs allege that, in violation of the United States Constitution and as a matter of the City's policies and practices, they were not afforded counsel, any inquiry into their ability to pay, or a neutral finding of probable cause in a prompt manner; and they were held in jail indefinitely, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, until they or their friends or family members could make a monetary payment sufficient to satisfy the City, as part of a broad, revenue-generating scheme. Plaintiffs' amended complaint asserts seven claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, under the Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. They seek compensatory damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

         The City moves to dismiss, for failure to join a party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19, all claims in Plaintiffs' first amended complaint except the claim relating to conditions of confinement (Count IV). This is the fourth motion to dismiss filed by the City in this now four-year-old case. This motion asserts arguments similar to those raised in prior motions but reframes them in terms of Rule 19. In short, the City argues that Plaintiffs' constitutional challenges are directed solely to the conduct of the Ferguson Municipal Court (the “municipal court”), which the City argues is a separate entity, and that the municipal court is therefore required to be joined as a co-defendant under Rule 19(a). But the City argues that joinder is not feasible because the municipal court is an arm of the state under Missouri law and, as such, entitled to sovereign immunity. The City contends that because there is a potential for injury to the interests of the municipal court and because the municipal court is immune from suit, dismissal of the claims at issue is required under Rule 19(b). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny the City's motion.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(7) permits dismissal of a claim for failure to join a party under Rule 19. Rule 19, in turn, sets forth a two-part inquiry. First, the Court must determine whether the absent person's presence is “required.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 19(a)(1). Joinder is required when:

(A) in that person's absence, the court cannot accord complete relief among existing parties; or
(B) that person claims an interest relating to the subject of the action and is so situated that disposing of the action in the person's absence may:
(i) as a practical matter impair or impede the person's ability to protect the interest; or
(ii) leave an existing party subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations because of the interest.

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a)(1).

         “[T]he focus of Rule 19(a)(1) is on relief between the parties and not on the speculative possibility of further litigation between a party and an absent person.” Cedar Rapids Bank & Tr. Co. v. Mako One Corp., 919 F.3d 529, 534-35 (8th Cir. 2019) (citation omitted). When joinder is not required under Rule 19(a), “the inquiry is at an end, and the motion to dismiss for failure to join the party in question must be denied.” Rochester Methodist Hosp. v. Travelers Ins. Co., 728 F.2d 1006, 1016 (8th Cir. 1984).

         If joinder is required but not feasible, the Court must proceed to the second step and “determine whether, in equity and good conscience, the action should proceed among the existing parties or should be dismissed, ” considering several enumerated factors. Fed.R.Civ.P. 19(b). Factors to consider include (1) the extent to which a judgment in the required person's absence might prejudice that person or the existing parties; (2) the extent to which such prejudice could be lessened or avoided by protective provisions or otherwise shaping the relief to be granted; (3) the adequacy of a judgment rendered in the person's absence; and (4) whether the plaintiff would have an adequate remedy if the action were dismissed for nonjoinder. Fed.R.Civ.P. 19(b). In analyzing these factors in the context of a claim of sovereign immunity, the Court must give sufficient weight to the sovereign status of the absent person, which “in some instances, [will mean] that the plaintiffs will be left without a forum for definitive resolution of their claims.” Republic of Philippines v. Pimentel, 553 U.S. 851, 872 (2008).

         The Rule 19 inquiry is a “highly-practical, fact-based endeavor, ” and courts are “generally reluctant to grant motions to dismiss of this type.” Fort Yates Pub. Sch. Dist. No. 4 v. Murphy ex rel. C.M.B., 786 F.3d 662, 671 (8th Cir. 2015). “A decision under Rule 19 not to decide a case otherwise properly before the court is a power to be exercised only in rare instances.” Nanko Shipping, USA v. Alcoa, Inc., 850 F.3d 461, 465 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

         The Court concludes that the municipal court (perhaps more properly referenced as the municipal division) is not a required party under Rule 19(a). Rule 19(a)(1)(A)'s condition that a court be able to accord complete relief “does not mean that every type of relief sought must be available, only that meaningful relief be available.” Henne v. Wright, 904 F.2d 1208, 1212 n.4 (8th Cir. 1990) (internal citations omitted). Here, the Court is able to accord meaningful relief to Plaintiffs without joinder of the municipal court. Plaintiffs seek money damages from the City, a declaration that the City violated their constitutional rights, and an injunction enjoining the City from enacting and enforcing its allegedly unlawful policies and customs. The Court may provide such relief to the extent that Plaintiffs' claims prove to be viable and meritorious. The City's argument that the municipal court, and not the City, caused the alleged constitutional violations may be a reason to deny relief on Plaintiffs' claims, [1] but it does not support a finding under Rule 19(a)(1) that joinder of the municipal court is required. See, ...

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